Tom Cruise proves Superstar can be regained, the Khans take notes

Except for the pandemic-hit 2020, every year for the past decade, a superhero or franchise film has become the highest-grossing film of the year. It is a list of Marvel and Star Wars films and Frozen ($1.2 billion in 2013). Hooray for Disney I guess. But 2022 is set to change the status quo. Several major franchise films were released that year. First came Robert Pattinson and his eyeliner in The Batman. Then Benedict Cumberbatch took fans on a strange ride through the multiverse, and finally Chris Pratt brought the OG gang back for a Jurassic reunion. But all of those movies were beaten by Tom Cruise in an F-14 Tomcat. No, that’s not a typo and that’s not 1986. But it did, and Top Gun: Maverick surpassed $1 billion at the box office. The triumph proved two things – you don’t always need a CGI-laden blockbuster to dominate the box office, and 20th-century superstars still have them. Also read: Tom Cruise reaffirms his superstar status with Top Gun Maverick

Tom Cruise turns 60 on Sunday. This is a big moment. The biggest Hollywood star of the last 30 years is entering the senior phase. It seems like he’s been there forever. Some of his earliest hits were released almost 40 years ago and he dominated the box office for over a decade. But for the last decade and a half, it seemed like Tom wasn’t exactly cruising around the ticket office. Aside from the biennial Mission Impossible, his other films have either been massive flops (Rock of Ages, The Mummy) or just been forgotten (Oblivion, Lions for Lambs). As the Marvel Cinematic Universe and other franchise giants progressed, it seemed like Tom was trying to hold on to a long-gone past.

Some film analysts theorized a few years ago that there were no more superstars in Hollywood, only superheroes. And there might have been some credit for it. Robert Downey Jr. was the most profitable star of this era, but that was largely due to the films in which he is Iron Man. As Sherlock Holmes or Dr. Dolittle he didn’t make the tills ring. The same is true of almost every other “superhero” actor, from Chris Hemsworth to Henry Cavill to Ryan Reynolds to Gal Gadot. The one exception to this rule was Dwayne Johnson, who managed to deliver blockbusters by following the Schwarzenegger-Salman formula – by simply being himself on screen, year after year.

In the '90s and 2000s, Tom Cruise possessed a Midas touch at the box office and delivered some cult hits.
In the ’90s and 2000s, Tom Cruise possessed a Midas touch at the box office and delivered some cult hits.

However, it wasn’t like the ’90s and 2000s. Tom Cruise, Will Smith, Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp have all managed to be at the top of their game for some time, with Tom being longer than others. And they did this by making various films over the years, many of which were franchised while others were not. But her goofy superstardom meant all of these films were highly anticipated — even historical ones like Valkyrie. Tom had to cling to the past to bring it back. Top Gun: Maverick is part nostalgia, part adrenaline. It takes the best aspects of a cult classic and wraps them in a modern setting. Above all, it’s a damn good movie, tailor-made for its 59-year-old star. The year is young and a Thor or Avatar could dethrone Maverick by 2023. But so far, the fighter pilot has singlehandedly defeated several formidable superheroes.

The rise and fall of Tom’s superstar has parallels with the three khans of Bollywood, or at least two of them. Aamir has been an almost reclusive, low-key superstar doing his own thing for 20 years. But Salman Khan and Shah Rukh both lost their box office mojo at different times. Together they dominated the box office for over 20 years. But in recent years, they can hardly set foot properly. Tiger 3 and Pathaan could still prove to be the resurgence they’re looking for. But if they turn out to be Zero, it might just be the Antim chance for them to get it right.

While dominating the box office for two decades, Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan no longer promise the same certainty of a hit as they once did.
While dominating the box office for two decades, Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan no longer promise the same certainty of a hit as they once did.

So what lessons can they learn from Tom Cruise in reclaiming their superstar status? For starters, they have to play their age. Maverick worked because Tom Cruise played a man in his late 50s, not a go-getter in his 30s or 40s. Leave those roles to the Ranveers, Shahids and Hrithiks of the industry. Whenever a Bollywood superstar has stepped into his second innings after a slump, he has done so by playing characters his own age, be it Dilip Kumar in Vidhaata or Karma or Amitabh Bachchan in Major Saab or Mohabbatein. And it would also help if they aren’t heroines 20 years their junior. Maverick had 51-year-old Jennifer Connelly, while Karma had paired 50-year-old Nutan with contrasting actors in their mid-to-late 50s. That’s something audiences can accept, but not when the romantic pairing starts spreading Hugh Hefner-Kimberley Conrad vibes. Also read: Shah Rukh Khan is Bollywood’s last superstar, here’s why

In all likelihood, Tom Cruise will continue to have blockbusters for the next two years with the two-part Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol releasing in 2023-24. In addition, the actor must find ways to keep the momentum going. But it seems that after several mistakes he found the right path. There is no reason Shah Rukh Khan and Salman could not do the same. The two are intelligent actors who know what it takes to not only engage, but to delight audiences. Now all they have to do is keep up with the times and accept their aging body. And for that, you need look no further than Tom Cruise.


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