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The Last Action Hero

The star of ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ isn’t part of the MCU, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t play superheroes

Paramount Pictures/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In 2008, Tom Cruise was still a human being. Coming off a run of films that included Minority Report, War of the Worlds, and Mission: Impossible III, Cruise had found a meaningful second act of his career by embracing adulthood. The grinning cocksman was history—now he was playing husbands and fathers with something to lose. So when Marvel came calling and asked whether he would be interested in anchoring the first film in a grand new franchise experiment, it must have been tempting to oblige. How could Cruise not play Tony Stark, the seminal superhero of this new era? But Cruise turned the studio down, and while he has never spoken at length about the decision, what little he has said reveals all. “I need to be able to make decisions and make the film as great as it can be,” he told The Indian Express in 2021, “and it just didn’t go down that way.”

So Tom Cruise did not play Iron Man, not even as a cameo in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, as was rumored. For most actors, playing a superhero is the ultimate gig: a steady, well-paid chance to elevate their global status. But Cruise is the rare actor for whom having superpowers would diminish his stature. Why strap on a suit if you can achieve flight without one? As the Marvel Cinematic Universe has come to dominate the movie landscape, Cruise has kept pace, transforming himself into a hero without a cape, a demigod without wings. In this phase of Cruise’s stardom, his characters are impervious to pain or injury. He slices through the air in fighter jets; he defies gravity and time with the sorcery of a wizard. If there really is a multiverse, Cruise has already been there and back. He plays characters with no backstory; several of them are referred to as “ghosts.” He never gets laid, at least not on screen. Maybe pleasure doesn’t matter to him. Entertaining the world is all the reward he needs.

Cruise may have passed on Iron Man, but he internalized the rules of the superhero era all the same. While the MCU was taking flight, three films were released between 2010 and 2012 that would define Cruise 3.0. First up was Knight and Day, an action-comedy with Cruise as a rogue spy who becomes the protector of Cameron Diaz’s antique car expert when she stumbles into an espionage crisis. His Roy Miller is a classic Cruise creation—an absolute lunatic who gets by on his dizzying charm—but also one of his weirdest. Just consider the scene in which he pulls Diaz out of a crowded diner at gunpoint, shouting inanities to confuse and distract the frightened patrons. “Everybody gets pies. No ice cream. A la mode weakens the legs, people! Lincoln knew it. That’s why they got to him!” Knight and Day wasn’t a hit. Coming just a few years after Cruise alienated a portion of his fan base by jumping on a couch and angrily debating Matt Lauer on the merits of psychiatry, the strangeness Cruise put on display in Knight and Day might have hit a little too close to home. And while he would continue to make non-franchise action comedies like Edge of Tomorrow and American Made, they would also be among his least successful films from this period.

A year after Knight and Day, he returned to the Mission: Impossible franchise with Ghost Protocol and transformed his signature character Ethan Hunt from a loving husband into a man barely recognizable as a human being. At the end of Mission: Impossible III, Hunt was set to leave the superspy life behind and sail into the sunset with his wife. But as Ghost Protocol begins, Cruise has suddenly changed his mind, separated from his wife, and devoted himself to a single-minded pursuit of saving the world. It’s no surprise Cruise hired Brad Bird, best known for creating The Incredibles, to direct the film. You can imagine him watching the Pixar film’s superpowered quartet and thinking, “Can he do that for me?” In Ghost Protocol, Hunt goes full cartoon, bouncing off pavement, fighting with unearthly acumen, and, in what’s still the greatest stunt in the franchise, climbing the world’s tallest building without a safety net. He has no family and no home. Even his government disavows him. Cruise became a ghost, and audiences loved him for it: Ghost Protocol was the franchise’s highest grosser to date, and Cruise suddenly had a new path forward. Over the following years, Ethan Hunt would continue saving the world and eschewing romantic entanglements, never stopping to eat or drink or just hang out with his friends. A man devoted entirely to the cause.

