To use the topically appropriate metaphor, Top Gun: Maverick went supersonic over its opening four days in theaters, swooping in on $156 million in ticket sales to blow up the existing Memorial Day weekend record (held by 2007’s Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End) by $3 million. Paramount’s long-gestating, oft-delayed sequel to 1986’s Top Gun took the highway to the danger zone of megaprofitability, becoming popcorn movie season’s first out-the-gate blockbuster and setting a new high-water mark for Tom Cruise. It now stands as the 59-year-old superstar’s best-reviewed film, his biggest debut to date, and the first time in an already superlative-laden career that one of Cruise’s films has grossed over $100 million in a single weekend.
But taking in the full scale of that achievement from 30,000 feet, a more appropriate context within which to understand TG:M’s supremacy might be “everything old is new again.” On the heels of a nearly two-year pandemic stretch when opening weekend box-office tallies ceased to provide an accurate read of a movie’s overall commerciality, Maverick lived up to the call sign of Cruise’s fighter pilot character Pete “Maverick” Mitchell by pulling off the seemingly impossible. That is to say, in an era when cinematic universes featuring franchise-jumping caped crusaders have become our most reliable multiplex rainmakers, it bucked the system and turned back the clock. It elevated military heroism to the level of superheroism, using practical effects — real people in real planes filmed going really fast — instead of computer-generated imagery to create good old-fashioned movie spectacle.
“When we talk about big box-office records being broken these days, we’re usually only talking about comic book movies — and that doesn’t necessarily appeal to every kind of moviegoer,” says Erik Davis, managing editor of Fandango. “Audiences have been starved for a big movie to root for and to go see that isn’t a Marvel or DC movie. So to get a film like Top Gun: Maverick that is ridiculously entertaining, that makes it so we don’t have to watch 15 other movies in order to understand the story, is really going back to the old ways. The old days when Memorial Day weekend was the start to the summer season.”
Originally scheduled for release on the July 4 weekend in 2020, TG:M saw its theatrical release pushed back five times by Paramount. But rather than squelch excitement for the sequel to the oddly experimental, Reagan-era action-adventure film — which made Cruise a household name, led to an explosion in military recruitment, and was hailed in some cultural quadrants as the “gayest movie ever made” — such repeated delays seemed to only whet the audience appetite for Maverick, especially among older viewers who have been among the most reluctant to return to theaters in post-N95 times; Paramount reports that roughly 55 percent of TG: M ticket buyers have been over the age of 35.
And no small amount of that draw has been Cruise himself. After such commercial misfires as The Mummy and American Made (2017), the stunt-loving daredevil (an accomplished aviator who pulled multiple g’s piloting one of the Navy’s $65 million F/A-18 fighter jets in Maverick) became conspicuous by his absence. As a producer on the film with first dollar gross — taking in around a dime in revenue for every dollar the studio earns, one of filmdom’s most lucrative deals — Cruise refused to allow Paramount to sell TG:M off to a streaming service and resurrected himself as what the New York Times recently termed “Hollywood’s Last Real Movie Star.”
His days of sofa jumping and Church of Scientology proselytizing seemingly behind him, Cruise now stands as a kind of paragon of Hollywood virtue: an actor-producer-perfectionist utterly dedicated to his craft at a cultural inflection point when stars like Johnny Depp have recently demonstrated darker extremes of the A-list experience. And according to industry analysts, Cruise’s career heroism has demonstrably added to Top Gun: Maverick’s bottom line.
“Audiences were really hungry for this movie back in 2020. It just seems like there’s this pent-up demand, there’s something really emotional for a lot of people,” explains Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for Comscore. “The timelessness of the story, the agelessness of Tom Cruise, it all comes together to create something that is not a superhero movie. It’s not a comic-book film. It’s a throwback to a different age in Hollywood. It’s very traditionally told. I mean, the greatest special effect is Tom Cruise!”
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