This year, a science fiction/fantasy film was awarded best picture for the first time since “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.” “The Shape of Water” won the grand prize because it used fantasy/sci-fi to examine deeper themes, such as race and bigotry, through a magical-realistic lens. However, “The Shape of Water” is not alone in this endeavor. Science fiction and fantasy genre films have taken an interesting turn in the last few years: a turn toward the real.
Take Marvel, for instance. In the past, Marvel’s movies have been silly, light and somewhat simplistic. However, recent Marvel films have gone into deeper themes and moral ambiguities on par with those portrayed in Oscar-nominated films. Whether it’s “Black Panther” confronting issues of race and culture or “Avengers: Infinity War” exploring an idealistic, conflicted villain, or even “Thor: Ragnarok” exploring the darker side of characters previously thought to be heroic, Marvel movies have gone places few people expected. In fact, it seems that superhero movies that take a progressive social and political stance tend to garner great success from it.
Take the record-breaking “Black Panther,” which owed its success not only to the African-American hero but to the way it portrays racial conflicts in a fictional nation. For another example, take D.C.’s “Wonder Woman,” which stars a female superhero advocating for peace in a time when few took that stance. It seems that having progressive heroes and deeper, more political plots is a successful business model, so we may see more of these in the future.
Of course, this trend expands beyond the realm of comic book movies. Look at the critical and commercial success of horror movie “Get Out.” The horror genre has a stigma for being simple and unintelligent, but “Get Out” subverted this by creating a horror masterpiece that combines the supernatural with the very real horrors of racism and the form it takes in modern day. The movie was not only praised by critics and nominated for many awards, it was a box-office success becoming one of the most commercially successful films of the year. Usually, “crowd-pleaser” movies remain separate from critically acclaimed art films, but this year as shown many subversions of this.
Movies such as “Get Out” and “Black Panther” are accessible, relatable and entertaining to the masses while still providing sharp social commentary. These films can act as a bridge between general audiences and deep, political discussions of modern issues. Deep, poignant sci-fi/fantasy films may be key to getting political and social discussions into the mainstream of pop culture, and by extension, daily conversations. More intelligent pop culture could ultimately lead to more intelligent society.
Ethan, 15, is a self-identified nerd and a VOX Media Café reporter this summer.