Oscar snubs: Superheroes and blockbusters got left out again. Will that ever change?

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Jan 23, 2018

Oscar expanded its top honor to a potential 10 films before the 2009/2010 awards cycle, hoping to bring in more summer-release nominees — just in time to welcome Avatar and District 9. With Toy Story 3 in the following year, it looked like summer movies were finally getting a foothold at the Academy Awards.

Except … they really weren't.

Five years streaked past without a "fun" movie in the mix before Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian were nominated in 2015/2016, and last year once again came nada from the popcorn machine. But along the way we got such memorable and beloved titles as Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Philomena and The Imitation Game.

Perfectly OK movies, some of these, but their commonalities are telling: Late-calendar "awards" releases by prestige distributors, challenging dramas with elite pedigrees — and not exactly burning up regular folks' re-watch queues. Every year, "awards" movies seem to include a healthy contingent of these artsy, soon-to-be-forgotten mediocrities, at the expense of films that we've all, you know, actually seen.

And sure, fine, maybe we've experienced some flat years for superheroes, science fiction, fantasy and other genre fare. But what about this 2017 we just had? Was this not an embarrassment of visual and storytelling riches at the studio blockbuster level? Did Wonder Woman not take the world by storm at the precise moment that Wonder Woman should be taking the world by storm? Did Blade Runner 2049 really not even make a dent on movie people?

I say the more closely we examine the disconnect between awards and pop-culture moviemaking — especially in this cycle — the more ridiculous and elitist the whole thing starts to look. And it's not just me. The critics agree!

Credit: Warner Bros.

War for the Planet of the Apes and Logan have equal or better Rotten Tomatoes scores (93%) compared to Dunkirk (92%), The Shape of Water (92%), I, Tonya (89%) and The Post (88%). Come to think of it, so do Wonder Woman (92%), Thor: Ragnarok (92%), Spider-Man: Homecoming (92%), The LEGO Batman Movie (91%) and Star Wars: The Last Jedi (90%).

In fact, if you slot in the highest rated blockbusters of 2017 with the Best Picture-nominated films, it looks pretty balanced:

Get Out: 99%

Lady Bird: 99%

The Big Sick: 98%

COCO: 97%

Call me By Your Name: 96%

The Florida Project: 96%

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES: 93%

LOGAN: 93%

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: 93%

WONDER WOMAN: 92%

THOR: RAGNAROK: 92%

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING: 92%

Dunkirk: 92%

The Shape of Water: 92%

THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE: 91%

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI: 90%

I, Tonya: 89%

The Post: 88%

Credit: 20th Century Fox

Now, I understand how reductive it is on its face to use raw Rotten Tomatoes scores as a relative quality measure for two different kinds of movies, but — wait a minute, did I just say two different kinds of movies?

Can we take a step back here? Have we been grading on a curve this whole time and nobody told me?

With all due respect to the changes taking place in Hollywood of real consequence, something doesn't seem right about this, and I think it's time we confront it: Mainstream blockbusters, which no one would argue have been gaining in quality since even before The Dark Knight, are just not getting their due at awards time.

To take that a step further, I'd say that 2017's best big-budget studio films, taken as a whole, are at least as quality a group of movies as the Best Picture nominees — if not better.

I already hear some of you arguing that Get Out deserves to be considered this year's genre icebreaker, and maybe so. But Jordan Peele's film has a gravity to it, a heavier, genre-bending weight; it just deserves to be on a higher shelf. I've also seen it argued that The Shape of Water is a horror/thriller creature feature, and while technically true, Guillermo del Toro and Fox Searchlight didn’t set out to make some two-bit double-feature. They knew what they were doing, and it has all the trappings of an "Oscar" movie. Not a bad thing, but we're looking at blockbusters that don't at all fit the current, limited version of the category.

This is where my Rotten Tomatoes-score measure starts to get a little shaky, since the near critical perfection of Get Out, Lady Bird and The Big Sick managed to box out even the top-performing popcorn movies. Only the most elite prestige films are going to earn those kinds of scores; the critics' community is just too stocked with superhero and sci-fi cynics.

Credit: Universal Pictures

But forget about them for a second.

On a gut level, was there any single movie moment in 2017 bigger, more emotional or emblematic of our times than Diana climbing up out of the trench to singlehandedly take on the Kaiser's goons?

Why is Wonder Woman not nominated for that moment alone? Is it really just the comic-book origins of Logan that are holding it at arm's length, limiting it to a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination? And how is it that War for the Planet of the Apes — an enormously more complex feat of filmmaking than, say, Call Me By Your Name — gave us goosebumps in July but nothing but big shruggies in January?

It's mystifying that these kinds of stories can't seem to break through, even after the runway was cleared for them nearly a decade ago. Even more mystifying that this year, for all its artistic triumphs in populist moviemaking, the blockbusters were shut out again.