The Marvel Cinematic Universe may have changed the film industry forever, but the film industry’s feelings toward Marvel have not changed much at all, as judged from the guffaws that occurred Tuesday evening at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Governors Awards. The event, which was created 14 years ago to hand out lifetime achievement Oscars to honorees who wouldn’t be played off the stage by an orchestra (or shown at all during the live Oscars telecast), honored legends in the business like Mel Brooks and Angela Bassett. However, the latter’s award arguably felt like an apology after Bassett famously lost the Best Supporting Actress prize for her turn in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever just this past March.
Governor Awards host John Mulaney may have then said the quiet part out loud when he took the stage in front of much of Hollywood’s elite, including presumed presumed Oscar frontrunners Christopher Nolan and Robert Downey Jr., and explained the incredulity that would occur from a Marvel acting Oscar win.
“Here’s what a great actor Angela Bassett is,” Mulaney began, “she got an Oscar nomination for a Marvel movie. That’s like getting a Pulitzer Prize for a reddit comment.”
As you can see in the recorded tweet above, Mulaney’s Marvel burn not only earned knowing howls in the Academy audience, but also from Downey and Nolan, with the former putting his head in his hands while hiding his laughter. The fact that both Nolan and Downey’s careers are forever (and intimately) entwined with the superhero genre, particularly Downey’s as the face of Marvel Studios for more than 11 years, is striking.
The pair are of course nominees this year for some of the career best work either has achieved via Nolan’s magnum opus, Oppenheimer. Yet there is an undeniably irony to both finding the prospect of a Marvel performance winning an Oscar hilarious. After all, their separate 2008 efforts—back in the summer of the first Iron Man and Nolan’s The Dark Knight—helped usher in the next 15 years where superhero movies completely dominated the pop culture and media landscapes (a phenomenon that is only now showing signs of tapering off). In fact, Nolan directed Heath Ledger to a magnificent (and sadly posthumous) Oscar win in The Dark Knight. But The Dark Knight is not a Marvel movie, and Marvel movies are not The Dark Knight.
Downey seemed to concede the point, if only in the moment, when he chuckled at comparing Marvel films to wide-eyed redditors confident in their groundbreaking, and largely anonymous social media reporting. This shouldn’t be a knock at Marvel—or redditors for that matter. The MCU has played a generation-defining role in the zeitgeist, and Downey was a key reason it worked in the first place. In fact, he still marvels at what they achieved on that first Iron Man in 2008.
“We were meant to do this thing,” Downey said of collaborating with Jon Favreau on Iron Man in a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “Also there was no real certainty that this was even going to take off. Iron Man was a second-tier hero. They [Marvel] let the lunatics run the asylum for a little while, so it was completely an indie approach to a genre movie to begin with.”
That may be, but Downey and Nolan seemed in agreement that giving the lunatics a prize would be true madness.