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Tom Cruise is still the movie industry’s best hope for survival, apparently

With Top Gun 3, WB franchises, and a spacewalk on the horizon, Cruise is still a mega-star

Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) looks particularly uncomfortable and dead-eyed wearing a suit and standing in a brightly backlit nightclub next to Alanna Mitsopolis, the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby), a blonde woman in white who’s all up in his personal space and playing with the knot on his necktie in Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One Photo: Christian Black/Paramount Pictures
Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

The combined power of Barbie and Oppenheimer renewed the movie industry with a kind of zeitgeisty excitement for big-screen entertainment that was so palpable it was... a little scary. “Barbenheimer” felt like a once-in-a-generation moment — so how would the movie studios keep delivering? In the wake of WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes that all but halted the momentum, as studio executives waffled over details and their own existential content crisis, the answer, it seems, comes from 2022 instead of 2023: Tom Cruise.

After flirting with franchise work with Universal’s Dark Universe and doing an OK job with the Jack Reacher series (though he has now been out-beefed by Alan Ritchson’s version on Prime Video), Cruise finally found his footing in modern franchise-hungry Hollywood just before the COVID-19 pandemic cratered movies in 2020. Mission: Impossible – Fallout helped Cruise’s 20-year spy franchise hit a new high in 2018, and when his long-desired revival Top Gun: Maverick finally hit theaters, the sequel, as Steven Spielberg would later exalt, saved movies. While Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One did not reach the same heights in 2023, it still cemented Cruise as a bona fide movie star in a sea of superhero wannabes. And as the Marvel mojo fades, Cruise — who famously turned down the role of Iron Man back in the 1990s — has the last laugh. Right now, everyone wants a piece of him.

On Tuesday, Warner Bros. Pictures announced it had formed a “strategic partnership” with Cruise, who would set up shop on Warner’s Los Angeles lot in order to develop original and franchise-friendly projects in which he can star. There were no movies announced as part of the pact, which in a rare move is non-exclusive and does not include any first-look stipulations. But Cruise is no stranger to WB; the star most recently worked with the studio on 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow, which has been the subject of sequel talk for years, and arguably did his best work as an actor under the banner in films like Magnolia, Eyes Wide Shut, and Interview with the Vampire. Lestat legacyquel? The Last Last Samurai? Rock of Ages: Now with More Leather? The possibilities are endless.

“We are thrilled to be working with Tom, an absolute legend in the film industry,” said Warner Bros. motion picture group co-chairs and CEOs Michael De Luca and Pam Abdy in a public joint statement. “Our vision, from day one, has been to rebuild this iconic studio to the heights of its glory days, and, in fact, when we first sat down with David Zaslav to talk about joining the Warner Bros. Discovery team, he said to us, ‘We are on a mission to bring Warner Bros. back — we have the best resources, storytelling IP, and talent in the business — and we need to bring Tom Cruise back to Warner Bros!’ Today, that becomes a reality and we are one step closer to achieving our ambition.”

Maverick (Tom Cruise) in the cockpit of a fighter jet, with another flying close by in Top Gun: Maverick Image: Paramount Pictures

WB is not the only studio gambling on what it sees as a revival of the movie star moment — and Cruise being one of the only stars left standing. On Friday, word broke that Paramount was actively in development with the actor on Top Gun 3, with Maverick writer Ehren Kruger back penning the screenplay and director Joseph Kosinski at least calling some shots as a producer. The plan, as reported by Deadline, would be to bring back the team established in Maverick, with Cruise in the cockpit and co-stars Miles Teller and Glen Powell back for banter. If it happens, I will not eat a shoe.

Both the Warner Bros. and Paramount announcements arrived with a reminder that Cruise still has a huge movie set up at a third studio, Universal Pictures. Currently untitled, the space-set thriller will be directed by Edge of Tomorrow’s Doug Liman and produced with the help of NASA, which will aide Cruise in becoming the first actor to do an actual spacewalk for a feature film. The reported price tag: $200 million.

It’s unclear what lessons the studios learned from the one-two punch of Barbie and Oppenheimer. Clearly there is an audience for movies that aren’t run-and-gun fantasies starring aging dudes who “love the rush.” Maybe a thoughtful Bratz reboot and a large-scale Leonardo da Vinci biopic will spring up in the years to come. But right now, as studios hustle to find meaning in a viewing world fragmented by streaming services, vacated by weekly superhero releases, and completely disrupted by the fluff of TikTok, Cruise still has the glow. Which translates to gambling billions on the star’s adrenaline-pumping vision of cinema.

So if the answer to theatrical entertainment is once again movie stars, will the studios also mint new ones? The coup of Top Gun 3 might be locking down Cruise for one more ride before he hits the mandatory retirement age for USAF combat fighter pilots, but to any studio execs listening: Glen Powell is right there. Powell, who is quietly carrying the Sony rom-com Anyone But You to post-holiday success and has the celebrated Richard Linklater comedy thriller Hit Man waiting in the wings for release later this year, has the chops to lead, but after his breakout in Top Gun: Maverick, rumors swirled that he might play Booster Gold in a DC movie for James Gunn. Sure, it’s a living, but looking from the outside, the only thing stopping Powell from growing into the Next Tom Cruise seems to be... a studio fascination with Tom Cruise.

Cruise is sure to deliver, pumping out thrill rides until his legs give out, but the bigger question swirling around these mega-deals: Who will be allowed to take over?

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