In 2008, a Best Picture nomination for Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight looked like a sure thing. Though "popcorn cinema" didn't have a track record for nabbing spots on the list — between 1999 and '08, only The Sixth Sense and the Lord of the Rings trilogy stood out as both "prestige" and blockbuster fare — many considered Nolan's second Batman movie to be the real deal. Amazing visuals, poignant themes, a standout performance by the late Heath Ledger, and rave reviews across the board were the perfect awards equation. Then, after months of speculation, the nominees were finally announced. The Dark Knight was noticeably absent from the Best Picture list.
Ledger went on to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, while the film itself won a Sound Editing award and earned nominations for Art Direction, Cinematography, Editing, Makeup, Sound Mixing, and Visual Effects. But even four years later, the missing nominations for The Dark Knight and Nolan are widely considered one of the Academy's more egregious snubs. Now it's The Dark Knight Rises' time to run the Oscar race — will it fare any better? Once again, the evidence for Best Picture success is there, but award season prognosticators are playing it safe. No one wants another 2008.
"Without factoring in any films that might pop up on the schedule between now and December, there are probably, realistically, 19 films that could be in the Best Picture conversation," says Erik Childress, Vice President of the Chicago Film Critics Association. The consistency of Academy members to nominate films that fit the "Oscar bill" — often dramas, usually star-studded, and with source material or talent behind the camera that gives it an evident Hollwood pedigree — allows savvy award seers to accurately predict what may or may not be fodder for consideration. With that mind, Childress believes we've only seen a few movies so far that could wind up in conversation by year's end. "Only four of those films have been released as of yet: The Avengers, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Moonrise Kingdom and The Dark Knight Rises. If The Avengers isn't rewarded for being the biggest hit of the year (not to mention one of the best reviewed), voters can look to Nolan's film as being the more serious of the two and reward it as part of a larger landscape."
In 2009, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (the enterprise behind the Oscars) threw Hollywood a curveball with a rule that dramatically changed the award season. For the first time, ten films were nominated for Best Picture allowing more movies with less votes slip into the category. The impact of the rule was immediately apparent: In '09, indie darlings like Precious and A Serious Man made the cut, while two sci-fi flicks — Avatar and District 9 — breached the top ten. In 2010, the Best Picture race finally had room for a Nolan epic, with a nomination for the mind-bending heist picture Inception (although the nod was bittersweet — the filmmaker was still left off the five-slot Best Directors list after garnering wins). 2011 saw the rule evolve once more, the set ten nominations transitioning to a sliding scale that gave greater weight to the vote count. The potential for a large roster opens up the playing field for a Dark Knight Rises nomination (it will be hard for the Academy to ignore a movie that's already eclipsed the $500 million worldwide box office mark), but inevitable comparisons to The Dark Knight and Inception may leave Nolan's trilogy-capper out of top tier of 2012.
"The question is whether the Dark Knight trilogy is really one that has had that same kind of support among Academy members up until this movie," says Ed Douglas of ComingSoon.net. "The answer is 'no.' Neither Batman Begins nor The Dark Knight received Best Picture nominations … Since The Dark Knight Rises is closer to Batman Begins than The Dark Knight, we're probably going to see another Best Picture snub, and probably only technical awards once again." Childress doesn't see Batman's lack of Best Picture nominations standing in the way of The Dark Knight Rises — in fact, it might work in the movie's favor. "Because of The Dark Knight's association with its big snubbing in 2008, despite getting eight nominations, there's a make-up factor that the Academy doesn't shy away from, especially when the films are of great quality and deserve to be in the conversation anyway." Nolan's lack of Best Director nominations adds to the "we owe him one" mentality found in the Academy thinking. "There's an inside track for it that is only accentuated with it being one of the best-reviewed films of 2012."
