With the exception of the pandemic-ravaged 2020, every year for the past decade, a superhero or franchise movie has become the top-grossing movie of the year. It’s a list populated by Marvel and Star Wars movies and Frozen ($1.2 billion in 2013). Hooray for Disney, I guess. But 2022 is out to change the status quo. The year has seen the release of several major franchise films. First came Robert Pattinson and his eyeliner in The Batman. After that, Benedict Cumberbatch took fans on a strange ride through the Multiverse, and eventually Chris Pratt brought the OG gang back for a Jurassic reunion. But all these movies were beaten by Tom Cruise in an F-14 Tomcat. No, that’s not a typo and this isn’t 1986. But it did and Top Gun: Maverick rocketed past a billion dollars at the box office. The triumph proved two things: You don’t always need a CGI-laden blockbuster to rule the box office, and 20th century superstars still get it. Also read: Tom Cruise confirms his superstar status with Top Gun Maverick

Tom Cruise turns 60 on Sunday. That’s a big moment. The biggest Hollywood star in the last 30 years is entering the senior phase. It seems like he’s always been there. Some of his earliest hits were released nearly 40 years ago, and he reigned at the box office for over a decade. But for the past year and a half, it didn’t seem like Tom was really poking around at the cash register. Aside from the biannual Mission Impossible title, his other films were either huge flops (Rock of Ages, The Mummy) or simply forgettable (Oblivion, Lions for Lambs). As the Marvel Cinematic Universe and other franchise giants permeated, it seemed that Tom was trying to cling to a past long gone.

Few film analysts a few years ago promulgated the theory that Hollywood no longer has superstars, only superheroes. And maybe there was some merit in it. Robert Downey Jr was the highest-grossing star in this era, but that was largely due to the movies where he is Iron Man. If he was Sherlock Holmes or Dr Dolittle, he didn’t ring the cash registers. The same goes for almost every other “superhero” actor, from Chris Hemsworth to Henry Cavill and Ryan Reynolds to Gal Gadot. The one exception to the rule is Dwayne Johnson, who has managed to deliver blockbusters by following the Schwarzenegger-Salman formula – just seeing himself on screen year after year.

In the 90s and 2000s, Tom Cruise possessed a Midas touch at the box office with some iconic hits.
In the 90s and 2000s, Tom Cruise possessed a Midas touch at the box office with some iconic hits.

However, it wasn’t like it was in the 90s and 2000s. Tom Cruise, Will Smith, Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp all managed to be at the top of their game for a while, with Tom taller than others. And they did that through years of making different films, many of which were franchises and others were not. But their pointless superstardom meant that all those movies were hugely anticipated — even historical ones like Valkyrie. Tom clung 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 repackages them in a modern setting. And above all, it’s a damn good movie, one tailor-made for its 59-year-old star. The year is still young and a Thor or Avatar could still dethrone Maverick by the time 2023 begins. But so far, the fighter pilot has single-handedly defeated several formidable superheroes.

The rise and fall of Tom’s superstar has parallels for the three Khans in Bollywood, or at least two of them. Aamir has been almost a reclusive, reluctant 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. Yet in recent years they have barely been able to straighten one foot. Tiger 3 and Pathaan may still prove to be the revival they’ve been looking for. But if they turn out to be Zero, it might be Antim’s chance for them to get it right.

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

So what lessons can they learn from Tom Cruise to reaffirm their superstardom? For starters, they need to play their age. Maverick worked because Tom Cruise played a man in his late fifties, not a swashbuckler in his thirties or forties. Leave those roles to the Ranveer, Shahids and Hrithiks of the industry. Whenever a Bollywood superstar has entered their second inning after a slump, they have done so by playing characters their age be it Dilip Kumar in Vidhaata or Karma or Amitabh Bachchan in Major Saab or Mohabbatein. And it would also help if they weren’t romantic heroines 20 years younger. Maverick had 51-year-old Jennifer Connelly, while Karma had paired 50-year-old Nutan with opposite actors in their mid or late fifties. The public can accept that, but not when the romantic couple Hugh Hefner-Kimberley starts giving Conrad vibes. Also read: Shah Rukh Khan is Bollywood’s latest superstar, here’s why

In all likelihood, Tom Cruise will also have blockbusters in the next two years with the two-part Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol due to be released in 2023 and 24. Furthermore, the actor will have to find ways to maintain the momentum. But it seems that after a few misses, he has found the right way. There is no reason Shah Rukh Khan and Salman cannot do the same. The two are intelligent actors, who know what it takes to keep audiences not only engaged, but hooked. All they have to do now is keep up with the changing times and accept their aging bodies. And for that, they need look no further than Tom Cruise.

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