It’s rare for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — or any critical body, for that matter — to take blockbuster films seriously. James Cameron’s original Avatar was successfully recognized at the 2010 ceremony with nine nominations, and won three, for Visual Effects, Cinematography, and Art Direction. The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King famously won Best Picture in 2004, and even the 2010 ceremony saw Avatar joined by the likes of Inglourious Basterds, District 9, and Pixar’s animated movie Up. But more than a decade removed from that moment, few of the big, populist movies that dominate an average year’s box-office top 10 have achieved similar recognition.
So what made 2023’s Oscars so different? While the comparatively small A24 movie Everything Everywhere All at Once took the top honors, two of the year’s highest-grossing films, Avatar: The Way of Water and Top Gun: Maverick, were unusually well represented across the Academy’s 24 categories. The Way of Water nabbed four nominations, while Maverick had six. While they only collectively nabbed two awards — Best Sound for Top Gun: Maverick, while Avatar 2 of course won Best Visual Effects — both films clearly managed to break through that tricky barrier between popular movies and acclaimed ones.
What connects these blockbusters with previous Oscar-nominated blockbusters? The creators treated their stories with the utmost sincerity. And when filmmakers take their most outsized impulses seriously, audiences do too.
The benefits of shameless absurdity
Just about every genre film is deeply silly in its own way. But the great ones embrace that absurdity, with the creators injecting a much-needed integrity. Up earns its swashbuckling adventures through South America by first grounding viewers (literally) via its iconic “Married Life” opening sequence. Much of the film’s humor centers around outsized fantasy adventures with its crotchety old protagonist Carl, but that devastating introduction underscores all the surreal elements with a deep sorrow.
Everything Everywhere All at Once followed a similar recipe in achieving its historic dominance at this year’s Oscars. The film is dense with jokes, but the filmmakers establish early on that they’re interested in the sad struggles of everyday life. Even as the gags multiply exponentially, they feel earned in a film that’s specifically intended to overwhelm viewers.
As for Return of the King and Inglourious Basterds, directors Peter Jackson and Quentin Tarantino have spent their entire careers erasing the line between high and low art, appealing to Academy tastes and genre tastes at the same time. Their biggest films walk that line by mixing fantasy elements with strong, specific, simple emotions like desperation and nostalgia, a blend the Academy tends to recognize.
James Cameron is no stranger to that delicate dance, either. His 1997 blockbuster Titanic swept the 70th Oscars in historic fashion, and its box-office gross hit an all-time high, until he broke his own record with Avatar in 2009. Cameron’s technical prowess has always earned him respect from the wide reaches of Hollywood, but it’s still his knack for sincere emotion — in Titanic’s case, with the hunger for freedom, approval, and belonging built into the central love story — that separates a film like The Way of Water from past box-office headliners.
Cameron opens his Avatar sequel by convincing viewers that Jake Sully has mastered the Na’vi language so well that it now “sounds like English.” With that simple explanation, the film’s Papyrus subtitles justifiably fade away. It’s a ridiculous proposition, but it’s presented shamelessly and without a wink or a blush. And so audiences are primed to go along with it, just as they’re primed to accept the rest of a film that features talking whales, 9-foot-tall blue aliens, and a child probably fathered by a planetary god.
Having fun with formulas
One of the more intriguing parallels between The Way of Water and Maverick is the skepticism both films faced in the lead-up to their respective release dates. In spite of Avatar’s historic success, it continued to combat accusations of cultural irrelevance throughout the 2010s and early 2020s. Likewise, a late sequel to a notoriously cheesy 1986 action-drama was a bizarre proposition for audiences and critics alike. And as the pandemic forced Maverick to delay its release by nearly three years, fatigue for the franchise was setting in before the legacy sequel ever had a chance to justify its existence.
And yet both Cameron and Maverick’s Joseph Kosinski managed to prove the doubters wrong via their unabashed commitment to formula, a term that’s grown increasingly divisive in the film community. Calling something “formulaic” sounds pejorative, but it may be more accurate to acknowledge the ways a formula can facilitate trust between a filmmaker and an audience, letting a creator rely on recognizable conventions while still conveying unique themes or ideas.
In both Avatar and its sequel, primary villain Miles Quaritch is evil. That’s truly all we need to know about the man. While so many modern films aim to pathologize their villains (like Joker) or sympathize with them (like Cruella), Quaritch’s unambiguous antagonism is what makes him such a great character. And in a world where paper-thin villains can still be so much fun to hate, cartoonishly evil men like Avatar 2’s tulkun-hunting captain, Mick Scoresby, fit right in as well. Cameron’s penchant for formula comes in handy, providing a comfortable template for hero/villain clashes that makes The Way of Water accessible, even when Cameron is packing the screen with alien elements and ideas.
Kosinski makes his embrace of formula even more apparent. Like Cameron, he paints his characters in broad strokes. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell is easily defined by his nickname, and adversaries like Rooster and Hangman are portrayed with few complications. And like its predecessor, Top Gun: Maverick doesn’t even identify an antagonist: The film’s pilots are up against forces referred to only as “the enemy.” Nothing felt particularly novel about that decision in 1986, but the 2022 follow-up leans on it even harder, until it seems as playful as Kosinski’s echoes of the original Top Gun, with the “dogfight football” game on the beach, or Miles Teller as Rooster unleashing a fiery rendition of “Great Balls of Fire” at the local watering hole. There’s legitimate reason to believe that the film’s feel-good nature obfuscates real-world concerns, but Maverick’s sincere commitment to its breezy pleasures does reinforce the audience’s relationship with the film. Viewers will often accept a formulaic film — and a cheesy one, at that — if it’s committed enough to the formula to seem self-aware and utterly unashamed.
