In recent months, while making the press rounds for his new book Cinema Speculation, Quentin Tarantino has, like most acclaimed film directors, addressed the state of modern filmmaking. Some of his complaints have been noted before by his elders, including Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, but Tarantino sparked a whole new dialogue when he went on Tom Segura‘s 2 Bears, 1 Cave podcast and argued that Marvel stars aren’t movie stars and that there’s a noticeable difference between the two.
“Captain America is the star. Or Thor is the star,” explained Tarantino, who is, of course, mostly right… though he’s also wrong in some regards. After all, there are exceptions to every rule, and Chris Pratt embodies that more than anyone else. Whether you love him or not, Pratt has become one of Hollywood’s hottest actors thanks to his back-to-back roles in the Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World franchises, though one could argue that the latter trilogy, in particular, would’ve made just as much money no matter who played the lead. After all, in the case of Jurassic World, audiences were generally there to see the dinosaurs, not Pratt’s Owen Grady.
The same argument could also be applied to Pratt’s other choices, which appear to be bulletproof seeing as most are part of well-established properties with built-in audiences. After voicing the protagonist in The Lego Movie, this week sees him voicing the title character in The Super Mario Bros. Movie, and he has already recorded his lines as the lasagna-loving cat in a new Garfield movie. These are all very deliberate, safe choices. It’s hard to fail as a movie star when you’re taking so few risks, but nor can you truly soar, either. If the audiences are built-in, as noted above, you can’t really call them your own, can you?
To be clear, there’s no denying that Pratt has come a long way from playing the schlubby, lovable dork Andy Dwyer on NBC’s Parks and Recreation. In addition to his hit movie franchises, his work on Prime Video has served the streamer well, such as big-budget feature The Tomorrow War and the action series The Terminal List.
It’s fair to say that Pratt is at the peak of his career right now with The Super Mario Bros. Movie heading toward a huge opening and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 just around the corner… but does his astounding success make him a true Movie Star? Has he ascended to the level of a Sandra Bullock or a Brad Pitt, or is his stardom merely a symptom of leading IP-driven blockbusters that people recognize? Is he simply a beneficiary of two huge movie studios’ global marketing machines? To honestly answer this question, we must generally understand both what a movie star is and what it is not these days.
In order to be a successful movie star, you need a charismatic personality, which Pitt, Bullock, and Tom Cruise have in spades. It’s a magical, magnetic quality that’s impossible to define, but like pornography, you know it when you see it. Throughout his own career, Pratt has been able to craft a down-to-earth comedic presence onscreen by working with directors such as Phil Lord and Chris Miller, as well as James Gunn, all of whom helped him hone those movie star qualities that draw audiences to theaters decade after decade.
However, as successful as Pratt has been anchoring IP, he’s at risk of falling into the same trap as Orlando Bloom and his own Guardians co-star Zoe Saldaña, who haven’t really seen their careers blossom outside of the well-known franchises that made them stars. Saldana has even publicly acknowledged this as a problem with her career of late, as apparently those in the industry worry whether audiences too closely associate her with the billion-dollar hits on her resume. Pratt, however, has thus far been able to avoid this issue by delivering two streaming hits for Amazon with The Terminal List and The Tomorrow War, and though both projects felt a little hollow and left room for improvement, they each pulled in solid viewing numbers — enough to merit second installments.
Although Pratt is riding high, having enjoyed recent success in streaming, he’s also in danger of becoming overexposed. This is an issue that movie stars have faced before, from his Passengers co-star Jennifer Lawrence, who just returned from her own much-needed big-screen break, to Dwayne Johnson, who doesn’t know what a break is.
Pratt should err on the side of caution and subscribe to the philosophy that less is more when it comes to exposure, making it that much more special when he does grace us with his presence on the big screen, just as it feels special when we watch timeless stars such as Leonardo DiCaprio or George Clooney. Though Pratt isn’t quite on their level yet, he has something those guys — and Will Smith, Ryan Reynolds, and Pitt — don’t really have, which is an everyman quality that matters to audiences who crave authenticity more than ever today. But Pratt should look to those guys as shining examples of how to build a career, as they knew when to take chances and explore material outside of their comfort zone, and when to take paycheck gigs. Even his Guardians co-star Dave Bautista has challenged himself beyond what the industry initially thought him capable of. Harrison Ford should really be the model, and using that comp, I’d say that Pratt just needs to find his Witness.
While Pratt certainly has his own unique career obstacles to navigate, he definitely has a future as a movie star in this business, and may already be one in some respects. Undoubtedly talented and surprisingly versatile, he has worked hard to get where he is and deserves every ounce of his success, even if he owes much of that success to the great movies that came before him. It’s a career conundrum that affects many actors of his generation who have led reboots and remakes to the top of the box office but struggled outside of studio-backed blockbusters with hefty marketing spends.
With increasing avenues of content creation, passive consumption continues to dominate, making franchise stars more disposable. You only have to look at Henry Cavill and Gal Gadot to see what I mean. To quote the new Captain America himself, Anthony Mackie, “There are no movie stars anymore. Like, Anthony Mackie isn’t a movie star. The Falcon is a movie star, and that’s the fear.”
Pratt just needs to play his cards right if he wants to stick around for the long run and find original content that he can claim ownership of when it succeeds. This year bodes well thanks to a one-two punch that could be the combination that unlocks the next phase of his career, and possibly his full potential, but he’ll have to branch out from Star-Lord and Raptor Daddy if he wants to stick around long enough to become a dinosaur in this business.
It’s still too early to render a final verdict on Pratt, who will surely be judged on what’s next once the Guardians trilogy concludes — and we’re not sure the Russo brothers’ $200 million action movie The Electric State co-starring Millie Bobby Brown really counts — but with that in mind, here’s hoping the actor takes some bigger risks going forward and pursues top-shelf filmmakers like Kathryn Bigelow and Bennett Miller, who brought out the best in him in Zero Dark Thirty and Moneyball, respectively. Until then, we’ll just have to keep wondering if we’ve seen the best from Pratt, and what he’s-a really capable of.