Chris Pratt’s 2016 may wind up being one of the most pivotal moments in the history of movie stardom, both as an idea and an ideal. Pratt came to public attention playing Andy Dwyer, the doughy and dopey but kindhearted comic relief on NBC’s little-watched but critically beloved show Parks and Recreation. And then something happened. In the space of two years, he became one of the biggest movie stars in the world. He did lead voice work in The Lego Movie, which made half a billion dollars. Then he was unexpectedly cast as a comic and romantic action hero in the Marvel movie Guardians of the Galaxy, which made more than $750 million in 2014. He followed these massive hits with Jurassic World, which shocked observers by grossing nearly $1.7 billion worldwide.
The last half of 2016 seemed designed to shoot Pratt into the stratosphere of global stardom, something no male actor of his generation had achieved. He appeared in two films. First up was a remake of The Magnificent Seven. Here Pratt was nominally second fiddle to Denzel Washington, but his was the flashier and more epic part. Throughout the movie, Pratt demonstrates that he has “it,” that intangible quality that separates the stars from the also-rans—a crinkle in his eyes, a slight smile that ticks up at the corner of his mouth, a fluidity of motion that betrays supreme confidence. But The Magnificent Seven underperformed, earning just over $162 million on a reported $90 million budget. After advertising and revenue-sharing with theaters, it almost certainly lost money.
The second of Pratt’s two movies in 2016 was Passengers. He was paired with the biggest female star at the time, Jennifer Lawrence, already an Oscar winner. And yet Passengers is absolutely Pratt’s movie. He is asked to carry the first half-hour almost entirely on his own, as the only person awake on a damaged spaceship hurtling toward a colony deep in space—before he wakes up Jennifer Lawrence and thus consigns her to a future only with him. The only reason you’re able to forgive Pratt for committing the horrible sin of removing Lawrence from hibernation 90 years before their ship reaches their destination is that we’ve seen the turmoil on Pratt’s face, the way he slowly cracks and breaks, the bags under his eyes as he considers blowing himself out an air lock, desperate for the slightest moment of human affection. She was top-billed, but he was the entire movie. And it didn’t pop.
Passengers fared better than The Magnificent Seven, but earning nearly $300 million worldwide likely wasn’t enough to get the $110-million-budgeted movie in the black. And that was kind of that. Pratt had extended himself with a Western and a romantic outer-space drama and didn’t advance his career. And so Pratt largely retreated to his two franchises. He made many Marvel Cinematic Universe appearances and a couple more Jurassic World movies before doing the lead voice (again) in The Super Mario Bros. Movie. They were all huge hits, the last in particular; it’s the second-highest-grossing animated feature of all time. But were these movies hits because of Pratt? Or was he just along for the ride?
Which came first: the franchise or the star?
To help answer this question, we need to consider two seeming outliers on Pratt’s recent résumé. There was The Tomorrow War, a Paramount title that wound up being sold to Amazon during the pandemic and shown only on Amazon’s Prime Video streaming service. It proved to be a huge hit there, racking up more than a billion minutes watched, according to Nielsen; another streaming tracker, Samba, suggested it was watched by more than 5 million households over its first month of release. Then there was the Amazon series The Terminal List, which was also a huge hit, again amassing more than a billion minutes viewed.
Earlier this year, the Hollywood journalist Matt Belloni obtained the results of a National Research Group poll of consumers about actors who would inspire them to go see a movie in theaters. Tom Cruise topped the chart; the rest of the top ten was littered with multiplex regulars such as Dwayne Johnson, Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt, Denzel Washington, and Leonardo DiCaprio. But what had to be dispiriting to the studios is that those chosen were, uniformly, old. Only one in the top 20, Chris Hemsworth, was under the age of 40, and he turns 40 in August this year.
What are we to take away from this? Simply that the entire idea of “the movie star” is a generation or three out of date. Hollywood isn’t creating new lead performers who can woo people to the big screen. It makes perfect sense. New stars aren’t being made because the big screen isn’t populated by star vehicles any longer. It’s populated by brands and franchises and sequels and spinoffs, in which the title or the concept is the reason to see the movie, and every major young talent is subsumed within them. If you exclude the Covid-impacted 2020—when every studio with a tentpole ran for cover—there have been only two truly original pictures in the year-end top ten of the domestic box office since 2018: Bohemian Rhapsody (about the singer Freddie Mercury) and Free Guy, with Ryan Reynolds as a video-game character. Auditoriums sell out for cinematic universes and roman numerals. Audiences don’t show up for stars.
