Saturday, 9 March 2019

Marvel at the Oscars - an interlude

I WAS WATCHING THE OSCARS a few nights ago and was delighted to witness four Academy Awards go to Marvel Studios movies. In addition, Black Panther (2018) and Avengers: Infinity War (2018) gathered a further five nominations between them. That's bonanza year for Marvel - nine nominations and four Awards - and a record for comic book-based movies.

Marvel Productions' Black Panther racked up a formidable seven nominations at this year's Oscars, winning in an unprecedented three categories. It's a great achievement for Stan and Jack, but I wish Don MacGregor had been given more credit for creating the bulk of the storyline.
There was a time, a few years back when the term "comic book movie" was an insult that the Hollywood establishment hurled around when a movie they hated was successful. Not any more ...

It appears to me that big studio pictures based on comic books are undergoing the same transformation that science fiction and fantasy movies underwent from 1977 onwards, after the release of Star Wars. Think about it. Before George Lucas' masterpiece what big studio-financed fantasy movies were there? 

For all its success and kudos, I was never a great fan of  2001. I've always found a cold piece of work - beautiful to look at but utterly devoid of emotion. Planet of the Apes, on the other hand, I always loved. The first movie, at least. 2001 was nominated for three Oscars and won one. Likewise Planet of the Apes.
Well, there was 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). That was financed by MGM and did manage some grudging acknowledgement from The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It was nominated for Best Art Direction and Best Original Screenplay, but won only in a technical category, Best Special Effects. The same year, Planet of the Apes, which was a big budget 20th Century-Fox production, was nominated for Best Costume Design and Best Music Score and was given an Honorary Award for Best Makeup, a category that didn't exist at the time, and wouldn't be introduced until 1981.

There were no nominations for sf or fantasy pictures in 1970. Or 1971.

Back in 1971 Kubrick's Clockwork Orange wasn't my kind of movie. I was much more interested in Hammer's When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth. Jim Danforth's dinosaurs were terrific . but it must have galled Ray Harryhausen that he hadn't won an Oscar for his Dynamation special effects at that point and would later be given a special Academy Award, almost as a consolation prize..
In 1972, Stanley Kubrick was nominated for Best Director for Clockwork Orange. The movie also gained a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, and another for Best Editing, a category it shared with Andromeda Strain (if that even counts as a science fiction movie). And When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth got a nominated for Best Visual Effects.

And no nominations in 1973 ...

The Exorcist was another movie I didn't see at the time, and still haven't see to this day. Never really fancied it. It just all seems a bit ... unpleasant. This despite the fact that I would say I was more a fan of horror movies than science fiction films. Still, it did pretty well at the Academy Awards ...
In 1974, The Exorcist was nominated in 10 categories, including Best Picture, and won in only two - Best Sound and Best Adapted Screenplay.

1975 had no nominations, unless you count Young Frankenstein's Best Sound and Best Adapted Screenplay. I don't, as I consider it a comedy movie, rather than sf or fantasy.

Nothing in 1976 ... In 1977, King Kong was nominated for Best Sound, a Special Achievement Award for Visual Effects, as well as Best Cinematography, a category it shared with Logan's Run. Another thing these two movies shared was a spectacular lack of understanding of what makes a good science fiction or fantasy film. And The Omen gathered two nominations for Best Score and Best Song.

Does anybody actually like the 1976 King Kong? For me it was a colossal failure on every level ... from its "camp" script by Lorenzo Semple Jr to its dreadful man-in-a-monkey-suit effects. And don't even get me started on Logan's Run ...
But that all changed at the 1978 Academy Awards ... Both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg had big budget fantasy movies out and both made a big dent in the prevailing wisdom that sf movies couldn't be good. Here's what the results looked like ...

Category Winner
Best Effects, Visual Effects Star Wars
Best Art Direction-Set Decoration Star Wars
Best Costume Design Star Wars
Best Film Editing Star Wars
Best Music, Original Score Star Wars
Best Sound Star Wars
Special Achievement Award, Sound Effects Star Wars
Best Cinematography Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Special Achievement Award, Sound Effects Editing Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Category Nominations
Best Actor in a Supporting Role Alec Guinness, Star Wars
Best Director Star Wars
Best Picture Star Wars
Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen Star Wars
Best Director Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Best Actress in a Supporting Role - Melinda Dillon Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Best Art Direction-Set Decoration Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Best Effects, Visual Effects Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Best Film Editing Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Best Music, Original Score Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Best Sound Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Granted most of the wins were in the technical categories, but look at the nominations ... Best Director, Best Screenplay ... Best Picture?

What Star Wars and Close Encounters both had that both King Kong and Logan's Run hadn't was humanity. It was emotion that connects Lucas' and Spielberg's films to audiences. As demonstrated by the slew of Awards both films garnered.
Yes, the ground definitely shifted in 1978 and set a healthy precedent for science fiction and fantasy movies to be considered good enough to garner Academy Awards and Nominations. And I think we're seing another shift right now, with comic book adaptations breaking through into the mainstream. And interestingly, it really started when Marvel took control of their own adaptations and formed Marvel Studios.

Even though it wasn't a Marvel Studios production, I thought Columbia's first adaptation of Spider-Man was a pretty good effort, thanks in no small part to the skills of comics fan Sam Raimi.
There had been a couple of nods for non-Marvel productions, like Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2, but pretty quickly the Marvel movies were being acknowledged every year at the Oscars from 2010 onwards.

And this year - 2019 - was the big breakthrough year. Just look at this results table for the recent Academy Awards ...

Category Winner
Best Achievement in Production Design Black Panther
Best Achievement in Costume Design Black Panther
Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures (Original Score) Black Panther
Best Animated Feature Film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Category Nominee
Best Achievement in Visual Effects Avengers: Infinity War
Best Achievement in Sound Editing Black Panther
Best Achievement in Sound Mixing Black Panther
Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures (Original Song) Black Panther
Best Motion Picture of the Year Black Panther

So maybe this is the start of a new trend ... and even if it's not, it wouldn't bother me one bit. I'm just grateful that Stan and his collaborators made all those great comics characters fifty-odd years ago and that Marvel was smart enough to form their own production company and make movies that honoured and respected the source material.

Probably my favourite of the Marvel Studios productions so far. For me, Doctor Strange absolutely captured the essence of the classic Stan Lee and Steve Ditko comics strips of the 1960s. Just needed a touch more "By the hoary hordes of Hoggoth" and "The all-seeing Eye of Agamotto".
My ten-year-old self would have loved The Avengers, Doctor Strange and Black Panther as much if not more than I do now. My only regret is that Stan didn't live long enough to witness the results of the 2019 Academy Awards himself. 

He would have been proud.

Next: Back to the Bullpen Bulletins

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