In a skewed irony worthy of this current moment in time, today is (counting midnight previews) the tenth anniversary of Chris Nolan’s Inception, and what was supposed to be the opening night for Nolan’s Tenet. Ten years ago, the high-concept fantasy rode a wave of strong reviews, post-Dark Knight Chris Nolan fandom and strong buzz to notch a $62 million domestic debut in July of 2010. While we can speculate to our heart’s content about how Tenet would have fared had it opened tonight under ideal circumstances, there are three factors that wouldn’t have been in play compared to Inception.
First, whatever the hell Tenet is actually about, it’s almost certainly harder to explain than “Heist movie… in your dreams!” elevator pitch for Inception. Second, and this is harder to predict, but I’d like to think that the first two months of live-action summer 2020 movies would have been better than the miserable summer 2010. After the likes of Iron Man 2, Robin Hood, Prince of Persia, The A-Team and The Last Airbender, Inception was perfectly positioned as the summer event movie that lived up to the hype. Third, and most importantly, Inception had Leonardo DiCaprio in a lead role.
All due respect to John David Washington and Robert Pattinson, but DiCaprio is (now more than ever) one of a kind in terms of being a butts-in-seats “brand unto himself” movie star. And it was the July 2010 release of Inception that cemented that fact and kicked off a near-unbroken string of prestige (and non-franchise) hits right as the star system was on its last legs and as IP and marquee characters were taking over Hollywood. 2010 cemented DiCaprio place at the top, thanks to Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island ($295 million on an $80 million budget) and Chris Nolan’s Inception ($824 million on a $160 million budget).
No, Inception wasn’t DiCaprio’s first post-Titanic hit, as he “broke out” in Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can ($352 million on a $52 million budget) in late 2002. Gangs of New York (opening almost concurrently) was somewhat well-received, but $190 million worldwide on a $100 million budget is not exactly a hit. Nonetheless, Scorsese’s next two DiCaprio flicks were The Aviator and The Departed, were genuine hits. The Howard Hughes biopic earned $213 million worldwide (becoming Scorsese’s first $100 million-plus domestic earner) on a $110 million budget, not great but not awful. However, The Departed was a genuine smash.
The remake of Infernal Affairs, pairing DiCaprio (as a cop undercover as a criminal) and Matt Damon (as a cop secretly working for the mob) in a tough-as-nails Boston crime melodrama, won…