As good guys get their day, can 'American Made' succeed with Tom Cruise as an anti-hero?

Brian Truitt

Pop culture hasn’t fallen out of love with anti-heroes yet, but interest seems to be waning in favor of more traditional good guys and girls.

Tom Cruise stars as a TWA pilot who gets recruited by the CIA and ends up involved in criminal deeds in 'American Made.'

Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman was summer's biggest hit ($412 million), and the clown-busting kids of It now have the highest-grossing horror flick of all time ($266 million). The two movies happen to be doing boffo business at a time when the news is filled with natural disasters, rampant negativity and a renewed threat of nuclear war. 

“Heroes are cool again. We’ve missed them for a while,” comScore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian says. “We certainly do have enough villains in the world.”

Watching a really intense horror film or a female-led blockbuster with purer expressions of heroism “feels good because you’re not getting a lot of that in real life,” he adds.

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American Made (in theaters Friday) might be a good litmus test for how much the tide has turned. The film, set in the 1980s, stars Tom Cruise as Barry Seal, a real TWA pilot recruited by the CIA who gets involved in gunrunning and drug smuggling. 

Jaeden Lieberher, Finn Wolfhard, Jack Dylan Grazer and Jeremy Ray Taylor play four kids in the heroic Losers' Club of 'It.'

If anybody can sell an imperfect dude, it's Cruise: American Made has an impressive 88% approval rating on, and the movie already has made nearly $59 million internationally.

The actor's anti-hero roles later in his career (Jack Reacher, The Mummy) are as good a look for him as Top Gun’s Maverick was back in the day, Uproxx senior entertainment writer Mike Ryan says. In American Made, "he's not playing a bad guy, really. But he is playing a guy who gets himself mixed up with a lot of bad folks and finds himself doing bad things — and always with that Tom Cruise smile. He's likable. We can't help it.”

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Morally questionable anti-heroes have always had a place in Hollywood lore, from Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade and Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty” Harry Callahan to Deadpool and the Suicide Squad. “There’s always been the bad turning good," says Jeff Bock, senior box-office analyst for Exhibitor Relations. "It’s a genre unto itself.”

And historically, audiences have flocked to see them. The Dark Knight ($533 million) and Iron Man ($318 million) were a potent one-two punch in 2008. Last year, the motley crew of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story ruled ($532 million), and Captain America: Civil War ($408 million) and Deadpool ($363 million) boasted a parade of unlikely saviors.

But it has been a different story in 2017. The year's No. 1 movie, Beauty and the Beast ($504 million), offers up a Disney girl who couldn't have a bigger heart, and a spunky teenager is all about doing the right thing in Spider-Man: Homecoming, the year's biggest superhero movie worldwide ($874 million). 

The Cold War era of the '80s featured Indiana Jones, E.T., Marty McFly and the Goonies saving the day, and in today's similar climate, "people are clamoring for a cut-and-dried true hero," Bock says.

Gal Gadot plays a pure sort of superhero in 'Wonder Woman.'

“I don't think people are in the mood for dark and gritty heroes," Ryan adds. "I suspect if 1978's Superman was re-released, it would do pretty well. Most people just want something to believe in.”

There's no need to postpone Deadpool 2, cancel John Wick: Chapter 3 or call off the next Fast and Furious movie, though — the era of the anti-hero is far from over, Dergarabedian says. “We love (them) because they’re very complex, very layered, very human. If we get too many pure heroes, we’ll get bored with them and want more flawed heroes with a lot of angst and deep-seated issues. The pendulum swings back and forth."

Anti-heroes will always be around, Ryan says, “but there's a time and place for this kind of thing, and right now might not be the time.”