Oscar season heats up around Labor Day, but every summer we ponder whether any contenders have already crept through multiplexes. If Warner Bros. gets its way, there’s a heavy hitter in theaters as we speak.
Variety reported on Thursday that the studio is plotting a “formidable” awards campaign for “Wonder Woman,” aiming to secure the first-ever Best Picture and Best Director nominations for a comic-book movie. Warner Bros. will continue to screen “Woman” for Academy voters, hoping to capitalize on the organization’s younger, more diverse new membership.
Speculating on the Oscar roster in July is a fool’s errand, but Variety’s report begs intriguing questions. Awards bodies don’t gravitate toward blockbusters, particularly ones of the superhero variety, as proven when the Oscars expanded Best Picture from five slots to a maximum 10 after “The Dark Knight” was shut out in 2009. Can “Wonder Woman,” which outpaced financial expectations and stoked feminist energy in the midst of Donald Trump’s presidency, manage what Christopher Nolan’s Batman sequel couldn’t? Let’s take a look.
Of the movies that have opened so far this year, only two others have incited serious Oscar chatter. First, there’s Jordan Peele’s sleeper hit “Get Out,” a February joint that became one of the year’s best-reviewed releases. Two strikes against it: No horror movie has earned a Best Picture nod since “The Silence of the Lambs” in 1991, and this one faces the tough task of maintaining buzz nearly a year after hitting theaters. The second contender is another Warner Bros. release: “Dunkirk,” which is a more conventional Oscar flick thanks to its prestige director (Nolan) and arresting subject matter (World War II).
It’s unlikely “Get Out” will get in, but “Dunkirk” could very well snag slots in Best Picture and Best Director (it would be Nolan’s first in the latter).
Let’s assume “Dunkirk” is a done deal. That leaves nine potential slots in a year loaded with heavy-hitting auteurs: Steven Spielberg’s “The Papers,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s untitled Daniel Day-Lewis fashion movie, Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit,” Darren Aronofsky’s “Mother!,” Denis Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049,” George Clooney’s “Suburbicon,” Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing,” Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour,” Garth Davis’ “Mary Magdalene,” Luca Guadagnino’s festival hit “Call Me By Your Name,” James Franco’s “The Disaster Artist,” Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s “The Current War,” Todd Haynes’ “Wonderstruck,” Aaron Sorkin’s “Molly’s Game” and Michael Gracey’s “The Greatest Showman.”
Notice anything in common about most of those names? As usual, there’s a lot of sausage in the kitchen. That could work to the advantage of “Wonder Woman” maestro Patty Jenkins, who would be only the fifth female nominated for Best Director in the Academy Awards’ 90-year history. Warner Bros. will know to play up that angle, especially if Jenkins signs on to helm the already green-lit sequel. The Academy’s recent push to diversify its demographics in the wake of two consecutive years of all-white acting nominees could mean that more people inclined to appreciate a feminist superhero hit will have ballots in their hands come January.
Still, the precedent is stacked against this movie’s favor, and I’d be cautious when placing bets on Diana Prince’s awards odds. With the exception of “Mad Max: Fury Road,” the Oscars’ Best Picture expansion hasn’t helped any live-action summer blockbusters. Hollywood is drowning in franchises and reboots, calling into question whether a superhero adaptation can rise above the glut. Furthermore, while “Wonder Woman” could score key tech nods, it’s unlikely that any of its actors will be recognized. Its rare ― though not impossible (see: “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Braveheart”) ― for a movie without any acting nominations to go all the way.
A “Wonder Woman” victory would come down to two things: the power of Warner Bros.′ campaign, and the quality of this year’s typical awards fare, which won’t screen for press and industry folks until the fall festivals (or later). Warner Bros. will have a hefty load, simultaneously touting “Woman,” “Dunkirk” and “Blade Runner 2049.” Plus, if the year’s final superhero tentpole, November’s “Justice League,” doesn’t find critical and commercial success, the Academy may opt not to boost a superhero outing of any kind.
The entire narrative surrounding “Wonder Woman” hinges on its outsize success, which will continue to balloon as the movie remains in theaters. Now it’s up to Warner Bros. to keep the momentum alive. As Diana Prince once said, “It’s about what you believe.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post misidentified the “Blade Runner 2049” director as Ridley Scott, who made the original “Blade Runner.” Denis Villeneuve directed the sequel.