If Edge of Tomorrow, the new Tom Cruise sci-fi thriller, has taught us anything, it’s this: Your film could gross some $29 million in its first three days in the U.S., and some $110 million worldwide, with the film yet to open in some key overseas markets, and yet, its performance could be labelled a disappointment. In absolute numbers, perhaps the film is a disappointment.
The top film of the weekend was the other newcomer The Fault in Our Stars, which grossed some $20 million more than Edge of Tomorrow, and the latter didn’t even make it to second place, which went to Maleficent, in its second weekend. So I’m not saying that the cold-hearted box-office narrative isn’t important. For good or bad, we’re in an era where audiences have come to obsess about not just the film or its stars but also how much money it makes. But I’m saying that this is not the only narrative. There are other things to be considered as well.
The Fault in Our Stars is a tearjerker based on a book that has sold over ten million copies, and Maleficent is a reworking of Sleeping Beauty, which is not just a beloved fairy tale but a beloved Disney movie. Those things loom on the cultural landscape like family heirlooms, passed along from generation to generation.
In other words, given that Edge of Tomorrow was a fresh property (i.e. not a sequel or based on a book) competing against two films with large built-in audiences, given that its target audience may have been facing blockbuster fatigue (after the new Spider-Man movie, the new X-Men movie, the new Godzilla movie), given that the film’s marketing didn’t exactly position it as a must-see (remember that generic trailer, which seemed cobbled together from a dozen other sci-fi films?), and given that it has a star who’s not exactly hot property right now (i.e. he’s no Leonardo DiCaprio), I’d say the film hasn’t done too badly.
This may not be much consolation to the studio that made the film, and they may only be interested in the box-office narrative – as spun by a pure “trade paper” like Variety, which talks about numbers because it’s read primarily by people in the industry. But why should every media outlet do the same thing, under the assumption that that’s the only thing that matters to us, the general audience, every Monday morning? We’re told that this film is a blockbuster, or that one flopped.
Don’t movies mean more to us than just the money they make? Don’t the trajectories of movie stars count for something? How many male movie stars from the 1980s/90s are still making movies that connect with audiences worldwide? Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kevin Costner, Bruce Willis – when was the last time one of them was in a film that made some $140 million in its opening days? Why aren’t we talking about that instead of mourning the (apparently) dimming star power of Tom Cruise?
Among the films in the last decade that featured Cruise in the lead – i.e., not counting Lions for Lambs, Rock of Ages and Tropic Thunder – War of the Worlds made close to $600 million worldwide, Mission: Impossible III made $300 million, Mission: Impossible IV made $700 million, and the “disappointing” Oblivion made $300 million.
Maybe these aren’t top-of-the-heap numbers, but Cruise’s track record has been remarkably consistent – even when the film is widely reviled (Knight and Day, $260 million), even when his casting irked fans of the book (Jack Reacher, $200 million) , even when he played a Nazi (Valkyrie, $200 million) or a grim killer (Collateral, $200 million). So how is it that we keep hearing the narrative that Cruise is a has-been? The American-media spin is that his films don’t do all that well in the U.S. and that he has to rely on global grosses – but it’s all money, right?
The other interesting narrative about Cruise is about his willingness to work with interesting filmmakers (James Mangold, Michael Mann, Steven Spielberg) and in quick-and-dirty “genre” pictures like Jack Reacher. In this, he is like one of the Old Hollywood stars, who kept making films that worked and films that didn’t, except that the media at the time did not call into question their stardom because of their inability to out-blockbuster the current blockbuster.
Outside of numbers, the only narrative about Cruise that people seem to buy is that his personal life puts people off – but is that really the case? In a 2005 article in Slate, Edward Jay Epstein, the author of The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood, wrote, “So, while Cruise, for better or worse, emerges as one of the most powerful — and richest — forces in Hollywood, the media remain totally fixated on the fact that he’s a Scientologist and the anachronistic notion that he is fabricating his love life...” Almost ten years later, the media’s fixation doesn’t seem to have changed at all.