The real reason Oscar voters hate The Dark Knight

In the wake of the recent Oscar nominations, the hand-wringing has begun over The Dark Knight, which was shut out of most major categories (with the notable exception of Heath Ledger's posthumous supporting-actor nod).

Was The Dark Knight robbed?

The Dark Knight was not entirely snubbed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: It received eight Oscar nominations, most in technical categories, including cinematography and visual effects. (Although we recall that even 2007's critically reviled Norbit was nominated for an Oscar for best makeup.)

But contrary to high expectations, The Dark Knight got no major nominations: none for best picture, no nod for best director for Christopher Nolan, and no nod for its screenplay, by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan, from a story by David Goyer.

This despite a best-picture nod from the Producers Guild of America—considered a reliable predictor for best-picture nominees—and despite the movie's mammoth box office and almost universal critical acclaim. Of the 263 reviews posted on Rotten Tomatoes, only 16 are negative, qualifying the film as 94 percent fresh, and the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today and the Los Angeles Times are among the publications that have printed raves about the movie.

Which brings us back to the question: Why was The Dark Knight snubbed in major categories?

It's easy to chalk such decision-making up to critical elitism or to fall back on the familiar complaint that science fiction and fantasy films are almost always overlooked when the time comes to hand out the hardware.

But that's not really true. We've seen in recent years that film groups have become more willing to embrace fantastical adventures. The reasons are easy to see: More "serious" filmmakers are tackling this sort of material, and they're making better movies out of it. Bryan Singer's X-Men and Sam Raimi's Spider-Man demonstrated that comic-book movies could be serious and meaningful.

The academy has also demonstrated its increasing willingness to give its highest honor to films that were once considered outre: Peter Jackson won best director, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King took home the prize for best picture. Even the academy couldn't ignore the scale of Jackson's vision and the magnitude of his accomplishment by the time the final film in his epic trilogy was released.

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The greatest evidence of this shift is this year's slew of nominations for the fantasy drama The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which not only earned a shot at best picture but also collected a total of 13 nominations, the most of any film nominated in 2008.

There remains one likely reason that the academy didn't nominate The Dark Knight for major Oscars. A movie about a guy dressed up like a bat gives members the heebie-jeebies. I mean, it's one thing to single out a performance as brilliant as Heath Ledger's without celebrating it as a "Batman" role. But maybe the academy just feels it would be going too far to give its highest award to a movie about Batman, no matter how brilliant Nolan's movie.

After all, we all have our prejudices and are reluctant to let go of them, whether they involve Eddie Murphy fat-suit movies, Carrot Top, Jerry Lewis or angry guys in batsuits. There's a lot of residual distaste for the Caped Crusader left over from Joel Schumacher's Batman movies, and many academy members are probably old enough to recall Adam West's campy 1960s TV series. Give a best-picture Oscar to the latest installment in that franchise? Unlikely.

Of course, it's possible there are other reasons. The academy tends to favor certain kinds of "prestige" movies, feel-good movies, movies with certain actors (Meryl Streep), movies promoted heavily by certain producers (hello, The Reader's Harvey Weinstein), movies by certain directors (Clint Eastwood, though even his Gran Torino got snubbed this year). There's hardly room for the out-of-the-box nomination The Dark Knight represents.

Or maybe The Dark Knight's own success has led to a backlash. The Dark Knight has reached the level of "cultural phenomenon," which often equals "overrated" among some critics. Popularity gives critics an excuse to dismiss a movie: It's already earned its (mainly financial) reward.

There is this consolation: The fact that The Dark Knight was snubbed for major Oscar nominations puts it in good company. Other benchmark science fiction or fantasy films not nominated for best picture include 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, Blade Runner, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, The Matrix and Spider-Man 2. All of these are considered to be among the best movies of any genre in the respective years in which they were released.

Like these beloved films, The Dark Knight can look forward to ultimate vindication in the form of a cinematic legacy that will far outlast the momentary glory of Oscar night, no matter how many statuettes actually end up on its makers' mantels.

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