‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ swings into Best Picture race

Even amid a surge of coronavirus cases in the U.S. and around the world, “Spider-Man: No Way Home” has become the must-see theatrical event of the moment. Released on December 17, 2021, the Sony and Marvel Studios co-production broke records during its opening weekend and has topped $1 billion in global ticket sales without the benefit of a release in China. Reviews are strong as well, with a 71 score from Metacritic and a 94 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Buttressed by its financial success and consensus support from critics and audiences alike, it’s no wonder Sony and Marvel executives said in late December 2021 that they planned to push “Spider-Man: No Way Home” as a dark horse Best Picture candidate.

“Quality commerciality is really hard to do. ‘No Way Home’ is superb filmmaking. And this is what the Academy needs to stay connected to,” Sony boss Tom Rothman told The Hollywood Reporter in a widely circulated piece published on Christmas Eve.

“It’s a good thing when people are in a theater and they stand up and cheer. It’s a good thing when people are wiping tears because they’re thinking back on their last 20 years of moviegoing and what it has meant to them,” Marvel head Kevin Feige added. “That, to me, is a very good thing — the sort of thing the Academy was founded, back in the day, to recognize.”

The academy, of course, has a spotty record when it comes to nominating mass-appeal superhero fare. Since the debut of “Iron Man” in 2008, the only superhero movies to land nominations in the Best Picture lineup were 2018’s “Black Panther” and 2019’s “Joker.” Neither, however, profiled as simple examples of the genre. “Black Panther” was a cultural phenomenon on par with “Titanic” in the way it dominated the conversation for months, while “Joker” was a gritty anti-superhero film that owed more to Martin Scorsese than the Batman villain’s creators, Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson.

So if this were January 2021 or even 2019, the pleas of Rothman and Feige would likely not amount to very much. But with the Academy Awards having expanded the Best Picture lineup to a set 10 nominees, the argument could be made that “Spider-Man: No Way Home” has a legitimate chance to crack the list. With the expanded roster, the sliding-scale system where films needed to receive 5 percent of the first-place vote to score a nomination has been jettisoned. That means a popular hit like “Spider-Man: No Way Home” could conceivably get in with numerous eighth, ninth, or 10th place votes – a possibility considering its broad appeal.

It might sound fantastical but there’s some precedent for this as well. After “The Dark Knight” was infamously snubbed in the Best Picture category at the 2009 Oscars, the academy responded to the public outcry by expanding the lineup from five slots to 10. The next year, at the 2010 Oscars, movies nominated for Best Picture included blockbuster hits like “The Blind Side,” “District 9,” the Pixar movie “Up” and, of course, “Avatar.” At the 2011 Oscars, “Inception” and “Toy Story 3” stood among the 10 nominees. If “Spider-Man: No Way Home” ended up taking one of those de facto populist slots in 2022, would it be so out of character for the academy?

My guess is no. While “Spider-Man: No Way Home” sits just inside the top-20 in the combined Gold Derby odds for Best Picture, only three Gold Derby experts have predicted it will receive a nomination, including me. It’s a longshot, for sure, and perhaps not even the right blockbuster – “No Time to Die,” the final James Bond film with Daniel Craig as the secret agent, surfaced on a number of shortlists and could have enough craft support to push into the Best Picture race instead. But for a movie that brought together three franchises’ worth of Spider-Men, two studios, and confirmed (albeit singularly) the viability of the theatrical model, betting on “No Way Home” is worth the risk.

“Like the third Lord of the Rings, this is the conclusion of an epic series, and is quality commercial cinema. Black Panther was quality commercial cinema,” Rothman told The Hollywood Reporter. “It is essential that the academy does not lose its connection with quality commercial cinema.” He’s not wrong. After all, with great power, there must also come great responsibility.

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