But they do stay home for stars. Which brings me back to Pratt’s dominance on the Prime Video charts. The place for star-driven vehicles is no longer the movie theater but the streaming channels, and one streaming channel in particular: Netflix. Once or twice a month, Netflix drops a new high-concept movie headlined by an already-existing star, and these pictures routinely top the streamer’s charts. The most recent example of this phenomenon as of this writing is The Mother, starring Jennifer Lopez, which has racked up more than 212 million hours viewed by Netflix account holders in its first two weeks. Before that was Adam Sandler’s Murder Mystery 2, which netted Netflix around 155 million hours of eyeball time over its first month.
This helps explain why Arnold Schwarzenegger has two new shows on Netflix, why Sly Stallone has a show on Paramount Plus and a movie that wound up on Prime Video, and why Chris Evans (who played Captain America in the Marvel movies) and Ana de Armas (who dazzled in Knives Out and in a 10-minute appearance as a Bond girl in No Time to Die) have the biggest movie in Apple TV+ history, for whatever that’s worth.
Maybe not much. “What even is a motion picture anymore anyway?” Quentin Tarantino recently mused at Cannes. “Is it just something that they show on Apple? … I’m not picking on anybody, but apparently for Netflix, Ryan Reynolds has made $50 million on this movie and $50 million on that movie and $50 million on the next movie for them. I don’t know what any of those movies are. I’ve never seen them. Have you?” I have, and I’d be hard-pressed to recount the plot of his 6 Underground or The Adam Project.
Free Guy, however, I do recall. It’s not a great movie, but it was fine and fun and played to Reynolds’s charming smarm. And I probably recall it because I—wait for it—saw it in a theater. Because I wasn’t on my phone, because I wasn’t scrolling through Twitter, because I wasn’t answering text messages. In other words: because Free Guy felt like a real movie, and he felt like a real movie star carrying it.
The domination of stars on Netflix can be attributed to something fairly simple: Recognizing a face or a name while you’re scrolling through endless deserts of dross is a useful heuristic that narrows down the options for you. The problem with Netflix is that it has a nearly infinite amount of filmed entertainment to watch, most of it either middling or bad. And while The Mother and The Unforgivable and Red Notice are all pretty middling (or bad) as well, they’re at least a familiar sort of middling (or bad). Comfortably middling for the comfortably numb, for those who desire a televisual companion while folding their laundry.
Something similar is likely at work when it comes to the domination of franchises in theaters. If you’re trying to decide whether or not you want to drop $20 on a ticket and another $20 on snacks, you’re looking for a guarantee that what you’re going to see is something you’re going to like. Franchise branding is a better guarantor than a star’s name, since stars are prone to doing wacky and intolerable things like being paid scale to work for Darren Aronofsky—which is what Jennifer Lawrence did when she made a movie called Mother! in which she played Mother Earth living in a house with God.
This is why Chris Pratt may have sort of stumbled into being the ultimate modern movie star. He has the perfect combination of old-school star wattage and the modern nose for franchise success; we haven’t seen something quite like this since Harrison Ford headlined the Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Jack Ryan movies over the 1980s and 1990s. The difference between the two, of course, is that Ford was able to sprinkle in hits such as Witness and Air Force One in a way that Pratt can’t. But I don’t know that it’s fair, exactly, to blame Pratt for that. No one can prop up movies of that sort any longer.
It’s this prepackaged success that drives at least part of the general online annoyance with Pratt, who by dint of his continued good fortune doggedly refuses to accept #FilmTwitter’s designation that he is the “worst” Chris (after Pine, Hemsworth, and Evans). What had been a mildly diverting parlor game—that is, ranking the Chrises—curdled somewhat in the Trump era when online attitudes toward Pratt soured following revelations that he attends church and not only owns a Gadsden Flag T-shirt but also refuses to apologize for wearing it. For some, these were signs that he must be a reactionary Neanderthal quietly harboring wicked thoughts. (The MAGA set, meanwhile, was undoubtedly over the moon about his decision to marry into Arnold Schwarzenegger’s family.) But all of this is only controversial to a certain sort of terminally online individual. Their opinions don’t really matter, because critics and commentators have never really had the power to anoint stars: That was the province of moguls and audiences, and Pratt has been lucky enough to have earned the favor of both the last remaining mogul, Marvel’s Kevin Feige, and the ever-present audience with its ever-evolving tastes.
Photo: AP/Thomas Padilla
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