Superhero movies and television have dramatically increased in quantity in this early part of the 21st century. Where only the most iconic heroes used to be recognized by the general public – think Superman, Batman, Spider-Man – even non-comic book fans now can list their favorite superheroes by the dozen. While DC entertainment and its characters seem eternally well-known and loved, the change in the conversation around superheroes on screen is in no small part due to the wild success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Superheroes and their film and television exploits in particular have found their way into what feels like nearly every part of society. They routinely bring in over one billion dollars per film at the box office and inspire millions of fans. Still, the biggest award shows in the game, the Academy Awards and the Emmys, have long notoriously snubbed superheroes, or anything comic book-related. While WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier have managed to secure Marvel Studios’ first Emmy nominations, its WandaVision’s astonishing 23 nominations – and currently 2 wins – are making headlines and history. So, is Marvel Studios’ first Emmy-winning series simply an anomaly? Almost certainly not. Looking at the history of how superhero visual entertainment has fared at major award shows, it’s pretty clear that the trend going forward is more critical recognition of the genre. In honor of WandaVision, let’s look at the Emmys. It’s an incredibly shortlist of winners.
In 1978, Mariette Hartley was nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for The Incredible Hulk and actually took home the same Emmy in 1979, marking the first nomination and win for a comic book superhero franchise. The Incredible Hulk’s success remained the only Emmy recognition for a whopping 42 years until DC’s Watchmen opened the floodgates in 2020. The series won 11 Emmys out of 26 nominations including Best Limited Series, Outstanding Lead Actress, Supporting Actor, and Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series. Watchmen’s resounding success after virtually no recognition of the genre hasn’t slipped away quietly.
This year’s Emmys have recognized several comic book adaptation series including WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, The Boys, and The Umbrella Academy. WandaVision (along with The Boys) also follows Watchmen’s recognition in major above-the-line categories. Those include Outstanding Lead Actress, Actor, Limited Series, Supporting Actress, Directing, and Writing (twice) for a Limited or Anthology Series. The door for comic book superhero movies apparently blew right open for the Television Academy.
Historically, superhero films have fared slightly better as the Academy Awards, or Oscars. Still, only nine comic book superhero movies have actually secured a win—and they are not at all what you would guess. Superhero movies have been recognized, generally, in technical categories, such as Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Visual Effects, etc. In fact, Suicide Squad (2016) is an Oscar-winner for the former category, and Spider-Man 2 also took home an award in the latter. Two wins have been as Best Animated Features. In 2009, The Dark Knight became the first to win an Oscar in a major, above-line category with Heath Ledger’s posthumous award for Best Supporting Actor, and boasted 8 total nominations.
It was not until ten years later in 2019 that Black Panther, among its seven nominations, became the first comic book superhero movie to be nominated for the coveted Best Picture category. It also took home 3 awards, giving Marvel Studios its first Oscars. In 2020, though, Joker, the iconic DC character made history again with a superhero record-breaking 11 nominations, including for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, and Best Cinematography. The film nabbed only two awards though, including Best Score and Best Actor for Joaquin Phoenix’s performance.
It is clear that award shows are beginning to recognize the superhero genre. Still, it has not been a gradual increase over the decades. Instead, it arguably did not begin until the 2000s, and truly not until the late 2010s and early 2020s. As clear with this year’s Emmys, superhero film and television are finally getting the official acclaim that is arguably long overdue. The question is why, and more importantly, why so much seemingly all at once. Are superhero series and movies actually getting better or are more and more critics simply becoming fans themselves? The answer is probably both.
The superhero genre of the past was traditionally represented by flat “popcorn” flicks that simply brought comic book characters directly off the pages they came from. The goal was pure, simple entertainment with “shiny” action and larger-than-life science fiction-type stories devoid of much else. To some, the genre still carries that stigma and the assumption is that these movies and television series are nothing more than fun money-making ploys. However, as anyone who has watched enough of them can tell you, there is so much more going on lately.
The sheer amount of films and shows have created an entirely new following and system of storytelling. An easy explanation is that, with countless properties being adapted and created, each one has to fight its way to being better than others in order for itself to stay afloat. A better explanation, though, is that the world has become so accustomed to superheroes and their stories that film and television makers can now shift their focus away from the classic empty but shiny plots to showcase and deliver deeper and more meaningful stories, using the genre as a vessel to do so.
While award shows have not traditionally been kind to comic book superheroes, the change can be seen, particularly just in the past few years. If this year’s Emmys, with WandaVision’s already noteworthy success, are any indication of what is to come, these beloved stories might be poised to be at the podium in record number in the near future.