When a “Top Gun” sequel was first announced, who expected it to be a nomination for best picture? What a ride, transforming from what seemed like a terrible movie pitch to one of the most profitable films ever made (it’s 12th at the worldwide box office, FYI.).
As co-star Jon Hamm noted, it survives alone since it “doesn’t have somebody in a cape or on a spaceship,” he told ET.
This is a weird story. “Maverick” is certainly an enjoyable film, but I keep analyzing how this happened, and I think I know why. The short, crass answer: a blockbuster hopeful amidst months of a dry spell arrived at an opportune moment. The longer answer requires a little look back into recent media history. So join me as we examine the film Steven Spielberg said “might have saved the entire theatrical industry,” as he told Tom Cruise at this year’s Oscar noms luncheon.
Consider TV viewership in the 1990s. The Big Three free-to-air broadcast networks operated unopposed, so viewers had fewer options. Ten million viewers amounted to far less than a third of all American channel surfers at the time. Compare that to now. Audiences are more fragmented across free-to-air, cable and chord cutting. Perhaps audiences prefer staying home, curating their own customized content bubbles.
Then came the pandemic. Blockbuster hopefuls delayed. Warner Bros. streams major projects soon after theatrical releases. Things got and have remained messy for exhibition to the tune of bankruptcies and movie chain closures. The pandemic broke a struggling medium. Perhaps this was inevitable, merely ripping off the Band-Aid sooner than expected. But pre-COVID numbers always revealed a yearning for that grand movie experience.
From 2016-19, 62 films accounted for the top 200 all-time grosses at the worldwide box office, 22 surpassing $1 billion. That’s big money, the kind that funds a whole lotta stories epic and modest, terrible and groundbreaking. Since 2019, however, only two reached that coveted 10-digit mark: “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and “Maverick.”
Not a single film from 2020 did. Then in 2021, “Spider-Man: No Way Home” ascended to seventh highest gross box office proceeds of all time. Clearly audiences would return for the right story. On to 2022, that number rises and seven films hit the mark, but only “Maverick” reaches 10 digits, something six live-action superhero flicks couldn’t do. What is going on?
A “Spider-Man” film during the holiday season isn’t really a risk, especially one boasting three Spider-Men swinging around alongside beloved, established Marvel characters. But that success foreshadowed possibilities to come. If only another big film took a chance. At first, “Maverick” didn’t fit that bill.
A sequel to a Hollywood relic seems unlikely to stick the landing. Think of “Tron: Legacy” or “Blade Runner 2049.” A weak and long delayed sequel met the same fate at the box office. But Paramount Pictures pressed on, slating its big-budget nostalgic aerial actioner for Labor Day weekend, and that’s key.
In a normal year, Marvel films dominate the first week of May. Enter “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.” It actually does well enough, just missing that billion mark. But the reviews hurt. After that, “Maverick” is the next big thing, and nothing competed against it. Here’s where things get interesting. Two months later, “Jurassic World: Dominion” premieres, reaching a billion while garnering the “World” series’ worst reviews.
So here’s “Maverick,” a wildly watchable and successful sequel-reboot arriving amidst some mediocre big-budget competition. It arrived at a pivotal time with an entertaining story. Frankly, in any other year, it wouldn’t have earned best pic or adapted screenplay noms, though its technical considerations make sense. And we definitely wouldn’t have the likes of Men’s Health and USA Today claiming Cruise got snubbed for best actor. Perhaps we need this. Permitting “Maverick” some Oscar love allows more obscure noms to go down easier, which has become a problem for the live show’s diminishing viewership.
More than anything, “Top Gun: Maverick” was and remains a symbol of hope. It rewards nostalgia with a good story worth the money invested. And like Hamm said, it’s not a sci-fi or superhero story, making its box office ascension all the more remarkable. None of this really provides hope for small-budget films, but it’s a helpful reminder that the theatrical experience can still pull one over on us all.
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