Tom Cruise‘s high-flying sequel Top Gun: Maverick soared past industry expectations at the box office this past weekend, taking in more than $160 million over the four-day holiday weekend. Though Cruise has been around since the early ’80s, it was the first $100 million opening of his career. Not bad for a sequel to a 36-year-old movie led by a nearly 60-year-old action hero.
The success of Top Gun: Maverick has begged the question of whether Tom Cruise is the biggest movie star in the world. I would say he absolutely is, for countless reasons, but this isn’t about me. Instead, I decided to ask some of Hollywood’s top reporters and critics for their take on the pecking order in Hollywood.
The specific question I posed to the experts was, “Is Tom Cruise the world’s biggest movie star? Why or why not, and if not, then who is?” Asked for further clarification, respondents were instructed to interpret “biggest” and “movie star” however they saw fit.
While Leonardo DiCaprio, Will Smith, and Dwayne Johnson frequently came up in conversation, one younger female respondent who asked not to be identified argued that Brad Pitt is, in fact, a bigger movie star than Tom Cruise — though I sensed a different attitude towards Cruise from her generation. Personally, I think of Pitt as a character actor in the body of a leading man, while Cruise is a pure, uncut Movie Star in my book, but I digress.
There’s another way in which Cruise separates himself from the pack, which THR’s Scott Feinberg speaks to in his response below, and those are the responsibilities that come with being a movie star these days. It’s not enough to just deliver onscreen, you have to play the game offscreen as well, and no one handles a global press tour quite like Cruise, as evidenced by his recent push for Maverick.
I’ll let the experts take it from here, and we’ll gladly update this piece as more responses trickle in.
I think I do [believe Cruise is the biggest star]. The reality is that even if this is his biggest opening, he has consistently opened movies for longer than anybody else going right now. There are other people who have had stretches, and you could find amazing runs from Harrison Ford or Leonardo DiCaprio or Brad Pitt, so maybe Cruise isn’t consistently doing $150 million opening weeks, but he’s consistently been solid, and at this point, that’s all that most studios would hope for. And the fact that’s that he has a seventh Mission: Impossible movie coming on the heels of Top Gun has to be pretty exciting for the studio behind that. If I were looking for the safest bet of success at the moment, I can’t think of anyone I’d feel more comfortable betting on.
Additionally, a lot of people are reluctant to do the old kind of hitting-the-ground publicity that for years was required to open a movie, but he obviously gets it because he’ll happily go around the world to sell a movie, and he is the greatest asset a marketing and publicity team could have because you don’t have to pull teeth to get him to do things. Sure, he’s somewhat selective because there are topics he doesn’t want to discuss, but that hasn’t hurt the performance of Maverick.
Justin Kroll, Deadline
Even when he does a franchise, the studios only say ‘yes’ because of Cruise, not because they are based on properties with built-in fanbases. On top of that, no star is more involved in producing the films he is filming — not Leo, Denzel [Washington], Robert Downey Jr., or [Matt] Damon. He’s a true unicorn, [the kind of] talent we may never see again once he’s finally filmed his last movie.”
“So for Tom… is he the last movie star? My gut answer is yes. But it’s not just because he’s that rare actor/actress who can still single-handedly motivate people to get off their couches and go to a movie theater. Think about it: You see him onscreen and immediately feel like you’re hanging with the coolest guy in the room. It helps that he almost never 100 percent disappears into his roles; we still get that Tom Cruise smile and stare no matter who he’s playing. And the fact that he still looks like 1980s-era Tom Cruise only adds to the luster.
But what’s really fascinating about Tom Cruise is that he still has the movie star aura. He walks in a room and the molecules in it change. He’s forever in total control of his brand and his image — to the point where his slips (yelling at M:I crew, snapping at Matt Lauer) are major news. I could literally read a book about this guy and have no clue who he really is. He doesn’t do print interviews anymore and doesn’t host SNL. Instead, he casually sky-dives with James Corden dressed like he’s going to a dinner at the Sunset Marquis
Who comes close? Well, Will Smith couldn’t open King Richard and in recent years became a font of TMI. That’s before the Slap. Denzel and Meryl [Streep] are our top actors but who saw Tragedy of Macbeth? [George] Clooney is an A-plus celebrity but still beloved from being on TV. Leonardo DiCaprio is close, very close. But he doesn’t quite have the right personality to pull it off — there’s something a little inaccessible about him. I’d say Sandra Bullock is right up there too. Lost City wasn’t even that great and she turned it into a watchable hit.”
Tom Cruise is one of the few performers today who generally thinks of the audience first. Maybe even to his own detriment. But you can tell with everything he does, in all of his films, there is a different kind of commitment he makes to the audience. For that reason and that reason alone, I believe that he holds the title of greatest movie star living right now.”
