Is Tom Cruise the Biggest Movie Star in the World? We Asked the Experts

”What I always say about Tom Cruise is that he’s a man playing God who might believe it’s the other way around,” according to one journalist

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 DiCaprioWill 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.

Owen Gleibergman, Variety
“In terms of legend, presence, talent, superfan excitement, and sheer global karmic celebrity pow, I’m not sure if I’d say that Tom Cruise is a bigger movie star than Brad Pitt. But Pitt, right now, is the only one who can match him. And Cruise has emerged as our most complete movie star. He’s the only one left who fulfills every definition, stretching back to the days of the studio system, of what a movie star is — an actor whose very presence transforms a movie into an event. Cruise, obviously, has had his ups and downs, but he has worked tirelessly for 40 years to make himself into the living embodiment of that larger-than-life old-school Hollywood force. As the extraordinary success of Top Gun: Maverick confirms, he has more or less succeeded.”

Scott Feinberg, The Hollywood Reporter

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

“As of right now, I still lean Leo [DiCaprio], who has never needed franchises to still put asses in seats and has taste as good as any superstar when it comes to material. Also if we are to judge Cruise today, his most recent non-sequel was American Made, which disappointed at the box office, so it’s hard to say that whatever he does never misses.
That said, a case can be made that the [idea of the] movie star only [still] exists because of Cruise, because stars were judged differently prior to his entrance into the biz and never judged the same after he became one. He is the Tom Brady of movie stars, not just because of his success, but the longevity of his career, as he has found ways to adapt to each change in the industry while also not giving in to what others have had to do.

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.”

Umberto Gonzalez, TheWrap
He is the biggest movie star because [Top Gun: Maverick] made a bucket load of cash and he didn’t have to don a cape or a cowl to do so!

Mara Reinstein, Us Weekly

“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.”

Kristian Harloff, The Big Thing on YouTube
“The answer to this question is, ‘yes, 100 percent, Tom Cruise is the biggest movie star today.’ The definition of a movie star, in my personal opinion, has changed dramatically. There was a time and period when the movie star was defined by the name alone. Meaning, if Will Smith, Sandra Bullock, or Tom Cruise had a film coming out, people didn’t know what the film was, they just saw it [because of who was in it]. ‘Hey, the new Jim Carrey movie is coming out, let’s go.’
That is not the case anymore. Even massive stars like Dwayne Johnson don’t sell the movie on his name alone. Look at Skyscraper, etc. There are a few directors that are doing that right now, Christopher Nolan, [Quentin] Tarantino, and Jordan Peele can get people in the theater [based] on their name alone, but the movie star, not so much. Audiences today want IP. They want franchises. Tom Cruise has navigated all of that and consistently shifted. When a movie like The Mummy doesn’t work out, he reimagines Mission: Impossible, and he is able to take what everyone loved in the 80s about Top Gun and magnify that to what the audience wants today.

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

“Tom Cruise’s secret is that even when appearing borderline super-human on screen, there’s still an air about him that makes the viewer want to be him or be with him and believe that’s possible. There’s an old-school debonair swagger and a hot everyman J Crew swarthy-ness to him that many movie stars lack. Dwayne Johnson is many things, including a mountain of a man and a brilliant business person, but few of us could carry that off or believe that what he’s doing on screen is something we could replicate. Inspire, sure, but we could never be him.

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, Journal

What I always say about Tom Cruise is that he’s a man playing God who might believe it’s the other way around — and whose awe-inspiring, increasingly athletic body of work makes a compelling case for, if not quite the honesty of that self-assessment, at least the continued power of such intrinsic self-belief. If we’re making the case for which actors left in Hollywood can still be called “movie stars” by the metrics that matter (bankability and a personal, unassailable brand), Cruise is not simply the gold standard. He’s the last man standing.

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.

Drew McWeeny, Formerly Dangerous

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.

John Rocha, Outlaw Nation
When you say the word movie star in 2022, there is a select group of actors that come to mind: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Sandra Bullock, Charlize [Theron], Robert Downey Jr., and The Rock, to name a few. But there’s only one that has been leading films for five decades and is still setting box office records, and that’s Tom Cruise, whose Top Gun: Maverick has already crossed the $500 million mark worldwide. Let that sink in for a moment. An actor who has been in our lives for the better part of three generations is still putting butts in seats in a way that none of his ’80s contemporaries were ever able to do. He has succeeded in multiple genres, struck out in a couple more, been nominated for Oscars, embarrassingly jumped on a couch, was excommunicated by a studio, fought his way back, recaptured his rightful place among the stars, and is enjoying the most successful period of his career with the impending releases of the seventh and eighth installments of his Mission: Impossible franchise.
Cruise simply endures. He adapts and overcomes. He finds a way to stay in our public consciousness through hard work, dedication, a carefully constructed public image, a respect for the moviegoing audience, and a true appreciation for his place amongst the firmament of movie stars. We sense an honesty in his desire to entertain us and we love him for it. That’s what connects us to him. We matter to him. We sense it. He has a keen eye for picking great material and when he occasionally stumbles there, we quickly brush past it and earnestly wait for his next attempt to wow us, because we know he will.
We love that million-dollar smile, that toned body, those mischievous eyes, the insane stunts he performs all on his own, and of course, his magnetic talent as an actor, but the reason he’s still the number-one movie star is the trust he has built with us over decades. We know that when the lights go out, we’re in good hands with Cruise and that he’s about to blow our socks off with every tool available in the medium of film, and we can’t wait to see it.

Drew Taylor, TheWrap/Light the Fuse podcast

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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