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Oscars 2019: Breaking down Black Panther's chances for best picture

Commentary: If any superhero movie can take home major awards, Black Panther is the one. But should the Academy Awards resist Marvel's cultural domination?

Disney/Marvel

And the nominees are... 

Black Panther is the first superhero movie to be nominated for the Oscar for best picture. It's already a cultural phenomenon, a critical success, a billion-dollar box office sensation. At the 91st Academy Awards on Sunday, will it also usher in a new era of recognition for effects-driven superhero blockbusters? 

Marvel's smash hit, released last February, is up against BlacKkKlansman, The Favourite, Green Book, ViceBohemian Rhapsody, Roma and A Star is Born for the best picture of 2018. Check out the full list of nominees here.

So what are Black Panther's chances?

Black Panther faces off against Green Book, Roma and more in the Oscars battle. 

Marvel

Black Panther has already bagged a bunch of gongs. Among a swath of award nominations, it's scooped the best-film award from the African-American Film Critics Association, the Black Reel Awards, BET and MTV. The film's music, visual effects and actors have also been rewarded with a BAFTA, two Grammys and several other wins. In January, it scooped up the Screen Actors Guild award for outstanding performance by a cast, and the SAG Awards often prove to be a leading Oscar indicator.

Effects-driven blockbusters do win Oscars, of course. They just tend to be confined to the technical Oscars, for visual effects and sound design and so on. This year, Black Panther joins Avengers: Infinity War, First Man, Ready Player One and Solo: A Star Wars Story on the shortlist for best visual effects. Panther is also up for production design, costume design, sound editing, sound mixing, music, and best song.

Without taking away from the achievements of the movie magicians rewarded for their skill and creativity in individual areas, best picture and best director remain the pinnacle of the awards season. And Black Panther deserves to challenge for the big awards.

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Genre flicks can win these headline awards. The Oscars are often associated with worthy dramas like Spotlight or 12 Years a Slave, but nominees like Avatar and Gravity and last year's best picture The Shape of Water show sci-fi and fantasy aren't necessarily an outside bet. Meanwhile box office success didn't rule out best picture winners like Titanic and Braveheart

What's more, Black Panther, for all its adrenaline-fuelled action and CG effects, is more than a superpowered beat-'em-up. 

Like BlacKkKlansman and Green Book, it tackles timely and relevant questions of race and prejudice. Where those other films examine the subject through a historical lens, Black Panther looks at the here and now. The scene in which African artifacts are reclaimed from a British museum gives a succinct take on the bearing of colonial history on the present. And the whole Afrofuturist premise of Wakanda's highly advanced nation gives a glimpse at a possible future for the people scarred by that history.

On top of that, Black Panther is written, directed and largely created by black filmmakers. In a year the movie industry has had to take a long hard look at itself, the story of who's behind the camera is as important as the story unfolding on screen.

So if Academy voters want timely subtext and positive representation as well as a thrilling story and cinematic verve, it's all there between the punches and one-liners.

Black Panther has taken over a billion dollars at the box office.

Marvel Films

Of course, Black Panther doesn't have to win an Oscar. Director Ryan Coogler and the folks at Marvel are probably pretty happy with the billion dollars Black Panther raked in at the box office, the rapturous reception from audiences and the near-universal critical acclaim. 

And those who've been thrilled and empowered by the film don't need a stamp of approval from the Academy. An Oscar, at this point, would be merely the icing on the cake.

Besides, awards may actually be the last bastion against Disney and Marvel's total cultural domination. As much as we love superheroes and blockbuster shared universes, they're increasingly crowding out anything that isn't a remake or sequel from the big screen. So you could argue smaller and riskier original feature films need the boost awards buzz gives them. If the BAFTAs and the Golden Globes and the Oscars remind jaded viewers that the big screen is made for more than superheroes, it might motivate us to try a wider variety of movies.

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And may stop us from staying on the sofa with Netflix, too.

Which brings us to Netflix's Roma. Now available to stream to your TV or laptop or phone, Alfonso Cuaron's spellbinding drama is a cinematic triumph and richly deserves its best picture consideration. Although... comparing Roma to Black Panther shows the strangeness of artistic awards -- how do you weigh up two such different films? Regardless, a win for Netflix's Roma could also be seen as the start of a new era, as the highest bastion of the movie industry acknowledges a changing industry.

Whichever film wins, Tuesday's nominations signal some timely changes for movies. It remains to be seen who the winners are -- not just on Feb. 24 but in the future of features.

First published, Jan. 22.
Update, Jan. 27 at 10:06 p.m. PT: Adds SAG Award win.
Update, Feb. 21 at 10:55 a.m. PT: Adds additional awards the movie has won.