Commentary: Can Tom Cruise, Oppenheimer and Barbie save the summer box office?

Tom Cruise rides a motorcycle in "Mission: Impossible 7."
Tom Cruise on his way to save cinema in “Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One.”
(Christian Black / Paramount Pictures and Skydance)

At first glance, the trio of highly promoted, hotly anticipated Hollywood movies set to be unleashed on the world beginning Wednesday, couldn’t be more different. But “Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One,” “Oppenheimer” and “Barbie” appear to have one thing in common.

Taken together, this trifecta has beleaguered industry watchers breathlessly anticipating a boost to the summer box office with the kind of ticket sales needed to soothe Hollywood’s frayed nerves when it comes to the future of the big screen.

The three represent a big-tent sensibility in which there is something for everyone and room for each film to thrive. If all three movies succeed in revitalizing what has thus far been a lackluster summer box office, they could provide a blueprint for success in the future.


While “Mission: Impossible” scratches the more traditional hyper-male action itch, “Barbie” is shaping up to be the rare female-focused summer blockbuster — a fuchsia-drenched laugh riot with an edgy real-world twist. Meanwhile, the early take on “Oppenheimer” is that it might be Christopher Nolan’s finest film to date — an artful, thinking person’s biopic exploring life-and-death themes both terrifying and universal.

The viral social media phenomenon, inspired by the same-day release of ‘Barbie’ and ‘Oppenheimer,’ is the best advertising campaign for moviegoing that no studio could’ve come up with.

July 11, 2023

Each film boasts a substantial budget, with the former costing a whopping $290 million and the latter two coming in at about $100 million each. “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” which both open July 21 and have benefited from the goofy homegrown “Barbenheimer” meme, are expected to enjoy a combined opening weekend domestic gross in the neighborhood of $130 million — “Oppenheimer” with about $40 million and “Barbie” tracking at an estimated $90 million in the U.S. and Canada.

“Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One,” which goes into wide release Wednesday, is projected to open to a franchise global record of $250 million over five days (around $90 million in North America). With early reviews largely positive and the halo effect of last summer’s megahit, “Top Gun: Maverick,” the film is sure to rejuvenate the box office.

Tom Cruise wearing sunglasses, smiling and raising a fist in "Top Gun: Maverick."
Tom Cruise will have another blockbuster on his hands following last summer’s megahit, “Top Gun: Maverick.”
(Scott Garfield / Paramount Pictures)

“Top Gun 2,” in which Cruise reprised the role of the dauntless (sometimes topless) fighter pilot Pete Mitchell, served as a litmus test for whether or not audiences were ready to return to theaters after the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The answer was a resounding yes — for the right film, that is. “Top Gun: Maverick” grossed $1.5 billion worldwide, making Cruise the literal poster child for why movie magic still matters.

Film as an art form has been experiencing an existential crisis since the dawn of the 21st century and the stunning rise of prestige TV when richly acted, groundbreaking cable shows like “The Sopranos” and “Six Feet Under” claimed eyes that would have otherwise looked to the multiplex for an escapist fix. The advent of streaming giants like Netflix, which dropped entire seasons of series, including “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black,” at once, kept audiences glued to living room couches as “binge watching” entered the popular lexicon.


Star Ryan Gosling and director Greta Gerwig open up about Ken’s journey to toxic masculinity and back in their comedy based on the iconic Mattel toys.

July 11, 2023

Peak TV exploded at the expense of film, and it seemed that only mega Marvel tentpoles could draw the kinds of audiences to fill theaters and studio coffers. Then the pandemic hit, and what was once a crisis of faith in traditional film lost all sense of the ephemeral to become an actual crisis: People stopped gathering in public, theaters shut down and movie productions ground to a halt.

This summer serves as an inflection point — with Hollywood attempting to make a comeback after its massive COVID losses and regain street cred after finding itself on the losing end of the streaming wars.

Cruise is a tireless promoter of the big screen — and like Nolan and Martin Scorsese, he has come out forcefully against the COVID-exacerbated trend of simultaneously releasing movies on streaming services and in theaters.

In early July, Cruise doubled-down on his love of the big-screen experience and bought opening weekend tickets to both “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” (alongside “Mission” director Christopher McQuarrie).

Ryan Gosling shows his abs in a denim vest and jeans while leaning against a pink pillar.
Platinum-blond Ryan Gosling scores a win for film and fashion in “Barbie.”
(Jaap Buitendijk / Warner Bros.)

“Barbie” director and onetime mumblecore hero Greta Gerwig and that movie’s star, Margot Robbie, responded in kind by also posting photos of themselves holding tickets to both “Mission: Impossible” and “Oppenheimer” in front of each film’s respective poster.


In this heartwarming season of cinematic camaraderie, it’s hard to see what could possibly go wrong.

Despite what size-obsessed Hollywood directors will tell you, the power of film isn’t anchored to the magnitude and dramatic sweep of the big screen (although that is surely part of its core appeal). Film is about the community that gathers around that screen in times of great crisis and in moments of immense joy.

Diving into an explosive episode of 20th century history that launched the nuclear age, director Christopher Nolan unleashes the most ambitious film of his career.

July 11, 2023

It could be that the scarcity of togetherness that became a lasting hallmark of the COVID era has resulted in an unexpected silver lining. One in which Hollywood finds its footing once again by bucking the dominant Marvel trend for the kind of egalitarian moviemaking practice that satisfies the cravings of audiences as diverse as they are global. Surely, the massive success of “Everything Everywhere All at Once” lighted the way to this moment.

Film is for people who want to lose themselves in an impossible Fiat chase alongside a man who had them at sliding across the floor in his tighty whities. It is for viewers who seek to add a dash of dark Nolan-esque artfulness to their understanding of how the threat of nuclear annihilation changed the world. It is for those who — to borrow a catchphrase from a clever we-can-have-it-both-ways marketing campaign — love Barbie and for those who hate Barbie.

Movies aren’t going away anytime soon. This month’s discordant slate of new releases just might pack the box office punch to finally, irredeemably prove it.