The Dark Knight: How the 2008 Superhero movie changed the Oscars


It’s been 10 years since The Dark Knight was infamously left out of the Best Picture category, and while Christopher Nolan’s genre redefining movie may not been nominated for the biggest award of the night, it may have achieved more with a loss than it ever would have with a win.

The 91st edition of the Academy Awards will take place on Sunday, February 24th, and for the first time ever, a comic book movie is nominated for the biggest award of the night. Marvel’s groundbreaking superhero movie, Black Panther has shattered the ceiling for superhero and blockbuster movies, as it tries to make history and win Best Picture

There is no doubt Black Panther earned and deserved that nomination. However, there is one particular comic book movie that will forever be synonymous with the superhero movie/Oscars debate: The Dark Knight, which many consider to be one of the biggest Oscar snubs for Best Picture of all time.

The landmark 2008 movie not only changed the way comic book movies were made, but also changed the way comic book were looked at by non-superhero fans, was not only a commercial success, earning more than $1 billion internationally, but was also a critical success, earning a 94% on the aggregator website, Rotten Tomatoes.

Courtesy of DC Comics and Warner Brothers

While not being nominated at the Golden Globes earlier that year, the Chris Nolan films seemed to be have been gaining steam into nomination morning, where many thought The Dark Knight would come out a huge winner. Then on the morning of January 22, 2009 (10 years to-the-day that Black Panther was nominated), the world, as well as those involved with the movie, found out that they would not be competing for the award of the night.

While The Dark Knight was still nominated in eight categories, most moviegoers were at a loss for words when the Nolan movie was not nominated for Best Picture. It had been one of the best movies of 2008. And aside from being one of the most anticipated movies of the summer of 2008, the Batman Begins sequel was accompanied by the death of Heath Ledger, which added an additional layer of emotion and sentimentality to its release.

The DC movie not only lived up to the hype, but fundamentally changed the way moviegoers looked at comic book movie adaptations. Viewers no longer looked at them as niche or kid movies, but as viable adult themed films that could be grounded in reality. Take the cowl away from Christian Bale and the makeup from Heath Ledger, and The Dark Knight is police procedural. Plus, the IMAX bank robbery scene by itself was worth the price of admission and a nomination.

The Dark Knight being left out of the Best Picture proved that the Academy was not ready for a comic book/superhero movie that broke the mold of not only what a superhero movie could achieve as a film, but also what an Oscar-nominated film can look like.

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Many believed the movie that took the The Dark Knight’s spot in the Best Picture category was The Reader. While a fine film on its own, The Reader seemed to have stolen a spot. Even Rotten Tomatoes couldn’t justify why the Kate Winslet-starring vehicle was chosen over the Nolan film, as the The Dark Knight had a 94% on the aggregate site and The Reader sat at a 63%. The consensus round-up even nodded at the type of movie The Reader really was:

"“Despite Kate Winslet’s superb portrayal, The Reader suggests an emotionally distant, Oscar-baiting historical drama.”"

The Dark Knight did still make history. This was thanks to Heath Ledger’s generational performance as the Joker scoring Best Supporting Actor, making the late performer the only actor so far to win an acting Oscar for a superhero movie. Still, the night would have really been special with the Ledger win and the Best Picture nomination.

Courtesy of DC Comics and Warner Brothers

The Oscars came and went, and many moved on and looked forward to the rest of 2009, the Academy did not. Four months after the awards, the Academy dropped a press release that would seem to be a reactionary move in the wake of The Dark Knight getting snubbed:

"“After more than six decades, the Academy is returning to some of its earlier roots, when a wider field competed for the top award of the year. The final outcome, of course, will be the same – one Best Picture winner – but the race to the finish line will feature 10, not just five, great movies from 2009.”"

Although the official statement made no mention of The Dark Knight, even former Academy President Sidney Ganis knew the 2008 blockbuster played some part in the decision to make the expansion, as he told reports after the announcement, “I would not be telling you the truth if I said the words ‘Dark Knight’ did not come up.”

This was a monumental announcement, since the Best Picture category at the Oscars had been unchanged for 65 years at that point. From its inception in 1927 to 1943, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did not have a set number of nominations, as they mixed-and-matched the number of movies nominated. In the very first awards show in 1927, the Academy only nominated 3 movies, while in 1935 they nominated 12 films. Inconsistent to say the least. That changed in 1944 when they nominated five movies, until they changed that in 2010. This would allow movies that were not the usual “Oscar bait” to be nominated for Best Picture.

While not much has changed for more inclusion for genre movies since 2009, we are now on the precipice of possible history, as a superhero movie could possibly win the Oscar for Best Picture. There is no doubt Black Panther earned that nomination, but there is also no denying The Dark Knight helped the Marvel movie get nominated by not being nominated and causing a big enough fallout for the Academy to change its antiquated nomination process.

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Even if it was aiming to be nominated for Best Picture, by not being nominated in 2009, The Dark Knight was in a sense martyred and will be longed remembered as the movie that caused some major change at the Oscars.