At the Oscars, Comic Book Movies Now Earn Respect—This Is Their Journey to Relevancy

Joker is the leading Oscar contender with 11 nominations, including best picture, best actor, best director and best score. One of the most talked-about films of the year—both good and bad—Joker is a unique beast in the 2020 award races. Bridging the gap between auteur and blockbuster film, Joker signals a victory for comic book films, a genre that has not been popular at the Oscars.

Over the past 40 years, only a handful of comic book–inspired films managed to capture nominations. By and large, these films have been looked down upon by the film industry at least at awards time. Mostly seen as cash grabs and more a theme-park ride than a film, very few managed rise to or even near icon status.

Joker Oscars
Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker has been nominated for the best actor Oscar. Warner Bros.

Superman: The Movie (1978) is a prime example. It is touted as the gold standard of superhero movies to this day because it took the character more seriously than before and brought a level of prominence to the hero. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards, winning the special achievement award for its exceptional contribution to the motion picture.

In 1990, Batman won an Oscar for best art direction and set decoration. While its sequels Batman Returns and Batman Forever had nominations, neither came away with a win, it wasn't until Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2 in 2005 that a superhero film would win an Oscar again, when it took home the award for best achievement in visual effects.

In 2008, Christopher Nolan, arguably one of the greatest filmmakers of the modern era, flipped the superhero genre on its head with The Dark Knight. Heath Ledger's spellbinding performance as the Joker won best performance by an actor in a supporting role, and the film won an Oscar for best achievement in sound editing. One controversy at the time, at least in some circles, was the snubbing of the film for a best picture nomination. At that time, the maximum number of films that could be nominated for best picture was five. The outcry from media and fans alike contributed to the academy doubling the number of nominations to 10 the following year.

Superman Oscar
"Superman" starring Christopher Reeve paved the way for comic book–inspired films' rise in respectability. Warner Bros.

It would another eight years before a comic book film would win an Oscar. In 2016, Suicide Squad came away with a win for best makeup and hairstyling. The following year, Logan was nominated for best adapted screenplay, one of the more prestigious awards, the first for a comic book film.

In 2018, Black Panther made history as the first comic book–inspired film to be nominated for best picture. While it did not win the award, it did win best original score, best achievement in costume design and best achievement in production design. The film proved to audiences that comic book films can stand alongside auteur films. On the animation side, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse walked away with best animated feature film that year as well.

Joker is the next step in this evolution, blurring the lines between two distinct styles of cinema and creating one of the few auteur comic book films. The film's 11 Academy Award nominations is the most of any film this year and by far the most of any comic book film ever. While the best picture award still eludes the comic book genre, Joker might just have the best shot at it.