Top Gun: Maverick Shows That Cinemas Greatest Influencer Still Has the Goods, but Are Audiences Paying Attention?

Early in Joseph Kosinski’s Top Gun: Maverick, the belated sequel to Tony Scott’s Eighties action classic, Tom Cruise’s Pete Mitchell (yes, that’s his actual name) aka Maverick is delivered an offhanded remark about skilled fighter jet pilots being replaced by computers. It’s a comment that’s shoe-horned in to highlight the fact that this is Maverick’s last ride into the sunset, that even if he were able to fly forever, the future is here and now and his kind is being phased out.

Of late, I’ve found myself manoeuvring a despondent feeling of confusion and hazy despair when I go to these press screenings. I acknowledge my fellow Perth critics, an array of people who publish reviews of all kinds (written, YouTube, extensive social media posts), and as I do, I find I can’t escape the growing realisation that we’re being gradually usurped by a new group of ‘critics’: influencers.

Prior to the film, in the foyer of the cinema, throngs of people lined up to have their photos taken in front of a mammoth banner featuring Tom Cruise’s face, the title of the movie, and the orange hue of a sunset. Further on to the entrance to the main attraction, past the candy bar and second banner of Cruise’s face and a fighter jet, a few expensive looking motorbikes stood in an area which allowed the gussied-up folks to lean against, or attempt a side-straddle, to get another photo opportunity in for social media. The invites to attendees had clearly gone out to the right audience, with leather jacket wearing blokes and their beaus gleefully taking snaps with their phones next to the bikes. Given the rapturous response at the close of the film, you can almost guarantee these folks will be the telling their mates to go see Top Gun in a cinema.

Flashbacks from 2021 screenings of Dune and No Time to Die flooded my mind, reminding me of the Insta-celebs and TikTok-baes who rolled down the red carpet, doing their bit for the publicity campaign and getting the awareness of the film to their thousands of followers. I recall awkwardly commenting out loud while I was on the phone that ‘the dude who won MasterChef is here’, only to have Justin Narayan turn, give me a smile, and nod. I may be a film critic, but I’m also not the winner of MasterChef, nor do I have 116,000 followers on Instagram who I can show that I went to see a movie to.

As I sat enjoying the ever-loving-heck out of Top Gun: Maverick, I couldn’t help but seek a commonality with Maverick, finding a surprising level of empathy for his plight as a soon-to-be-out-of-work fighter pilot. As the hum-drum dialogue scenes played out in between the reason we’re all there – to see jets fly real quick, dangerously – I let my mind wander to the reminder that us film critics are getting usurped by influencers. This isn’t new, of course, but as a film critic, we’re always on high alert that something will come along and be a threat to our egos. I just didn’t expect that it’d be a really nice person who made some pretty cool looking food on a cooking show.

The creep of modernity comes for us all. While film critics aren’t going to be replaced by computers any time soon (although, if you’re so inclined, you can use AI to ‘write’ a film review for you), we are an increasingly rare breed of people. Modern critics follow in the footsteps of the original influencers, the titans of wordslingers who managed to sway crowds of people to go and see films en masse. Way back when, a critic could make or break a film, but those days are long gone. I won’t go so far as saying we’re a dying breed, but we’re certainly less influential than we’d like to think we are.

If anything, those of us who are deemed ‘important’ enough to become Rotten Tomatoes approved critics find ourselves falling victim to the number crunching algorithm where our positive or negative response to a film is chucked into the grinder and squeezed out into the sausage that becomes a ‘splat’ or a ‘fresh’ rating on an often-scorned website. Our unique voices that provide nuanced and varied critical assessments of blockbusters and its cinematic brethren get lost in a cacophony of noise, effectively becoming nullified in the marketing race for whether the critical mass deems a film good or not. Outside of the computer crunched criticism, the lucky will get a pull quote on a poster or included in a trailer, and while that gives us a that warm fuzzy feeling of being seen, it’s hard to track how much that actually sways an audience into going to see a film.

As the climax of the Maverick rolled along, and the team of elite pilots use their skills to conquer a nameless foe, I realised that my concern about influencers needs a bit of readjusting. While my frustrations about being a theoretical equal to someone who simply slaps a photo or video on social media about their attendance at a screening are slightly inflated, I do try and keep in mind that the end goal of ‘getting audiences to experience films in a cinema’ is what we’re all working towards. Sure, they may not be conscious of that, but the commonality still exists.

WA has long been abandoned by Disney and its theatrical behemoth Marvel, with no press screenings being held for the critic proof superhero fodder in this sleepy death toll town. By my own yardstick, if these films are critic proof, they’re also influencer-proof, not needing the sway of The MasterChef to get their dedicated followers to check out Doctor Strange battle whoever he battles.

While a Top Gun sequel should theoretically be a box office home run, there’s still some concern that it might be far too niche for audiences. Mark my words: this is a must-see cinema experience, it blows you away with its realistic flight sequences that literally put you in the cockpit alongside the pilots.

Classic cinema fans will have a feather in their cap when they can bring up the equally homoerotic and visually awe-inspiring Wings as a comparison point for how the actors had to shoot their flying sequences. While today’s actors aren’t required to actually fly the fighter jets, they certainly were responsible for hitting the go button on their cockpit camera. These moments of visual spectacle are why Top Gun: Maverick is a must-see cinema experience (hey, Paramount, there’s your social media quote).

