Tom Cruise Is a Star Adrift Among Cinematic Universes

The Mummy Still 1 Tom Cruise and Annabelle Wallis - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Universal Pictures
After the Marvel paradigm shift, the marketplace is no longer all that hospitable to actors who prefer to pave their own paths.

Did the Avengers put a curse on Tom Cruise? 

Some critics have called Cruise's The Mummy the worst film of his career. Others are advising that he needs to go back to doing some character work to atone for his franchise fever. A key question that also must be asked: Why did the previously franchise-shy star join a project launching a cinematic universe in the first place?

Let's consider recent history. While his recent box-office track record can hardly be qualified as disastrous, Cruise movies are not exactly raking it in the way that they used to. In fact, since The War of the Worlds was released in 2005, only one of his non-Mission: Impossible starring titles — 2014's The Edge of Tomorrow — has managed to cross the $100 million mark domestically (and just barely). Though his films still tend to do quite well in international markets, it's clear that his drawing power in the U.S. has dimmed considerably over the last 10 years.

It's easy to chalk up Cruise's relative decline to his couch-jumping antics on that infamous 2005 episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show, and the timeline certainly fits. Thanks to several bizarre public appearances and the star's unusually strident defense of Scientology, his public profile took a sizeable hit in the mid-2000s. It would be disingenuous to claim that didn't play a role.

And yet with the post-Marvel paradigm shift we've seen in the last 10 years, it's also clear that the marketplace is no longer all that hospitable to stars who prefer to pave their own path. Just look at the once-Teflon Will Smith, who, after suffering a series of back-to-back misfires, took a role as an ensemble player in the superhero franchise vehicle Suicide Squad in a seeming attempt to correct course.

Like his fellow action-star/sometime-serious-actor, Cruise has also started playing the game.

Which brings us to The Mummy, Universal's $125 million effort to kick-start a franchise that will bring together its classic monsters in a series of interconnected, Marvel Cinematic Universe-esque films. (It's worth noting that the studio's first attempt at this, 2014's lackluster Dracula Untold, was dead on arrival.) In the new film, Cruise plays Nick Morton, a mercenary who stumbles across the tomb of an ancient Egyptian princess named Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) and inadvertently awakens her from a centuries-long slumber. CGI dust cloud-enhanced mayhem ensues.

Despite the film's monster-movie trappings, the role itself is pretty standard Tom Cruise action-hero stuff. But the vehicle is something of a departure. For those who have closely followed the actor's career, The Mummy feels like something of a capitulation by a star who once largely eschewed the franchise game. Indeed, his only franchise until recently was the blockbuster Mission: Impossible series, and even there, Cruise has historically been quick to paint its sequels as semi-stand-alone affairs as opposed to direct follow-ups.

This sequel-averse stance clearly worked for the first two decades of Cruise's career. Unlike so many stars who came up alongside him, he maintained his perch as a box-office power player while largely making original (or at least non-franchise) movies. In the late '80s, he easily could have cashed in with Top Gun 2 — a project he's now actively promoting in press interviews — soon after the first movie became a sensation. Instead, he chose to star in less-surefire films like Rain Man, Born on the Fourth of July, A Few Good Men, Interview With the Vampire, Eyes Wide Shut, Vanilla Sky, Minority Report and Collateral. And with very few exceptions, those movies weren't just hits. They were actually good.

But the Hollywood landscape has transformed considerably in the wake of Iron Man. While studios have used sequels to buttress their bottom lines for decades, the kinds of non-IP-oriented movies Cruise once championed are seen as an even riskier bet in 2017. In an age when superheroes and Star Wars are viewed as saviors of the theatrical marketplace, every studio in town is hungry for the next interconnected movie universe that can help stave off the threat posed by streaming and on-demand platforms like Netflix and Amazon. In this atmosphere, even a once-mighty box-office titan like Cruise has struggled to adjust.

With one eye firmly on his own bottom line, the actor is clearly looking for a way to right the ship. In addition to The Mummy, last year's poorly received action sequel Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, a potential Edge of Tomorrow sequel and Top Gun 2 signify a shift in the way he's traditionally approached his career. The latter film in particular feels like a belated concession to Hollywood's ravenous appetite for nostalgia-driven franchises, and it's hard to imagine he would have made the same decision had his last few films performed better at the box office.

Unfortunately for Cruise, the new strategy doesn't appear to be paying off. While Jack Reacher: Never Go Back managed to top $160 million worldwide on a $60 million budget, its weak $58 million gross in North America was the lowest he's had for a non-ensemble starring vehicle in ages. As for The Mummy, it's widely expected to be crushed by Wonder Woman at the box office this weekend, with predictions currently hovering around the $35 million mark (though it's expected to be huge abroad). This would be a stumble for a studio that's invested a lot of energy into minting a new movie universe, and a further indication that Cruise's career-rejuvenating strategy is stuttering out of the gate.

It's hard not to be disappointed by all of this. Cruise is undoubtedly one of the greatest stars of the modern era, and over the course of his long career he's consistently championed original projects over release-date slot-fillers. Like him or not, his reputation as a star who cares deeply about the quality of the films he puts out is beyond refute. While his current trajectory doesn't necessarily suggest he's getting lazy (I honestly don't think he has it in him), it is an indication that he's finally been forced to concede to the demands of an industry that has left old-guard action stars like him scrambling to find their place.