The twenty Academy Award nominated actors announced last week include the leads of the Marc Webb Amazing Spider-Man series of films: Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. That can serve as a consolation for the embarrassing way that reboot came to an end, cancelled with storylines unresolved so that a new Spidey can appear on film with Iron Man and Captain Amercia—don’t get me wrong; that was a worthwhile trade. The news is an opportunity to look at the award pedigrees of the people in the Spider-Man films, as well as superhero movies in general.
Three other nominees this year have Marvel cinematic universe ties. Natalie Portman—Best Actress nominee as the widowed Jackie Kennedy—played Jane Foster in the first two Thor films (although she wasn’t brought back for the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok.) Loving‘s Ruth Negga was a recurring character in Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD TV series, while Moonlight‘s Mahersala Ali was one of the villains in the Netflix Luke Cage series. Supporting Actor nominee Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water was the bad guy in the first Iron Man, and had followed up his role in that film with a Best Actor Oscar for Crazy Heart and another nomination for True Grit. The DC Universe cinematic universe is represented by nominations for Michael Shannon, Viola Davis, and Nicole Kidman—allegedly in talks to play Aquaman’s mom.
When determining the awards history of actors in superhero films there are two ways to consider it. What was the status of the actor before the film, and what was it after the came out? In the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man movie, William DaFoe was hired as the villain after being nominated twice. Uncle Ben Chris Robertson has won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1968 for Charly, an adaptation of Daniel Keyes’ short story “Flowers for Algernon.” Aunt May Rosemary Harris had an Oscar nomination in the 1990s period drama Tom & Viv. She was quite accomplished as a theater actress, nominated for eight Tony awards between 1966 and 2000 (She won once; she would be nominated again in 2010.) Spider-Man 3‘s James Cromwell and Thomas Hayden Church were earlier nominees.
J. Jonah Jameson JK Simmons would later win an Academy Award for his role as a harsh music conductor in Whiplash (directed by Damien Chazelle, who is probably going to get Emma Stone an Oscar for La La Land.) He had originated the role in a 18 minute proof of concept short movie. James Franco would go on to get a Best Actor nomination for 127 Hours, and was considered a wildly unsuccessful co-host of the 83rd Academy awards. Octavia Spencer, a winner for The Help in 2012, and a nominee this year for Hidden Figures, had a brief appearance in Raimi’s Spider-Man, as the receptionist very adamant about getting a masked Peter Parker to sign a waiver before he enters the wrestling ring.
Tobey Maguire may not have reached the level Andrew Garfield did, but he did go on to earn a Golden Globe nomination for Brothers. Kirsten Dunst already had a Golden Globe for Interview With a Vampire, but recently won an Emmy for Fargo Season 2.
In the Amazing Spider-Man films, Sally Field is a two-time winner, with two other nominations to her name; one for Lincoln, a film that came out between Spider-Man movies. The new Uncle Ben, Martin Sheen has surprisingly enough never been nominated for an Academy Award. Norman Osborn Chris Cooper won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor the year when JK Simmons should have been nominated. Jamie Foxx had won an Oscar for playing Ray Charles. Felicity Jones, who played Harry Osborn’s underwritten assistant, went on to be nominated for A Theory of Everything.
Spider-Man: Homecoming has a similar pedigree. Marisa Tomei has an Oscar and several nominations. Robert Downey Jr. has two previous nominations, even if he’s in the film for reasons that have nothing to do with that. Michael Keaton was a recent Best Actor nominee, and was also the male lead in two consecutive Best Picture winners: Birdman and Spotlight. The former dealt with superheroes as a cultural phenomenon.
In terms of Oscar nominees, the best resume for an individual superhero film might go to X-Men: Days of Future Past. Jennifer Lawrence has one Academy Award and three more nominations. Halle Berry and Anna Paquin have one Oscar each. Hugh Jackman and Ellen Page.have one nomination each. Magnetos Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender have both been nominated twice, and appeared in a Best Picture winner.
The Nolan Batman films are king in this category. Heath Ledger ended up getting an Oscar for playing the Joker. Christian Bale won between The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, and would be nominated twice more. Gary Oldman would get a nomination an year before Dark Knight Rises. Morgan Freeman had just won an Academy Award. and been nominated three other times, but would go on to get another nomination. Michael Kaine came with two Oscars, and a total of six nominations. Tom Wilkinson was twice nominated, and would go on to get a third after being a bad guy in Batman Begins. Eric Roberts, Maggie Gyllenhal, Liam Neeson came to the film with one nomination each. Marion Cotilard came to the film with one Oscar, and would go to be nominated for another. Tom Hardy would be nominated. Anne Hathaway was a nominee, and would win for the year Dark Knight Rises came out, albeit for a more traditionally prestigious literary adaptations.
Andrew Garfield’s nomination is a bit unusual given the Motion Picture Academy’s bias against younger men. Emma Stone’s nomination isn’t that impressive as the Academy has no real bias against younger women. Last year, the ten acting nominees include only one guy in his early 30s, along with two men in their late 30s, five men in their 40s, two men in their 50s and one man in his 60s. Meanwhile, the women included five actresses in their twenties (including the two winners.) 2014 saw one male acting nominee born before 1976, compared to four women. The previous ten academy awards saw more than twice as many women under 35 nominated as compared to men, even without counting the occasional child actress.
It’s not clear what this means. It could be a combination of many factors. Are there more roles for older male actors? Are the Academy voters (who skew older and male) more likely to identify with older male actors? Are the best roles for women disproportionately likely to go to ingenues? Are successful female actresses more likely to be noticed earlier? Are Academy voters biased towards attractive women?
This year is a little bit different than the last two. Six of the female nominees are over 40 (although Naomie Harris was just under 40 when she made Moonlight.) The male nominees included two other actors younger than Garfield, with one nominee for supporting actor in his early 20s, and another in his mid 20s. This year’s results might be a statistical anomaly, or due to temporary factors (following the #oscarsowhite controversy/ shutout the last two times, three African American women in their forties were nominated for Best Supporting Actress.)
Actors will often alternate between prestige pictures and mainstream fare. Historical epics, biopics, and movies about people who have to overcome family tragedies and/ or medical adversity, are more likely to get nominated for Oscars. Comedies and science fiction, not so much. Superhero films tend not to do well in the major Oscar nominations, but will dominate the top of the box office.
There are two arguments against nominating superhero films and other blockbusters for major awards. The first is that the popular stuff just isn’t that good; it is never going to be one of the 5-10 best films of the year, or the source for a great performance/ screenplay, and doesn’t deserve awards recognition. IMDB’s Top 250 disagrees. The other is that awards help incentivize studios to make certain kinds of films, and that these should go to movies that benefit the most from that kind of support. Because Viggo Mortensen was nominated for Captain Fantastic, there are some people that are going to check out that movie. Ryan Reynolds’ lead performance in Deadpool may have greater impact and staying power, but he doesn’t need the help.
There may be an overlap with the westerns, which were quite popular as a form of national mythmaking in the 1950s, but rarely represented by major awards. That hasn’t prevented the likes of The Searchers or Shane from holding up. Though it may mean we’ll have to wait a few decades for a decent superhero film to have as good a chance of winning Best Picture as a decent film about an actor typecast for playing a superhero.