By Seth Tamarkin
As the 95th Academy Awards wrapped up, nearly four hours after they began, one didn’t get the sense that we watched the best of the best in filmmaking get rewarded. Almost every major award was shared between two films, the lackluster war film “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” which I’ll be shortening to EEAAO to give my keyboard a rest. In a year that saw James Cameron create new filmmaking techniques for his gigantic “Avatar” sequel, where Stephen Spielberg crafted his most personal film yet, and where films like “Banshees of Inisherin” told a small, intimate tale about large emotions, it felt decidedly empty that EEAAO swept nearly every award. This did not celebrate Hollywood’s future as serious art, but rather reinforced the notion that Disney and Marvel movies are tightening their grip on culture. The Oscars, let’s face it, are Marvel-fied.
Let me get this out the way so I don’t seem like a hater. I enjoyed EEAAO as much as the next person. The action was great, as were the performances, and the mind-bending sci-fi kept me engaged longer than its gimmick should’ve. I’m not upset that the film scooped up the individual acting awards either, although none except for Ke Huy Quan were Oscar-winning performances.
I understand the Oscars don’t celebrate the past year’s best in film nowadays either. Rather, they award any acting legend who was snubbed in the past. It’s amazing that Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan had to suffer through Hollywood’s blatant anti-Asian racism for decades before finally rising to the top. However, it is a real shame that the film they starred in was a glorified Marvel movie. The fact that it swept nearly every major award, from editing to directing to eventually best picture, shows that Hollywood is opening its arms to the banality of evil that is Marvel.
I’m not going to pretend that the Oscars was a venerated awards show by the 2020s. Hopelessly eroding viewership numbers speak to how useless this, and many other awards shows really are. But even when they routinely chose “Oscar-bait” movies to win Best Picture, such as the 2021 movie that starred deaf people that no one remembers, or the 2018 winner about overcoming racism that no one remembers, Oscar-bait never meant the film closest to what the “kids” probably enjoy, i.e., Marvel movies.
The cracks started to show when 2018’s “Black Panther” was nominated for Best Picture. Marvel movies pride themselves on being generic superhero movies with just enough motifs to better genres that you identify it with the better genre. It’s why “Shang-Chi” was hailed as a great callback to the Shaw Brothers even though it had none of the fight choreography that made Shaw Brothers movies’ memorable. Or how “Black Widow” was promoted as an espionage thriller even though the only thing that made the film “espionage thriller” was bland Cold War aesthetics.
“Black Panther” took the aesthetics of Afro-futurism and promised to do something novel but ended up making just another Marvel movie. To be fair, this one was impeccably directed and there were even decent action scenes, making it among Marvel’s best films. But what critics should understand is that the moniker “best Marvel film” is essentially “best middling action film.”
When the hype surrounding the film made it nigh impossible to see the film for what it was, it could be expected that the Academy would cave and give it a nomination for something. The costumes were great, after all. But to give it a Best Picture nomination seemed like trying to appeal to the kids more than celebrate great films.
But, hey, that’s fine. “Black Panther” was possibly Marvel’s best, and we all knew it wasn’t winning Best Picture. But cut to the 94th Oscars, and an even more curious thing happened; the Oscars created a brand-new category just for Marvel. Okay, it was a new category for “Best Cheer-Worthy Moment” and was voted by fans by using twitter hashtags. Since young adults make up the majority of twitter, it’s clear who this pandered to. The Oscars also pre-selected the five moments. Two of them were from movies released years ago, “The Matrix” and “Dreamgirls,” so their fanbases weren’t exactly active online. The other three were superhero movies, two of which were Marvel. There was a scene from “Avengers,” a scene from Zack Snyder’s critically maligned “Justice League,” and “Spider-man: No Way Home” which was praised and made over a billion dollars.
It’s no coincidence that the only contemporary movies were both superhero films, and that one was critically derided while the other was cheered. If I described this category to an Academy member as recently as 2017, I have to imagine they’d be just as disappointed that the world’s number one film awards show reduced itself to an award for biggest vocal fanbase. The sweet irony was that even with this award show rigging, Marvel still didn’t win the Oscar. It went to “Zack Snyder’s Justice League.”
That brings us to this year, a year where EEAAO dominated every major category and eventually Best Picture. Make no mistake, EEAAO is a noble attempt to “elevate” the Marvel movie into something more befitting the praise those movies receive. But while it rises to the occasion in some cases, it also suffers from Marvel’s worst tropes. It features a similar lack of depth, tedious quirkiness, and a groan-inducing climax that amounts to characters doing armchair psychology on the villain, which is enough to get the villain to change their ways. It’s a pretty awful development in fiction, spurred on by Disney and other lazy studios, where the adage “show, don’t tell” has become “tell explicitly what the characters are feeling.”
Imagine if “Avatar: Way of Water” didn’t feature that glorious hour-long climax, and instead ended on the Na’vi explaining to the humans that they’re hurting the environment because of greed. The villains respond with, “Wow, you’re right. I never realized how greedy I was in destroying Pandora.” And it all ends happily ever after. It would’ve felt laughable. That’s because, while “Avatar: Way of Water” may be a sci-fi action movie, it’s a sci-fi action movie that is rooted in the tradition of great cinema, not Marvel.
Before the pitchforks come for me, understand the directors themselves described their intention behind EEAAO, saying, “We wanted to stretch ourselves in every direction to bridge the generational gap that often crumbles into generational trauma. We scoffed at the false dichotomy of Scorsese Cinephiles vs Marvel Fanboys and instead asked ‘why not both?’”
The answer to “why not both?” is that it’s a false equivalency. Scorsese is coming from a place of true adoration for film, whereas Marvel fanboys were coming from the exact opposite. Hence their radioactive reactions to anyone criticizing Marvel, including a contender for greatest director of all time. It also creates a false dichotomy between “cinephile” movies and action movies. Scorsese wasn’t referring to game-changing action films like “The Matrix” or “Avatar” or Michelle Yeoh’s Hong-Kong movies, he referred specifically to Marvel movie slop. While EEAAO is miles-better than any Marvel film, its adherence to elevating Marvel is also its downfall. When it wears influences from iconic cinema like “Matrix” and Hong-Kong action movies on its sleeves, the film shines. When it eventually digresses into repetitive action and “tell, don’t show” emotional beats, it slides.
It’s a great thing that legends like Michelle Yeoh and Jamie Lee Curtis are finally getting their just due, but it’s also a shame that the Oscars are overlooking great films by legends like James Cameron and Stephen Spielberg in a futile attempt to reach the “Marvel fanboys.”
This year also made “history” by having a Marvel star nominated for best performance. Legendary actress Angela Bassett was nominated in the “Best Supporting Actress” category for her role in the truly awful “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.” Her performance, like the movie itself, was wooden and unremarkable.
Five years ago, “Black Panther” earned a Best Picture nomination in a cynical attempt to gain viewership, not celebrate filmmaking. That pathetic move has only led to decreased viewership and Marvel films encroaching more and more into what is supposed to be a celebration of the year’s best films. The more the Oscars try to equate “Scorsese cinephiles” with “Marvel fanboys,” the more Hollywood will suffer.
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