For years, comic book movie fans have wanted to be taken seriously by the Oscars. Regardless of how you feel about the Academy Awards, it’s widely accepted as the most prestigious recognition a film can receive. A decade ago, The Dark Knight seemed poised to become the first superhero movie to land a Best Picture nomination, but its surprise exclusion (thanks in part to Harvey Weinstein’s wheeling and dealing re: The Reader) shocked Hollywood so heavily that the following year, the Academy expanded the number of Best Picture nominees to 10.
And yet, in the nine ceremonies since that time—which fall in line with the rise of Marvel Studios and the overall ascension of the superhero movie as the biggest genre around—a superhero film has yet to land a Best Picture nomination. Until Black Panther. The film made history by landing the prestigious nomination (along with six other Oscar nods) after a heavy and serious Oscar push from Disney. It literally broke down barriers.
There’s just one problem: some very vocal comic book movie fans don’t feel this is deserved. Indeed, after years of clamoring for an honor that finally came, the response is, “The movie isn’t that good.” Is Black Panther really Best Picture-worthy? Is it just a case of a token nomination chalked up to the right film at the right time, or is it actually one of the best films of the year? I’m here to argue, emphatically, it’s the latter.
Now, considering Black Panther as worthy of a Best Picture nomination has absolutely nothing to do with what did or did not get nominated in the past. That’s not how the Oscars work. I don’t care how much you loved Logan or Iron Man or Man of Steel, those films didn’t get Best Picture nominations, so using them as a counterpoint to Black Panther is a moot point. The Oscars happen in a bubble. Voters make decisions at a specific point in time, and the nominees reflect that particular moment. That’s why some Oscar wins age well (No Country for Old Men), and others very much do not (Crash).
So that aside, the question becomes is Black Panther one of the best films of 2018? Undoubtedly so. Co-writer/director Ryan Coogler infused the film with a strong point of view, resulting in the most substantial and thought-provoking Marvel Studios film ever made. Forget the superhero genre—Black Panther is a complex, deeply involving film about the morality and cost of isolationism. Through the eyes of Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger, the film dives into the specificity of the African-American experience, using Killmonger’s life of loss and hardship as a foil for T’Challa’s (Chadwick Boseman) life of comparative privilege.
Is it just for the African nation of Wakanda to stand idly by, in hiding, while those of African descent across the globe experience widespread hardship as an underprivileged minority? If one has the means of intervening for the betterment of one’s people, is one morally obligated to do so? These are big questions with no easy answers, but Black Panther is more than happy to wrestle with them. And all of this is wrapped up in an intricate, epic tale of a kingdom; a story of fathers and sons, and what makes a good and just ruler—what sacrifices are worth the greater good?
These are heavy, complicated ideas, and that they’re threaded organically throughout a blockbuster superhero movie with sci-fi tech and James Bond-level action sequences makes Black Panther all the more substantial. This is mass entertainment with a point of view; a blockbuster that makes you think, and leaves the audience with no easy answers. If that doesn’t make it one of the best films of the year, I don’t know what does.
Indeed, the idea of “Best Picture” should—in a just world—encompass all types of filmmaking. Paddington 2 is a family film, but it’s also one of the best films of the year. Hereditary is a deeply disturbing horror film, but it’s a towering achievement nonetheless. Minding the Gap is a documentary masterpiece. Traditionally it’s the dramas and “serious” movies that get nominated, but Black Panther bridges that gap between thought-provoking drama and mass-appealing entertainment.
So then what makes Black Panther better than 2018’s other superhero movies like Avengers: Infinity War or Deadpool 2? Well, for one, when it comes to the Oscars deserve’s got nothing to do with it. But one could easily argue that Black Panther is more substantial than the other superhero offerings of 2018—it’s explicitly about something beyond the plot at hand, and frankly it’s far more elegant in juggling its themes than the other major superhero films of 2018. And it should be pointed out that Marvel Studios feels similarly, as they only pushed Infinity War for Best Visual Effects in contrast to their full-court-press campaign for Black Panther in all the major categories.
Setting aside other more troubling implications with regards to a distaste for Black Panther’s Oscar prospects, arguments that the film crumbles into a CG mess in its third act are silly. For one, have you seen a Marvel Studios movie? Are you under the impression that the finale of Infinity War was shot on an actual alien planet with Chris Pratt physically performing high-flying theatrics?
But more to the point, the battle between T’Challa and Killmonger in the finale of Black Panther carries emotional and thematic weight. The future of Wakanda is in the balance, and while Killmonger’s means are shocking, the motivation behind his plans for Wakanda are completely and entirely understandable. That makes his death all the more impactful, and again at that point Coogler offers no easy answers.
“Bury me in the ocean,” Killmonger says with his last breath, “with my ancestors that jumped from the ship, because they knew death was better than bondage.” Killmonger chooses death over imprisonment, and his final words cut deep for T’Challa, as he considers the plight of his ancestors, and the hardships African-Americans have had to endure while Wakanda stood silent and isolated, looking out for its own interest above all others.
Again, that a finale like this exists in a blockbuster superhero movie—and a Marvel movie at that—is kind of a miracle, and it’s a testament both to Coogler’s filmmaking and the freedom granted to him by Marvel that Black Panther is as substantial as it is. And clearly the Academy agreed, singling the film out for a deserving nomination for Best Picture of the year.