Hollywood’s so-called ‘Serious Season’ is officially underway with the release of Keira Knightley’s latest period piece “The Duchess” the first entry in the three-month-long industry derby that runs until Christmas.It’s early – very early – but with the onslaught of prestige pictures just beginning, it begs the obvious question: Do the year’s two biggest commercial – and to this point, arguably critical hits - The Dark Knight and Iron Man, have a realistic shot at Oscar glory? Both films raised the bar on the industry’s hottest category, the comic book movie, to new heights. But history has not been kind to genre movies at the Academy Awards. Outside of “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King”, sci-fi/fantasy movies have always been relegated to the Academy equivalent of the kiddie table, the technical achievement award categories. Comic book films have only recently gained even that limited amount of respect. Of course, that was all pre-Dark Knight. The Dark Knight, as well as Iron Man and to a lesser degree 2004's Spider-Man 2, changed the rules and elevated the superhero film above its summer popcorn flick roots. It could be argued that not since “Star Wars” has a genre pic had as much mainstream impact as Christopher Nolan’s opus. The Oscar buzz surrounding The Dark Knight was building even before the film actually hit theaters and started its run toward $522 million at the U.S. box office (and counting). The focus of the praise of course, has been on the incredible performance by the late Heath Ledger as The Joker. Some of the superlatives used to describe Ledger’s work: Eerie.
Mesmerizing.At this point, it would be a huge shock if Ledger doesn’t get nominated. The biggest obstacle in the way of a posthumous nod for Ledger (presumably for Best Supporting Actor) could be the notoriously short memories of Academy voters. Warner Bros. has already taken a clever pre-emptive strike against this by announcing it will re-release The Dark Knight in theaters in January . Christian Bale has said publicly that he doesn’t feel he stands a chance come awards time because Bruce Wayne/Batman takes a back seat in the movie to the bad guy. As subtle as Bale’s work as Wayne was, the Academy doesn’t do subtle, and his barking turn as Batman was 180 degrees the opposite. As Harvey Dent, Aaron Eckhart certainly gave a worthy performance. Unfortunately, he would be placed squarely in the Best Supporting Actor race, which would put him in direct competition with…Ledger. Can anyone see two actors from the same comic book-inspired movie earning nominations in the same category? Director Christopher Nolan is in much better position to snag a nomination. The Academy has in the past recognized virtuoso filmmaking in the sci-fi/fantasy realm, of which Dark Knight is a close relative if not in theme, in inspiration. Stanley Kubrick (“2001: A Space Odyssey”), George Lucas (“Star Wars”), Steven Spielberg (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “E.T.”) and "Lord of the Rings" maestro Peter Jackson have all scored Best Director nods from the Academy. Only Jackson wound up winning, however. What about Best Picture? The Dark Knight is the clear critical darling from the first nine months of 2008, so that is one significant advantage. However, this is the time of year when the studios roll out their ‘For Your Consideration’ films, so keeping Batman in the minds of voters could be a challenge. And if the Toronto Film Festival is any indication – and it usually is a good barometer for Oscar contenders - this year’s slate of fall movies appears strong. “The Wrestler” with Mickey Rourke, Clint Eastwood’s “Changeling” (written by J. Michael Straczynski), “The Hurt Locker”, and “Rachel Getting Married” all exited Toronto on the fast track to Oscardom. As more movies build buzz through awards season, chances are The Dark Knight’s heat will fade some. Warner’s January re-release would be too late to do any good at that point. Now, the fact that just about everyone has seen (and liked) the film can’t hurt, although the Academy has shown an almost pathological urge in the past to punish genre films that enjoy massive popularity. How else do you explain “Chariots of Fire” beating “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in 1981, or “Gandhi” over “E.T.” the following year? [Or “Shakespeare in Love” over “Saving Private Ryan”, for that matter?] A Best Picture nomination for Dark Knight