Simon Thompson, Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic and Forbes contributor
For some reason, when Thomas Cruise Mapother IV does it, whether that’s fighting for justice in a courtroom, making cocktails, jumping off a roof, flying a fighter jet, or even singing “I Want To Know What Love Is” shirtless while wearing leather pants, we’re like, ‘Yup. I buy that.’ He’s relatable even when what he’s doing on screen is so far removed from our reality that it’s insane. There is a grounded matinee idol musk to Cruise’s presence on screen that seems to transcend class and political divides. He’s America’s hero and the nice guy who is tough with a sensitive side, as well as the kind of wisdom that impresses but never intimidates. He’s Hollywood’s fine wine. It’s 2022, and I haven’t stopped wanting to be Tom Cruise since 1983. I don’t see that changing any time soon.”
Isaac Feldberg, RogerEbert.com/Letterboxd Journal
To hear it from Cruise himself, as we did during leaked audio of the dressing down he gave M:I7 crew members who were flouting COVID-19 safety regulations: “That’s what I sleep with every night — the future of this fucking industry!” Cruise certainly has the industry convinced on this front, as recent reports of his creative and budgetary control over of two upcoming Mission: Impossible sequels and his greenlight authority on Top Gun: Maverick make abundantly clear. No other actor in Hollywood is petitioning a studio to add a submarine to their film after said film is said to have wrapped, then actually getting it.
Ditto for Cruise’s power as a producer, his steadfast aversion to shrinking theatrical windows for any of his projects, and his continued allegiance to, especially in the case of his flagship franchise, adding more ambitious stunts and exotic locations with every entry. Why wouldn’t he? Cruise makes a grand spectacle of carrying every film on his back, so it’s never in question who calls the shots or who, rather than what, makes the movies cinematic. He doesn’t do television. Don’t you dare ask him about streaming. Everything Cruise does is about maintaining his star power in the face of any and all obstacles, from a diminished global box office and studio maneuvering to his own mortality. His legacy decades since secured, Cruise’s latest impossible mission appears to be nothing less than saving the movies themselves.
Tom Cruise is not only the biggest movie star working today, he’s the last movie star working today. There are plenty of actors who people recognize, and the right combination of actor and role can still be explosive. But “Tom Holland as Spider-Man” is a very different thing than “Tom Holland as anything except Spider-Man,” and to some degree, that’s by design. Studios would rather own the biggest part of the equation. Tom Cruise doesn’t need your IP, though. Tom Cruise is the IP. People buy a ticket to see Tom Cruise, and they do that because Tom Cruise has figured out how to be the most Tom Cruise that any Tom Cruise could ever hope to be, and every time out, he does his very best to turn the Tom Cruise up just a little bit more.
When he was younger, Cruise built his career by trusting himself and his image to the very best directors he could find, slowly refining a certain kind of alpha masculine ideal. What makes his late-era stardom more remarkable is how he only transitioned into action movies once he was in his 40s, and he has pushed himself harder than arguably any action star of any age in the last few decades. When you see a Tom Cruise film and you see an insane stunt, part of the kick is knowing that’s really him and that he’s entering his fourth decade of being an icon.
If anything, the supersized opening weekend of Top Gun: Maverick proved that Tom Cruise is still the biggest movie star in the world. And more than that, it exemplified why he is the biggest movie star in the world – namely that there is nobody on earth more finely attuned to the needs and desires of the audience and nobody as willing to give himself, body and soul, to make those needs and desires come true.
Think about it – a sequel to Top Gun, released 36 years after the original and after much thought and debate has been applied to the movie’s questionable politics, is the very definition of “pushing your luck.” But he and his more-than-game collaborators Joseph Kosinski, Christopher McQuarrie and editor Eddie Hamilton, created a next-level spectacle that both thrilled audiences and moved them greatly. (How many sniffles did you hear getting choked back by very manly men in the audience?)
He’s willing to go to any length — hang off the side of an airplane, dangling from the tallest building in the world, fly a helicopter down a treacherous ravine and, now, jump in the back of a fighter jet — to make sure that his commitment to the material isn’t just felt by his collaborators, but by everybody who shows up and buys a ticket. That’s Tom’s ultimate gift — and the thing that sets him apart from other modern movie stars — to zero in on an audience’s interest and expectation and then blow both out of the water.
There’s a story about Cruise going to the premiere of Mission: Impossible – Fallout (a movie that, we must remember, is a modern blockbuster masterpiece) and turning to his collaborator McQuarrie and saying, “I think we can do better next time.” It’s that tireless pursuit of perfect that makes him so much fun to watch after all these years and makes his name, while all other marquee talent has dimmed and faded, as bright as ever.
And if Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning, Part One trailer (now playing in front of Top Gun: Maverick) is any indication, he’s followed through on the commitment he made at the Mission: Impossible – Fallout premiere. Incredible.
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