Movie Superheroes Get the Shaft

Whose butt does Batman have to kick to get some respect?

 “The Dark Knight” was robbed of a shot at Best Picture honors when the Academy Award nominations were announced Thursday, no doubt mystifying many of the millions who have seen the film.

Sure, Heath Ledger got a Best Supporting Actor nod, a tribute to his electrifying, demented performance as the Joker. And it can’t hurt that the Academy loves a good drama (the nominations were announced on the first anniversary of the actor’s death).

That “The Dark Knight” got shut out of the Best Picture contest isn’t a commentary on the competition as much as it’s the clearest signal yet that the Academy still doesn’t take big-budget superhero flicks seriously – even the ones where the storytelling outshines the special effects.

Comic books and the movies they’ve spawned have come a long way. In the 1960s, Stan Lee’s stable of superheroes with human foibles – the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and the Hulk, among others – started to put comics into the hands of adults.

Frank Miller’s brooding 1986 graphic novel, “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns” brought the genre to a new level of sophistication, inspiring Tim Burton’s “Batman,” which kicked off the post-“Superman” superhero movie genre two decades ago.

Even amid the occasional misfire, the best of the superhero movies have shined by bringing what Lee calls “modern mythology” to the big screen.

The modern superhero films, with increasingly intricate plots and shades of gray replacing simpler good-versus-evil morality tales, are more than just special effects-laden smash-‘em-ups. They’re also, in many cases, box office smashes: “The Dark Knight” has grossed more than a half-billion dollars domestically, second only to “Titanic.”

The Academy shouldn’t be nominating movies based on gross – but it ignores merit at its own peril and runs the risk of seeming out of touch with the folks who actually pay for their own tickets.

There was one surprise nomination that didn’t get quite as much press as the “Dark Knight” snub: Robert Downey Jr. notched a Best Supporting Actor nod for “Tropic Thunder,” a comedy – another category Oscar has too often overlooked.

Now just imagine if Downey had been nominated for Best Actor – for “Ironman.”

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992.

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