With rave reviews, an A+ Cinemascore grade and a jaw-dropping $160.5 million four-day domestic gross and $300 million worldwide as of yesterday, Skydance and Paramount’s Top Gun: Maverick is messing up everyone’s summer movie betting pool and making me look quite stupid. To be fair, the latter isn’t hard to do, even as I’m sure that Top Gun: Maverick would have grossed quite a bit less (even while possibly still becoming a rate-of-return success) had it opened in summer 2020 in a non-Covid world as just another seasonal franchise exploitation/80’s nostalgia tentpole. The key was that, yes, audiences really did want to see Tom Cruise *as* Pete “Maverick” Mitchell in a Top Gun sequel just as they wanted to see Harrison Ford *as* Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones Jr. In the summer of 2008 nearly a decade after Ford’s last non-IP opener (What Lies Beneath in summer 2000). What does this all mean? Well…
Tom Cruise is the new Tom Holland:
Yes, Tom Cruise has been a relative “movie star” since Risky Business in 1983, and yes it was the first Top Gun (opening a year after his first real flop, Ridley Scott’s Legend) that turned him into a pop culture icon/global superstar. However, over the last 15 years, Cruise’s biggest hits, by a mile, have been Mission: Impossible movies whereby he played an increasingly autobiographical Ethan Hunt. And save for American Made, a late-2017 action-comedy romp loosely related to the Iran Contra scandal, all his films since 2010 (James Mangold’s Cameron Diaz-starring Knight and Day) have been A) blockbuster-y action movies and B) intended to prove that Cruise was still an A-level global movie star. However, his “not a Mission: Impossible movie” ceiling since 2006 has been over/under $400 million, for movies both very good (Edge of Tomorrow with $375 million) and very bad (The Mummy with $409 million).
Top Gun: Maverick is going to sail past The Last Samurai ($456 million worldwide in 2003) to become Cruise’s second-biggest “non-Mission: Impossible” grosser (behind Steven Spielberg’s $600 million-grossing War of the Worlds) in a week. What’s different? Well, and this is why I’m kicking myself for not “calling it,” it’s a perfect example of new movie stardom. Movie stars still matter, but they matter most (in most cases) when the actor is playing a marquee character who approximates the actor’s onscreen or offscreen persona. As I wrote back in February, Tom Holland isn’t a “star” in a film like Cherry. But he’s a star in Uncharted while playing Nathan Drake as essentially “Peter Parker with guns.” Likewise, Venom stars Tom Hardy as a cast-to-type bonkers-bananas version of Eddie Brock, while Angelina Jolie playing Maleficent fits like a glove. The first Top Gun essentially created the Tom Cruise onscreen persona.
Top Gun: Maverick represents Tom Cruise applying himself to the newfangled movie stardom. For almost every actor save for Leonardo DiCaprio and Sandra Bullock, although even their non-IP hits tend to feature those actors playing riffs on their respective personas (ditto Denzel Washington playing “Righteous Revenger Man” in Men on Fire or The Equalizer), stardom mostly only works as a butts-in-seats concept when well-liked actors are playing marquee characters within popular IP whereby those characters are something of a riff on that actor’s persona. Pete “Mitchell” Maverick is a past-his-prime, stuck-in-the-past analog hero in a digital world, one who refuses to give up the sword because he knows that those below him may not be able to win the battle. At its best, the film is a metaphor for Cruise’s current stardom and the film’s existence as an IMAX-worthy spectacle in a world of streaming shows and prestige television.
Older audiences will still flock to theaters for event movies.
Yes, it’s terrific news that Top Gun: Maverick earned $160.5 million domestic with demos that were 55% over-35, playing (for what it’s worth) 66% Caucasian and 57% male. And hell, I’ve argued before that Spider-Man: No Way Home and The Batman don’t get to, respectively, $804 million and $370 million without some help from us “olds.” But it’s telling that the same geezers who flocked to Top Gun: Maverick this weekend did not show up for the slew of year-end “movies for grown-ups” that crashed and burned in late 2021/early 2022. They didn’t show up for The Last Duel, Last Night in Soho, West Side Story, King Richard, Death on the Nile and/or Downton Abbey: A New Era (doing relatively fine but nowhere near the first film’s $196 million global cume). Even House of Gucci was only a relative success, earning $53 million domestic and $155 million worldwide on a $75 million budget.