I haven’t felt the unified feeling of the entire cinema sitting on the edge of their seats since Mission: Impossible – Fallout, a point that doesn’t escape my film critic mind. I’m perplexed that in the year 2022 there’s an active push to get audiences to go see a Tom Cruise film – one of the most reliable and audience friendly actors out there – but here we are, most of the unified critical voices in the world urging audiences to see something that isn’t a Marvel film.

We’ve long moved past the era of movie stars and screen legends, with the highest grossing actors internationally and domestically (ie. the American box office) mostly earning their success from dominant effects driven franchises like Marvel, Star Wars, and Harry Potter. Here we see the names of Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey, Jr., and Zoe Saldana, all gaining box office success thanks to their appearances in the Marvel series. Internationally, Vin Diesel reigns triumphant thanks to his Fast & Furious series.

If we look at the American domestic box office, it’s a tale of the two Tom’s – Hanks and Cruise – who have succeeded on their star profile alone. Hanks has yet to step into a massive blockbuster series (even though his Dan Brown trilogy did attempt a run at box office glory), instead making a name for himself as the reliable ‘America’s Dad’ figure in cinema. For the other Tom, over the past decade or so, audiences have become accustomed to seeing a Tom Cruise film less for the narrative or his acting prowess, and more for the tangible stunts that he throws himself into with supreme gusto. While he has one reliable franchise under his belt – the Mission: Impossible series – Cruise has usually dominated the box office when he has a new film out.

But his recent filmography has been peppered with box office stumbles – Jack Reacher: Never Go Back sent audiences to snooze-ville, American Made fizzled without a trace, and The Mummy notoriously screamed its way to the demise of Universal’s ‘Dark Universe’ – have shown that Cruise’s influencer profile as an all-grinning, full-charisma leading star is waning, ultimately leaving the title of the ‘Last Movie Star’ to Tom Hanks.

It’s borderline absurd that in the lead up to the latest Marvel event, the second Doctor Strange film, rumours about a potential Tom Cruise cameo as Iron Man flittered around the internet. Of course, keen film trivia buffs will know that Cruise was once touted as sitting atop the list to play Tony Stark when the MCU was in its infancy, and if he did appear in the latest issue of Marvel cinematic comics, then it would give audiences around the globe the opportunity to lean to their neighbour and whisper “I understood that reference.” Tom Cruise doesn’t need a superhero film, and nor do they need Tom Cruise, for in a Marvel film Cruise wouldn’t be the star, it would be whichever tchotchke he’s cast as for Disney’s superhero Pandora bracelet that would hold that mantle.

The success and popularity of films in cinemas has swayed and changed over the years. Once, a long time ago, musicals and Westerns dominated the audiences’ appetites, now they struggle to garner basic attention. Some might argue that the home of the Western is now found in the streaming series format, with Longmire and Yellowstone bringing a new flavour of Western to the genre. It’s not just Westerns that have found receptive audiences on streaming services with dramas, musicals, and action stories being delivered exclusively as series or films on the growing array of streaming services on offer.

As always, the future of cinema is discussed at length by the industry itself and cultural publications around the world. Collectively, we love the cinematic experience, but as each year goes on, it is clear that it’s becoming harder and harder to convince audiences to seek out that big screen experience. Sure, the pandemic didn’t help, but in 2022, as most cinemas are open to audiences around the world, audiences are still being risk-averse when it comes to what they seek out in a cinema, often opting for the eventual streaming release down the line.

I had a blast watching Top Gun: Maverick, loving the tangible action sequences and relishing the manner they overwhelmed all of my senses in ways that the growing digital noise of superhero blockbusters rarely manages to do. Hagan heaped praise on the film, calling it an instant classic, while Nadine highlighted the joy of the action, while also acknowledging that the film exists in service of Cruise. Elsewhere, Travis Johnson asked those of us eager to add to the ‘fresh’ ratings if we were on drugs in his teardown of Kosinski’s film. Collectively, we all have our groups of dedicated readers and enthusiasts who will seek out what we recommend, and curiously, those who will seek out the films we actively despise to see why we’ve disliked it so much. While we influence our audiences, it’s clear that collectively, as critics, no longer hold the power we once did.

It’s also likely that a star of the level of Tom Cruise’s calibre is also losing influence over younger audiences, so one can’t help but wonder if the emerging presence of influencers at press screenings will help turn over the likes and views on an Insta-reel into tangible ticket purchases. Whether they know it or not, influencers are working the same job us critics are – to help get bums in seats. We’re part of the marketing machine, and maybe controversially so, I do feel it’s our duty in some capacity to ensure that cinemas don’t become a venue for theme park rides to dominate.

Top Gun: Maverick isn’t the right film to stake that claim, it is after all yet another legacy sequel in a world dominated long dormant IP’s being revived like Frankenstein’s monster. But, if cinema as a whole is to survive as a venue that doesn’t just cater for the House of Mouse, then a film like Top Gun: Maverick desperately needs to succeed. Cinema needs a star like Tom Cruise, and it’s clear that Tom Cruise needs cinema. For the sake of cinema, I sure hope that audiences still want him and these kinds of films.

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