Tom Cruise once referred to the original Top Gun as a “simple fairy tale,” regarding its overly optimistic and jingoistic portrayal of Americans at war. The same could be said of Maverick, which focuses on Cruise’s charisma and daredevil stunts instead of the complicated politics such a sequel should almost certainly have to stare in the face. There’s no telling what it’ll look like when we’re as far into the future from Maverick as Kosinski and Cruise were from the first Top Gun, but for now, their unabashed embrace of its narrative imprecision has cemented Maverick as one of this decade’s first true cultural touchstones.
Underlining, not undercutting
It’s fair to say that the past decade of genre films has been heavily defined by the Marvel Cinematic Universe and its stranglehold over the box office. In particular, the franchise’s self-reflexive, purposefully disarming sense of humor has dominated blockbuster filmmaking. Over the past 15 years, what began with Tony Stark’s clever witticisms evolved into a brand of light comic insincerity that made the MCU home to some of cinema’s biggest (and often emptiest) laughs. The MCU formula is effective, but it may not be affective. It is, after all, a formula developed with families and children in mind.
Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania made that more apparent than ever, resisting its schlocky sci-fi trappings and inviting its characters to deliver cheesy life lessons throughout its final act. Quantumania finds the same pitfalls as its predecessors, interrupting and negating its own dramatic moments out of a desperate need to crack a joke or ease the tension. What may seem like an injection of personality only saps the film’s most intriguing moments of any drama at all. When Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors) is at his most magnetic and menacing in Quantumania, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) has to insert a cheap wisecrack about how much he looks like Thor. It’s a funny bit, but it robs the moment of its intensity.
That kind of humor is largely absent from the much more sincere Avatar or Top Gun sequels, and when it surfaces, it’s implemented sparingly, only when it serves the plot or world-building. One of The Way of Water’s funnier moments comes when Jake Sully scolds his son Lo’ak for fighting the son of local Na’vi chief Tonowari. But he still pauses to ask “what the other guys look like.” “Worse,” Lo’ak responds.
It’s a funny, heartwarming moment, deriving emotion from the tension Jake feels between his desire to protect his family, and his desire to raise his children as warriors. The joke reinforces the tension instead of puncturing it. Contrast this with the sort of comedy popularized by writer-director Taika Waititi or actor-producer Ryan Reynolds, where the humor deliberately dismisses any authentic emotion earned up until that point. Cutting down on humor in blockbusters might not seem radical, but straight-faced genre films like The Way of Water have become increasingly rare in recent years, with the MCU’s trademark sense of humor inspiring action-comedies in a similar vein, like 2022’s Bullet Train and 2021’s Red Notice and Free Guy. All of them play their action as tongue-in-cheek and weightless, resting on wisecracks in the middle of dramatic moments.
The trouble with this kind of self-aware humor is that it makes everything else about a genre premise look ridiculous as a result. If even Spider-Man himself thinks his web-slinging is a bit strange, then surely every superhero’s powers are equally weird and unlikely. Comparable characters like James Bond, Jake Sully, and the Joker all follow a logic unique to their stories and their universes, but self-referential humor — the kind that seems uncomfortable with sincerity or commitment — can make it difficult for their kinds of stories to withstand scrutiny.
Back to the emotional basics
Fortunately, it isn’t just the major studio fare that suggests a gradual return to sincerity. Everything Everywhere All at Once dominated the 2023 Oscars, with 11 nominations and seven wins. For all the film’s flirtations with absurdity, writer-directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert direct the entire affair with an emotional confidence that renders even hot-dog fingers and cosmic bagels surprisingly affective.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever crossed the populist-versus-acclaim barrier this year as well. It’s still the sole Marvel subseries to receive Oscars recognition outside of the craft categories, as Angela Bassett capped a successful awards-season run with a nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Director Ryan Coogler and the rest of his team faced a seemingly insurmountable task in continuing the Black Panther story in the wake of Chadwick Boseman’s death, but the sequel is one of the MCU’s most touching and sincere creations, replacing the self-consciousness of the broader universe with a rare candor. It’s safe to say this unapologetic approach to the material simply garners respect from awards bodies in a way comparable blockbusters do not.
So what lessons should we learn from the unique bridge built between the box office and the Academy ballots in 2023? Is that bridge here to stay, or will it collapse in favor of the more standard blockbuster format we came to know over the previous decade? It can be difficult to even imagine a cinematic landscape that isn’t dominated by superhero films. And yet, the current moment certainly recalls those Oscar ceremonies between 2002 and 2004, when Peter Jackson and his Lord of the Rings trilogy earned the respect of voters via their epic portrayal of a long-beloved text.
Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part Two is due out in 2023, and so is another vehicle for Cruise and his permanent death wish: Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One. We also have legacy sequels (Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, Wonka) and auteur-driven genre films (Barbie, Rebel Moon) on the horizon, so there’s plenty of fodder for the Academy to consider.
Hollywood politicking aside, it’s clear the Academy — and the moviegoers it supposedly represents — values a clear voice and identity in a movie. It can be easy for such a voice to shine through when it belongs to an established icon like Cameron or Cruise, and there’s reason for optimism when studios enable ascending stars like Ryan Coogler or the Daniels to deliver their own unique visions. A healthy box office may still include the occasional action-comedy in the MCU mold, but the movies that take themselves seriously ultimately inspire more confidence in the future of film. Sincerity creates more laughs, more tears, more absurdities. When filmmakers present a film as if they fully believe in it, we’re all more likely to believe in it too.