It's hard to believe, but Oscars voters are people too. And like anyone with Internet at their fingertips, ears and eyes to pick up on the latest campaigning, and minds that have to make sense of it all, they're aware of the almighty buzz. Nathaniel Rogers of The Film Experience puts it into perspective: "Though I am weary of the internet's strange obsession with The Academy owing Chris Nolan for The Dark Knight (most filmmakers would kill to be snubbed to the tune of eight nominations and two wins for a single blockbuster in a non Oscar-friendly genre), I do recognize the sheer force of its angry wall of fandom and the estimable endurance of the mainstream media's bandwagon bitching about the self same "snub." AMPAS is not an impermeable monolithic fortress but an organization made up of people with different opinions who are, like any other people, subject to influence by way of public opinion."
History aside, The Dark Knight Rises has found ample footing for an Oscar run in positive feedback. Critics and moviegoers alike laud the film. On the popular polling site Metacritic, The Dark Knight Rises holds a score of 78/100 from critics and an 8.7 from users, compared to The Dark Knight (82/100 from critics and an 8.9 from users), and previous Best Picture winners like The Artist (89/100 from critics and an 7.9 from users), The King's Speech (88/100 from critics and an 8.4 from users), and The Hurt Locker (94/100 from critics and an 7.0 from users). Ropes of Silicon founder Brad Brevet believes positive reviews swing voters, and The Dark Knight Rises has won over the right people. "[Roger] Ebert's review didn't help but [New York Times critic Mahnola] Dargis loving it is pretty big. [LA Times critic Kenneth] Turan was big on it as well. It's probably a no-brainer for a Best Pic nom, but probably a pat on the back and a placement outside the top five when all is said and done."
Many believe the comic book foundation of The Dark Knight Rises, its predecessors, and its successors is the fatal flaw that will keep the genre from ever finding Oscar gold, but if there's anyone who can pull through, it will be Nolan. The Artist won the hearts of cineastes with its throwback to the Golden Age. Nolan does the same thing with his Batman films, employing old school stylings of grandeur in the vein of David Lean and Stanley Kubrick, albeit with a dark, superheroic edge." The Dark Knight series has elevated the superhero genre to art in the same way that the Godfather did for gangster films and The Lord of the Rings did for fantasy," an anonymous Oscar voter tells Hollywood.com. The Academy member, in his 60s, put his vote with Nolan in 2008 and is more than ready to do it again with The Dark Knight Rises. "I personally nominated the Dark Knight for Best Picture and as of now, will certainly do the same for The Dark Knight Rises. It has all of the brilliant filmmaking elements that Dark Knight had, minus of course the remarkable performance of Heath Ledger. If Dark Knight Rises falls short in any way, it might simply be that no performance stands out to the extent of Ledger's. However, Gary Oldman's portrayal of Commissioner Gordon has consistently been the heart of these films and Anne Hathaway is easily the best Catwoman ever."
In a discussion between two vets of the Oscar race, Anne Thompson of Indiewire/Thompson on Hollywood and Kris Tapley of In Contention, Tapley questions whether Warner Bros. will even campaign for The Dark Knight Rises. The studio has a full slate of potential awards contenders, including Ben Affleck's Argo, Clint Eastwood's Trouble with the Curve, and Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby. Is there room for TDKR? Thompson is confident they will. "They're going to go for it because they went for Inception. You can tell: Nolan worked it. He went everywhere, he accepted every award from every guild. He could not be more eager and I think he was very disappointed." A "For Your Consideration" campaign for Dark Knight Rises has a lot to offer: after all, Nolan has yet to be honored and this is the grand finale of a massive franchise. The triumph could swing both ways — 2011's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2 went out with a bang but failed to hook voters. On the other side, Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings found success in its final installment (but that was after three consecutive years of LOTR, unlike the four-year gap between Dark Knight and 2012's sequel). There's a solid case for why the film should take a Best Picture nomination.
If history repeats itself, Batman's last act should walk away with at least one gold statue. "The Dark Knight Rises should have no trouble finding a handful of technical nominations," says Rogers. "Contrary to the Internet's belief system, the Academy actually likes Batman and especially The Dark Knight. His past seven films have shared 15 Oscar nominations and three wins and roughly half of that tally comes from the movie everyone claims was snubbed." But if The Dark Knight Rises doesn't swoop in and pick up the big award of the night this time around, fans shouldn't fret: there's always the reboot.
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
[Photo Credit: Warner Bros.]