In a recent interview with Tom Segura on his podcast Two Bears, One Cave, filmmaker, author, and famed human movie-encyclopaedia Quentin Tarantino claimed that the days of the film star were long gone. Taking aim at the franchise-led studio system, he said:
“Part of the Marvel-isation of Hollywood is you have all these actors who have become famous playing these characters, but they’re not movie stars, right? Captain America is the star. Thor is the star. The franchise becomes a star. Back in 2005, if an actor stars in a movie that does as good as the Marvel movies do, then that guy’s an absolute star. It means people dig him or her and they like them and want to see them in stuff. That’s not the case now, we want to see that guy [keep] playing Wolverine or whatever.”
The quote sent shockwaves through the niche corner of the internet dedicated to film, taking a katana to the thin fabric holding together the fandoms and the cinephiles. Of course, Tarantino has a point, and he isn’t the first person to make it either, with MCU actor Anthony Mackie himself saying as much in an interview with Red Carpet News way back in 2017. But, if Tarantino is correct and the movie star is a relic of the past, then it only seems fitting that the actor famous for doing the impossible would be the one holding the reins of Hollywood stardom steady as it dangles over the cliff-edge. If there’s anyone from the old guard poised to save movies from the grips of the superhero blockbuster, it’s him: Tom Cruise—the last action movie star. The ball has been rolling for quite some time now, with the latest entries in the Mission:Impossible franchise being consistently heralded as the comeback of the golden age action movie. Though, it wasn’t until the release of Top Gun sequel Maverick last year that Cruise made his most unassailable case for Hollywood immortality.
The numbers: Top Gun: Maverick was the second highest grossing blockbuster of 2022. Higher than Jurassic World: Dominion, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Black Adam, and higher, even, than Disney’s prized IP offering of the year, Doctor Strange: In the Multiverse of Madness. The sequel to the film that launched Cruise into pop culture stratosphere grossed an astounding $1.489 billion dollars worldwide, nipping at the heels of James Cameron’s colossal Avatar: The Way of Water, which, at the time of writing, has made $1.731 billion. To put things into further perspective, this is the first time since 2014 that a Disney movie hasn’t claimed the iron throne at the top of the worldwide box office (barring 2020, in which Japanese animated movie Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba took the spot). In a market dominated by the House of Mouse, with franchises that span up to thirty films, eight TV shows, and counting, this is more telling than you might think.
So what makes Cruise Hollywood’s last movie star? In many ways, he stands for the antithesis of what popcorn movies have become. As an actor, his performances embrace the value of each character while keeping sight of his charm as a man of the industry (a cocktail of charisma, mystique, and a healthy dose of intensity). On the screen, while a film like Spider-Man: No Way Home looks as flat as a Saturday Night Live skit, marred by green screen and rushed CGI, Cruise’s work reflects a love for old-school Hollywood stunt-work and well-crafted action set pieces that made those 90s and 2000s era blockbusters such a thrill to watch. In a promo clip for the upcoming Mission:Impossible — Dead Reckoning, Cruise addresses the audience, standing atop a plane flying high over a desert landscape. A similar promo shows Cruise mid free-fall, thanking those who made Maverick one of the biggest movies of 2022 before expertly barrel rolling into the distance, signing off with a tagline popularised by the late great critic Roger Ebert: “See you at the movies.”
That simple sign-off, and his obsession with making a blockbuster that resonates as much as it stimulates, is a signal that over three decades after his first box-office success, Tom Cruise still understands exactly what big-budget filmmaking is all about: authentic spectacle, irresistible charisma, and a giant screen with his face all over it. It’s that strict accordance to a bar that Cruise has set for himself and his movies that has resulted in him becoming a leader of sorts on every project he undertakes, whether under the direction of a Christopher McQuarrie or Joseph Kosinski. In Maverick, Cruise plays a mentor for a fresh squadron of Top Gun recruits, including new Hollywood blood Miles Teller, Glen Powell and Jay Ellis, and it’s no coincidence that, during the press tour, the three actors discuss Cruise with the reverence one might reserve for a messiah, each anecdote adding new flesh to his legend.
His enduring star power brings forward an encouraging thought that maybe the next few years will see the rise of the movie star once again, and that maybe they never left. Are there those whose glamour has diminished since joining the superhero club? Scarlett Johansson? Samuel L. Jackson? Great actors all the same, but the glow has, perhaps, dwindled ever so slightly. Still, there are as many striving to keep the glamour alive. For that, look to Leo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts and George Clooney, Tom Hanks, Jessica Chastain, Viola Davis. The 2023 awards season alone boasts the kind of talent that brings the same value that Cruise continues to stand for. The likes of Daniel Kaluuya, Timothée Chalamet, Robert Pattinson, and Margot Robbie, who flit effortlessly between blockbuster and auteur-led features (let’s not forget that Robbie is starring in both Babylon and Barbie in less than a year-stretch), as well as Cate Blanchett and Michelle Yeoh, seasoned movie-stars taking their careers to new heights. For all the doom-and-gloom talk about the state of Hollywood, we sometimes forget that the pendulum is designed to balance itself. In that regard, maybe movies aren’t in such bad shape after all.