BEVERLY HILLS, Calif.— It's a good thing Batman dresses in black. He could be a popular guy on Hollywood's black-tie circuit come Academy Awards season.
"The Dark Knight Rises" probably has the best chance ever for a superhero film to rise into the best-picture mix at February's Oscars. The film is the last in a celebrated trilogy that elevated comic-book movies to operatic proportion, and Hollywood likes sending finales out with a lovely door-prize (Peter Jackson's first two "Lord of the Rings" films were Oscar also-rans before the trilogy's conclusion won best picture).
It has the weight and scope — and then some — of 2008's "The Dark Knight," the "Batman Begins" sequel whose snub in the best-picture field helped prod the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to expand the category to more than five nominees.
And in the snub department, academy voters are not likely to forget that Batman boss Christopher Nolan, one of modern Hollywood's true innovators, has yet to be nominated for best director. So there could be an "oops, sorry about that" sheepishness among Oscar types working in both Nolan's and the film's favor.
Nolan doesn't feel snubbed that "The Dark Knight" was overlooked for best picture or that he missed out on a directing nomination for that one and his 2010 thriller "Inception," a best-picture nominee. He actually sees a one-of-a-kind honor in the way his films have played out over Oscar season.
"Look, the idea, the fact that people have talked about 'The Dark Knight' as being a key reason why the academy changed their rules and expanded the field is just a huge honor for the film, in a weird way," Nolan said.
The rules now allow for as many as 10 best-picture contenders. Opening next week, "The Dark Knight Rises" may just speak for itself as a work of high costume drama — albeit superhero costumes — that's worthy of show business' highest honors, no matter how many nominees there are.
The film is gorgeous, sharply written, briskly paced despite an epic running time approaching three hours. The characters have depth and pathos, and the drama feels far richer than the usual hero-saving-the-world saga. The action reflects our own hard times as a masked terrorist lays siege to the masses in a sort of perverse Occupy Gotham City movement that pits the comic-book world's 99 percenters against the rich and rapacious.
"I'm not saying this as a cast member. I'm saying this as a member of the academy. So far, it's the best film I've seen all year," said Anne Hathaway, who plays master thief Catwoman in "The Dark Knight Rises." ''He's transcended the genre now. I think he's shown that a comic-book movie can actually be epic, extraordinary cinema."
So that's one Oscar vote already from past best-actress nominee Hathaway. Round up the rest of Nolan's key cast and the film's got even more academy backers: four Oscar winners — Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Marion Cotillard and Batman himself, Christian Bale — and another longtime awards season oversight, Gary Oldman, who finally got his first nomination last season.
That's half a dozen big names pulling for "The Dark Knight Rises." Sure, it's a tiny fraction of the academy's nearly 6,000 members. Yet when that many great actors sign up for a superhero flick, it must be something special.
They and co-stars Tom Hardy and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, two of Nolan's "Inception" colleagues, deliver superb performances in a genre whose characters often act more than a little campy.
That has been the difference in Nolan's Batman films. Characters wear silly disguises, but it all feels real — so real that Heath Ledger posthumously won the supporting-actor Oscar as the Joker in "The Dark Knight," playing a madman hidden behind makeup that looked like a melted ice cream cake.
Nolan "takes it seriously and he treats the characters like human beings, not as caricatures, and he treats the world as a real place," Gordon-Levitt said. "He walks that line of delivering you a spectacle but not talking down to you."
It's not as if the academy has disrespected Nolan's films. He's been nominated himself three times, for the screenplays of "Inception" and his 2001 breakout hit "Memento," as well as best-picture as a producer on "Inception."
Nolan's films have received 21 nominations — including eight each for "Inception" and "The Dark Knight" — and won six Oscars.
"Regardless of whether 'The Dark Knight' was nominated or not, we had nothing to complain about," Bale said. "I don't think Chris would be complaining whatsoever. I think he's doing very well."
The Directors Guild of America, whose awards contenders usually are a close match for the Oscar directing field, has nominated Nolan three times, for "Memento," ''The Dark Knight" and "Inception."
Hathaway thinks it's a huge oversight that Oscar voters have yet to follow suit but that "it's probably just a matter of time" before Nolan wins his Oscar. "I hope it happens with this one," she said.
Nolan's not fretting over his Oscar prospects, though. He knows it's a different kind of film — smaller, more intimate drama — that usually dominates at the awards. He's actually quite pleased at how his movies have fared during Oscar season.
"The academy's been incredibly good to me and my films, and it would be churlish of me to complain," Nolan said. "Really, we've been honored by the academy in more kinds of different ways, and very importantly to me, Heath Ledger winning the best supporting-actor Oscar. These are things that mean a lot to me."
Still, wouldn't it mean more to win that directing Oscar himself?
"That would be terrific, but at the end of the day, they owe Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock a lot more than me, you know what I mean?" Nolan said, citing two Hollywood greats who never won the directing prize. "It's kind of like, get in line."