Does “The Shape of Water” Really Deserve a Best Picture Oscar Nomination?

Matthew Loffhagen
Fox Searchlight Pictures
(Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures)

The Oscar nominations have been out for a few days now, and something doesn’t quite feel right about one of them in particular.

“The Shape of Water”, the latest movie by Guillermo del Toro, is certainly a great film for fans of horror, monsters, and sex with the aforementioned horrible monsters.

But is it Oscar worthy?

Monster movies don’t typically earn nominations for Best Picture, nor indeed an additional twelve nominations including Best Director for del Toro himself. This is especially unprecedented considering that “The Shape of Water” is very obviously based on a character from a comic book.

There’s a meme going around the internet that describes “The Shape of Water” as “Abe Sapien Slash Fiction”, and it feels fairly accurate.

Abe Sapien is an amphibian character from “Hellboy”. Before making “The Shape of Water”, Guillermo del Toro directed “Hellboy 2: The Golden Army”, in which Abe Sapien, played by Doug Jones, falls in love with an elf.

Now, deprived of the “Hellboy” brand, del Toro has made a movie about a similarly amphibian character, also played by Doug Jones, having a romantic relationship with a human. It’s not hard to join up the dots here.

One has to wonder whether the long-planned but ultimately cancelled “Hellboy 3”, were it to follow the same plot, would have earned a Best Picture Oscar nomination. Here we have a film that is very obviously based on a comic book character, earning critical acclaim because the story is so compelling and interesting, when if this had been a branded comic book movie it likely would have been dismissed outright.

But, then, this is nothing new. Get Michael Keaton to reprise his role as Batman, but instead call the character Birdman, and you’ve got a Best Picture winner on your hands. Hollywood loves the comic book oeuvre, but the Academy can’t bring itself to throw anything more than a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination at anything that happens to actually bear the same name as a popular comic.

Source: Fox Searchlight Pictures

(Obviously Birdman is slightly more nuanced than simply just being a Batman knock-off, but the overall plot is essentially a meta-commentary on escaping the legacy of the Dark Knight, so it serves as a pretty perfect example of this Academy Award trend in action.)

Perhaps the real question here is not whether “The Shape of Water” deserves its nomination – this is a well-made movie that’s certainly worthy of recognition. Instead, we must ask why “The Shape of Water” is somehow more deserving of praise than an imaginary film called, say “Abe Sapien”, that is otherwise completely identical.

The Shape of Water Monster
Source: Fox Searchlight Pictures

At present, it looks an awful lot like the reasoning behind “The Shape of Water” getting an Oscar nod, is simply because this is a good comic book movie without the associated baggage.

Maybe a “Spider-Man” film could win an Oscar if it was instead called “Bug-Boy”. Maybe “Wonder Woman” could have gained more critical acclaim if the movie were instead titled “Woman Who is Wondrous”, or “BDSM Queen Wins World War I”.

Heck, it’s hard to find anyone who wouldn’t want to watch a movie called “BDSM Queen Wins World War I”.

In the meantime, it’s probably worth assuming that “The Shape of Water” has succeeded primarily because it doesn’t bear the “Hellboy” brand name. Getting kicked out of that particular franchise might be the best thing that’s ever happened to Guillermo del Toro.

That being the case, the new “Hellboy” reboot starring David Harbour probably isn’t going to get an Oscar nod, no matter how good the film ends up being.