Just as the Mission: Impossible series was scaling new heights, Cruise lined up another franchise, starring as Jack Reacher in the first film adaptation of Lee Child’s beloved series of books. Fans of the books howled at Cruise’s casting; Reacher was supposed to be physically imposing, and even though his films tend to hide it, Cruise is obviously small. But it’s easy to see why Cruise saw himself in the character. Reacher is another of Cruise’s lone wolves, fully committed to achieving justice and willing to shed the earthly pursuits of mere mortals to do so. For example: a ludicrous scene in which, alone in a motel room with Rosamund Pike, Cruise struts around shirtless, distracting her with his wet, muscled torso, and turning the accomplished defense attorney into a giggling schoolgirl. She wants to have sex with him; he pushes her car keys into her hand and sends her packing. This is no ordinary man.

Although the films of Cruise 3.0 represent a new, improved model of movie star, they continue a winning formula that has defined his persona since the beginning: the merging of Cruise with his roles. Look through his career and you’ll find characters that perfectly reflect their moment in his arc. In Top Gun, he was the cocky upstart trying to prove himself. In Jerry Maguire, he was an accomplished pro seeking a new direction as he approached middle age. These days, he sees himself as a savior of cinema—and probably the world—with his steadfast refusal to allow his films to premiere on streaming services, earnest desire to save viewers from the evils of motion smoothing, and unbridled rage at those who break COVID protocols on set and, in his mind, put the future of Hollywood at risk. “Because he is so capable, that carries with it a responsibility.” That’s how he described Jack Reacher in an interview, but the quote could just as easily apply to Ethan Hunt, or even Cruise himself. At this point, what’s the difference?

Lest we come to believe Cruise is as invulnerable as his characters, however, his films in recent years have teased an end to his time as an immortal. In the uninspiring sequel Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, Reacher spends much of the film with a character he believes to be his daughter; Cruise rarely plays fathers (Eyes Wide Shut, in which his kids barely exist, and War of the Worlds are the only examples); the idea of having a teenage daughter hints at a self-knowing mortality. By the end, though, we learn she’s not really Reacher’s daughter, leaving him free to continue his life of unattachment—but in the unexpectedly touching final scenes, you can feel Reacher mourning the life he could have had, and Cruise considering what his career might look like if he ever returned to the land of the living.

He’s not ready yet, but he’s having fun figuring it out. Top Gun: Maverick at first glance seems designed to go further and finally have Cruise embrace his role as elder statesman. After crashing a hypersonic jet in the opening scenes, Maverick gets grounded and re-assigned to the flight academy. It’s not just a new assignment; for Maverick, it’s akin to death. “The future is coming,” his gruff superior tells him. “And you’re not in it.” Technically, he’s talking about how drones are making human pilots like Maverick unnecessary, but he might as well be telling Cruise that movie stars aren’t important in the age of uncanny CGI and franchise hegemony. Not to worry: Over the course of the film, Maverick finds renewed purpose as a mentor to the young pilots, and Cruise wears it well. The character makes amends with Rooster (Miles Teller), Goose’s son, who blames Maverick for holding him back in his Navy career. He properly guides the cocky, young Hangman (Glen Powell), who surely reminds Maverick of himself, by keeping him grounded during the final assignment, which puts him in just the right spot to save the day when Maverick and Goose are in danger. The transition from hotshot to aging mentor seems so natural that it actually comes as a surprise when Maverick—and Cruise—wrestles back the controls at the last minute and spends the last 30 minutes performing the most death-defying stunts of his career.

So far, that is. While it’s only a matter of time before this superhero by another name gets grounded for good, the teaser for next year’s Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning Part One promises bigger and better set pieces. And there’s another one coming after that. By then, Cruise will be 62 years old. By then, maybe he’ll be ready to embrace the character-driven phase of his career that many of his oldest fans have been eagerly anticipating. Yet while the idea of Cruise returning to his roots and collaborating with an Aaron Sorkin or Cameron Crowe again is enticing, it’s hard to imagine him re-finding his footing as a regular guy. Once you’ve spent that much time in the stratosphere, life on Earth just ain’t the same.

Noah Gittell is a film critic and journalist based in Connecticut.