would be a watershed moment, further solidifying the comic book movie genre and its importance to the film industry. Whether it could actually win in any major Oscar category is another matter entirely. “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “Star Wars”, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “E.T.” were all nominated in several of the major categories. They all went home empty-handed, except for several technical achievement awards. There is also the relevancy factor to consider here, which could work in The Dark Knight's favor. The lack of mainstream appeal among last year’s big nominees is largely blamed for the dismal Oscar telecast ratings. When a Coen Brothers movie (“No Country for Old Men”) is the most popular Best Picture nominee, you know it’s a box-office challenged field. The Academy has to figure out a way to shrink the growing disconnect between what its voters reward and what audiences enjoy, or risk tarnishing the impact of Oscar. Having the year’s biggest hit in the running for its biggest awards could help in that regard. Wait, have we forgotten someone? What about Iron Man? Remember him, Jon Favreau’s surprise smash that kick-started the Summer of Superheroes? After earning rave reviews for its grownup take on the comic book adaptation, it was steamrollered like everyone else was by The Dark Knight. The biggest loser in the wake of Dark Knight’s success could be Robert Downey Jr. Back in May, there was talk his dialed-up portrayal of Tony Stark could land him in Oscar contention. Not only is he a previous nominee (for “Chaplin”) but his checkered past makes him the type of reclamation project Hollywood loves to reward. Then Dark Knight started smashing records and it seemed as if everyone forgot about Iron Man and its lead actor. Never count out Downey Jr. from pulling off a comeback, but with a strong field of potential Oscar contenders that includes Sean Penn (“Milk”), Leonardo DiCaprio (“Revolutionary Road”), Frank Langella (“Frost/Nixon”), and Brad Pitt (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”), I’d say the odds are better of finding a Blu-ray version of “Simple Jack” than seeing Downey Jr. land a nomination. One other thing to remember before you lay money on Downey Jr.’s Oscar chances. Only two other actors from genre films have ever scored Best Actor nominations (Jeff Bridges in “Starman” and Johnny Depp for “Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl”). The actor also may have hurt his own Best Actor cause even more by stealing whatever …ahem … thunder ‘ole Shellhead had left with his hilarious race-bending role in “Tropic Thunder.” But conversely, his strong pair of performances may help his cause in securing (and winning) a Best Supporting Actor nod. For one, the Academy has a history of rewarding quirky and/or over-the-top comedic performances in the Supporting categories. Some of the more recent past winners on the male side include Alan Arkin for 2006's "Little Miss Sunshine", Cuba Gooding, Jr. for 1996's "Jerry Maguire", and Kevin Kline in 1988's "A Fish Called Wanda". Female recipients include Mira Sorvino in 1995's "Mighty Aphrodite", Marisa Tomei in 1992's "My Cousin Vinny", and Whoopi Goldberg in 1990's "Ghost". And on top of that the Academy has also in the past used the supporting categories to reward actors who also delivered strong but unrecognized leading acting turns. A supporting nod to Downey Jr. for "Tropic Thunder" could be the Academy's wink and a nod signal that, "We really liked you in Iron Man too, but it was still Iron Man." And as for the longer odds of Favreau getting any Iron Man recognition, his best shot might be to follow the Peter Jackson-"Rings" model. Turn in a solid trilogy without any missteps, and hope for a "cumulative" nomination for part 3 a few years down the road. In the end, when you’re wearing spandex or body armor, the Harry Shearer character in the Oscar season send-up "For Your Consideration" might have summed it up best when he said, "It was just an honor to almost get a nomination". (Michael Avila is the producer of the nationally syndicated movie show “REEL TALK” with Jeffrey Lyons and Alison Bailes. Check local listings @ www.reeltalktv.com) Related Stories: Is a 'Dark Knight Return' in Batman's Film Future? Hollywood's Got Saturday Morning Fever Sigmund and the Sea Monsters Head for the Big Screen BIFF! BAM!! BONK!!! The Legacy of the Adam West 'Batman'