Popcorn Epics' Battle for Top Prize as Elusive as Holy Grail
Chagollan, Steve, Variety
In a year when Oscar has anointed as its host Seth MacFarland, creator of TV's ribald "Family Guy" and the blockbuster R-rated comedy "Ted," it's fair to say the Academy seeks to boost ratings for the telecast by appealing to a broader and younger demographic.
That broader reach was also widely perceived to have been behind the Academy's decision in 2009 (since revised) to expand the best picture category from five to 10 nominations, allowing a film like "Avatar," the mother of all blockbusters, to further prove fantasy and superhero epics, such as "Star Wars" and "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, could aspire to high art while breaking new ground. Clearly the outcry over Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" not making Oscar's final cut the year before was not lost on the Academy's ruling body. Not only had Nolan's second installment of the Batman trilogy earned some of the year's best reviews, but it also challenged "Titanic" as the highest grossing film of all time.
This year, "The Dark Knight Rises" managed to surpass its predecessor's $1 billion-plus worldwide take, with some critics, such as Time's Richard Corliss, declaring it "a film of grand ambitions and epic achievement" while declaring Nolan "a dead-serious artist with a worldview many shades darker than the knight of the title."
Others disagreed. "Caped or uncaped, the guy is a bore," opined the New Yorker's Anthony Lane about Bruce Wayne and his alter ego. He went on to describe "The Dark Knight Rises" as "murky, interminable, confused, and dropsical with self-importance."
Such is the nature of a business where art and commerce make uneasy allies. In the immortal words of William Goldman, "nobody knows anything" and yet everybody has an opinion. But "The Dark Knight Rises" and the two films leading up to it can't be taken for granted as ambitious statements about the motiveless malignity of our times, to borrow a phrase by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Sam Mendes, whose take on the 007 franchise, "Skyfall," dares to examine James Bond's motivation, told the Playlist earlier this year that 2008's "The Dark Knight" was "a game changer" that influenced his approach to rebooting James Bond in a way the Academy might take notice.
"What Nolan proved was that you can make a huge movie that is thrilling and entertaining and has a lot to say about the world we live in, even if, in the case with The Dark Knight,' it's not even set in our world," Mendes said. "That did help give me the confidence to take this movie in directions that, without The Dark Knight,' might not have been possible. …