“Black Panther” is looking like the answer to Hollywood’s prayers as the industry embarks on awards season, adding blockbuster sizzle to an annual ritual that has been reluctant to acknowledge its costume-clad box-office stars.
With its latest accolades — a Golden Globe nomination as outstanding drama on Thursday, and recognition from the American Film Institute’s annual 10-best list — the next hurdle would be the Academy Awards, which would represent a breakthrough for superhero movies.
Already the third-highest-grossing movie of all time in the US, behind only “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “Avatar” in non-adjusted dollars, the Ryan Coogler-directed movie has been a huge hit for Marvel and its parent company, Disney. Its success has represented a significant cultural milestone, as a theatrical blockbuster with a predominantly black cast and director.
Thus far, however, the financial windfall for superheroes hasn’t translated into major awards recognition. Last year, buzz surrounded the prospects of another trailblazer, “Wonder Woman,” but the entry from Marvel rival DC didn’t make the Oscar cut.
A best-picture nomination for “Black Panther” would cap a decade-long effort to foster recognition for such movies, following a much-ridiculed proposal by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences earlier this year to introduce a new “popular film” category.
The original push centered on “The Dark Knight,” Christopher Nolan’s sequel to “Batman Begins,” which failed to receive a best-picture nomination (although Heath Ledger was honored, posthumously, for his role as the Joker).
After that, the academy increased the number of best-picture nominees from five to as many as 10, hoping the expanded field would enable more widely seen movies to get into the mix.
The industry’s biggest attractions, however, have faced ingrained skepticism from Oscar voters, which explains the “popular film” trial balloon, which many saw as an act of desperation and pandering intended to mollify ABC, the network that televises the awards, after a sizable dip in last year’s ratings.
“Black Panther” is doubly significant because the movie offered such a powerful showcase for African-American talent both in front of and behind the camera, just a few years after the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag came into being in response to the absence of people of color in acting categories.
The Golden Globes and other awards — including those from critics groups and industry guilds — are closely watched as possible bellwethers for the Oscars, still considered the grand prize, even in this age of awards saturation and declining ratings.
Myriad factors are likely responsible for the Oscars’ dwindling audience, but it’s widely believed in industry circles that having more popular films in contention would help, providing casual viewers with a greater rooting interest that would theoretically boost tune-in.
Because the Globes split their top film awards into two categories — drama, and musical or comedy — they historically also have the luxury of nominating movies that might otherwise be overlooked.
This year, that included the hit romantic comedy “Crazy Rich Asians” and anticipated blockbuster “Mary Poppins Returns,” as well as the liberal application of the term “comedy” by putting the movies “Green Book” and to an extent “Vice,” a dark satire about former Vice President Dick Cheney, in that bracket.
The Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., which presents the Globes, amended its rules after “The Martian” won best comedy in 2016, but there are clearly still some glitches in the system.
Granted, the results of awards balloting can be largely symbolic, and are seldom the best way to measure progress. Yet for an industry still grappling with issues pertaining to inclusion, and an award-show apparatus wrestling with a movie business increasingly reliant on superheroes and science fiction, an Oscar nod to “Black Panther” would, indeed, represent a noteworthy gesture, in more ways than one, toward Hollywood’s new realities.