As I’ve been whining about since late 2016, we have a new normal where the films that would usually be aimed at kids (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Aladdin, Spider-Man: No Way Home, etc.) are so overwhelmingly four-quadrant that they account for what the kids see and what those older folks who only go to the movies maybe once a month choose to check out. When Captain America: Civil War is “superheroes for the kids, Tom Clancy-style intrigue for the adults,” actual grown-up movies like Money Monster and The Nice Guys don’t have a prayer. We claim to want movies like Widows, Overlord and A Simple Favor but we overwhelmingly spend our money at Venom, The Grinch and Halloween. That’s fine for theaters, as a large popcorn for The Lion King costs the same as one for Booksmart, but it‘s not great for studios that want to make more “movie-movies.”
Top Gun: Maverick is arguably a shrewd mix of old-school moviemaking (a story about real-world Americans and their life-sized conflicts, practical effects, star power, a narrative involving older stars and their third-act journeys, a dedication to clean, comprehensible and character-over-plot storytelling, etc.) and newfangled blockbusters (IP, marquee characters, generational nostalgia, legacy sequel framing, etc.) that is uniquely pitched at older audiences. Granted, I found some of its storytelling to be a bit Rise of Skywalker, but A) I’m obviously in the minority and B) the film works as a metaphor for Hollywood’s inability to give us a new generation of worthwhile “new Tom Cruise” actors thus requiring the actual Tom Cruise to still save the day. All of this said if movies like Top Gun: Maverick can’t pack them in, then more conventional grown-up movies won’t have a theater to play in at all. Maverick turned death into a chance to survive.
Hollywood doesn’t need China anymore.
Paramount and Skydance’s Top Gun: Maverick was likely greenlit partially based on the assumption, one that made sense in 2017 and 2018, that it would perform quite well in China and that would offset at least some potential domestic or related overseas disinterest. We got word last week that Tencent pulled their investment allegedly over assumptions that the “America, fuck yeah!” movie wouldn’t pass muster with Chinese censors. That’s ironic since China’s biggest-grossing movies in 2021 and 2022 are the two-part Battle of Lake Changjin ($911 million and $611 million respectively) which are explicit “China kicks America’s ass in the Korean War” action melodramas. No matter, the Covid-era outlook for Hollywood movies performing in China has been almost consistently bleak, with the MCU movies not getting admission (for silly reasons that imply the Chinese government just doesn’t want them there) and the likes of The Batman and Uncharted pulling under-$25 million totals.
While Hollywood is hopeful that Jurassic World: Dominion can approximate the $225-$270 million grosses of the last two Jurassic World movies, it’s not a do or die proposition. Jurassic World earned 13.5% of its $1.671 billion total in China and Fallen Kingdom earned 20% of its $1.308 billion cume there. Save for a few key franchises (The Fast Saga, the MonsterVerse, maybe/possibly Avatar), none of the upcoming franchise titles depend on China, which is good because none can rely on it. Venom earned $269 million in China toward an $854 million cume, while Venom: Let There Be Carnage didn’t play in China and still earned $505 million on a $110 million budget. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness didn’t need China to soar past $900 million worldwide, and Top Gun: Maverick didn’t need China to open above $300 million. Ditto Spider-Man: No Way Home and Joker.
China has mostly been, save for flukes like xXx: The Return of Xander Cage and Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, a way for Hollywood studios to artificially inflate (since they only get 25% of the grosses) the global box office totals of already successful films. Avengers: Age of Ultron didn’t need its $300 million Chinese gross to top $1 billion, Transformers: Age of Extinction didn’t need its $300 million gross to pass $850 million and Avatar didn’t need its then-record $205 million Chinese total to become the biggest global grosser ever. The blowout success of Top Gun: Maverick, a film that was once tailor-made for a Chinese boost, proves hopefully once and for all that Hollywood need not tailor their blockbusters to China any more than China should tailor their tentpoles for us. The bad news is that they’ll need a new excuse for why they aren’t more LGBTQIA-friendly. I’m sure they’ll think of one.