THE CONTENDER: X-Men: Days Of Future Past (2014)
Number of Nominations: 1 – Visual Effects (Richard Stammers, Lou Pecora, Tim Crosbie and Cameron Waldbauer)
Number of Wins: Zero
By now, it’s widely accepted that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a blind spot when it comes to superhero movies. Even though the decision to increase the number of Best Picture nominees was largely seen as a corrective to the specific omission of The Dark Knight back in 2009, there still haven’t been any superheroes in the category since then. (Unless you count Birdman and you shouldn’t.)
Granted, there hasn’t been an overabundance of superhero movies recently that have really deserved a Best Picture nod. Deadpool’s surprise nomination for a PGA Award only raised its Oscar chances from impossible to unlikely. But perhaps more surprising is how poorly superheroes have done across the board, even in categories they might be expected to dominate. It barely requires two hands to count the number of superhero movies that have won any kind of Academy Award: Tim Burton’s Batman, Spider-Man 2, The Incredibles (which wasn’t based on a comic book but I’ll allow it), The Dark Knight, Big Hero 6, and now (sigh) Suicide Squad. If you want to stretch it, we could include Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, which received a comparatively warm reception from the Academy, and Men In Black, a movie most people either don’t realize or don’t remember was based on a comic book. That’s almost as bad a showing as movies based on toys, games and theme park attractions.
Today, superheroes are an inescapable part of the pop culture landscape, generating billions of dollars and dominating both movie theatres and television. But when 20th Century Fox gambled on X-Men back in 2000, superhero movies were still risky. These days, we seem to get a new superhero movie every few weeks. But that first X-Men movie was the only one of its kind that year and the first real superhero movie we’d seen since Spawn and Batman & Robin fizzled out back in ’97.
(Note: Marvel did have its first taste of success with Blade in 1998 but the marketing downplayed its comic book DNA to focus more on bad-ass vampire action. And yeah, M. Night Shyamalan’s deconstructionist take on superheroes Unbreakable also came out in 2000 but I think we can agree that it’s a different type of beast than the movies we’re discussing here.)
Perhaps because it was a little early to the party, the X-Men franchise has never quite received the respect some of its contemporaries have enjoyed. At first, it lived in the shadow of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies. The fact that Bryan Singer’s X2 outperformed the original both with critics and at the box office was soon overshadowed by how much Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 improved on its predecessor’s reputation. Both franchises were damaged by their third installments. But while Raimi decided to cut and run and Sony chose to start over after Spider-Man 3, Fox kept on truckin’ after Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand stumbled with critics. After all, the money coming in was still good.
Shortly after the Marvel Cinematic Universe launched with Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk in 2008, the X-Movies entered the spinoff/prequel stage with the misbegotten X-Men Origins: Wolverine. While Marvel was being lauded for their ambition and scope, Fox was beginning to look like they didn’t know what they were doing with the X-Men. At this point, it would have been easy for Fox to follow in Sony’s footsteps and do a hard reset on the franchise. Instead, they doubled down on their previous work with X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days Of Future Past, two movies that allowed them to keep all of the elements that were working and get rid of those that didn’t.
The culmination of all these years’ worth of world-building, Days Of Future Past is, if anything, a little too ambitious for its own good. By its very nature, it was always going to be a little complicated in its attempt to reconcile multiple timelines. But while the X-Men movies have always featured sprawling ensemble casts, DOFP seems to go out of its way to introduce even more characters, some of whom are barely given more than a minute or two to establish themselves. At times, it feels like the movie should come with a cheat sheet just so you can keep track of who’s who.
Still, whenever a franchise can still surprise and impress audiences and critics with its seventh installment after over a decade, it must be doing something right. After Marvel and Sony worked out an arrangement to incorporate Spider-Man into the MCU, fans began to hope Marvel might work out a similar deal with Fox. Besides the X-Men, of course, the studio also has the rights to the Fantastic Four. Since that property has been thoroughly botched, fans would love Marvel to just take control of the FF lock, stock and barrel. But even fans who want the X-Men to fight alongside the Avengers don’t want to see these movies wiped clean. Ideally, they’d like the timelines to somehow merge or blend together so that they can be incorporated into the MCU. It isn’t likely to happen but it does prove that Fox has made more right decisions than wrong ones when it comes to the X-Men.
Despite fan loyalty, critical acclaim (most of the time) and box office grosses of over 4 billion dollars, no X-Men movie received a single Oscar nomination until Days Of Future Past was recognized for Visual Effects. Why this one? Not that the effects work isn’t impressive but is it truly that much better than what had come before?
Well, it is and it isn’t, which is probably a big reason why it didn’t win (it lost to Interstellar). Visual Effects is actually a tough, somewhat strange category. It’s one of those categories where, if the voters aren’t all that impressed by the year’s eligible films, there can be only three or two nominees or they’ll just give it to somebody outright. Some years, it’s not unheard of for the Academy to turn this car around and nobody gets an award. Lately there’s been no shortage of effects-heavy movies for their consideration but if you want a shot at this prize, be prepared to show audiences at least one thing that is impossible.
The effects in the X-Men movies have always been a bit workmanlike. They’re fine. There’s nothing really wrong with them, for the most part. But there also isn’t anything like the opening sequence in Gravity or that tidal wave in Interstellar that lingers in your memory and has audiences asking how they did that. Claws coming out of hands, girls walking through walls and folks massaging their temples or waving their hands in the air while they manipulate ice or fire or whatever? That’s all very nice but we’ve seen it plenty of times before.
The post-apocalyptic hellscape of DOFP’s future scenes and the shape-shifting Sentinels certainly didn’t hurt the movie’s chances at a nomination. But if one thing put the movie over the top, it was the “Time In A Bottle” sequence featuring Evan Peters’ Quicksilver making short work of an attack in a cramped, sprinkler-soaked kitchen. As entertaining as previous entries had been, none of them really had this kind of conversation starter setpiece before. Nightcrawler’s infiltration of the White House in X2 came close but it wasn’t scored to a Jim Croce tune. Never underestimate the power of a pop song to help land a scene in the film history books.
Even though the X-Men’s first time at bat didn’t bring home a trophy, there’s no reason to suspect Days Of Future Past will be the franchise’s last nomination. Even though Hugh Jackman (and apparently Patrick Stewart) are saying goodbye to the series with Logan (out this weekend), the series itself will continue. Considering the rapturous reviews Logan has been receiving, it isn’t too far out of the realm of possibility that it may find itself in contention next year. Jackman’s 17-year stewardship of the character is unprecedented and an impressive achievement in its own right but arguably the biggest hurdle standing between him and a Best Actor nomination is the calendar. Oscar voters are not known for their long memories and nomination time is a long way away. And while actors aren’t often recognized for this type of role, it would be kind of nice to see Jackman’s work given the validation of a nomination.
The X-Men movies have been taken for granted for too long. They’ve been doing this longer and more successfully than most of their contemporaries. And they haven’t been content to simply rehash the same formula over and over again. Movies like Deadpool and Logan (not to mention TV shows like Legion) show a willingness to innovate and expand the genre’s parameters. After all these years, you’d think they’d have more than a single Oscar nomination to show for it.
X-Men: Days Of Future Past is available on Blu-ray, DVD and 4K Ultra HD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.