“Listen, I have Suri right here, who’s falling asleep,” Tom Cruise says sotto voce. He wants you to know that he’s not speaking softly to sound intense. Suri murmurs. Something about scissors. “What? You don’t want to get your hair cut?” Cruise is apologetic—he asks, “Do you have kids?” The most powerful star in the world really doesn’t want you to think his cherubic daughter’s feelings about bangs rule his life.

Or maybe that’s precisely what he does want you to think. There’s always an ulterior motive with Tom Cruise, right? Something sinister lurking behind his sunny demeanor (he sure does smile a lot), his absurd good looks (we hate that in a leading man), and, most of all, his aggressive sincerity. And now he’s coming back to us dark, subversive, disfigured: The most quintessentially all-American movie star since John Wayne is donning an eye patch and a prosthetic forearm stump and daring you to root for him in a Nazi uniform. Hell yes, he’s got a motive and you can read as much into it as you want: He intends to make you rethink some fundamental assumptions, like who’s good and who’s evil. “When you make people reconsider something that they’re so certain of . . . I found it very compelling. It’s the reason I’m doing it,” Cruise says. “When I was a kid, we’d play war, you know, and it was always ‘Kill the Nazis.’ I wanted to kill Hitler.” Cruise laughs. In his new movie, Valkyrie, he plays Claus von Stauffenberg, an aristocratic Bavarian army officer who joins the German resistance and leads an attempt to assassinate the führer and wrest Germany from Nazi Party control. The historical thriller, due out the day after Christmas, was directed by Bryan Singer. Fittingly enough, Singer’s last film was Superman Returns, whose plot reads like a pulp-novel retelling of Tom Cruise’s past few years: American icon leaves the scene to attend to family affairs; during his absence, his adoring public starts to believe it no longer needs him—until, that is, the clean-cut hero resurfaces at a dark time and everyone sees just how indispensable he is. The question is why Tom Cruise would make his triumphant return in a film this complex, this heavy (its tagline: “Many Saw Evil. They Dared to Stop It.”).

“There’s always someone telling you not to make a movie,” he says. “When I did Born on the Fourth of July, they said, ‘This is going to ruin your career. What are you doing?’ Suicide? I’ve committed it. There were people who didn’t want me to make Top Gun.” Of course, Cruise won that roll of the dice in the days before playing a loose-cannon Navy jet pilot nicknamed “Maverick” had any connotations. The stakes are different this time. Cruise is 46 years old. His eyes and cheeks are settling ever so slightly into his chiseled face, as you’ve probably noticed in the paparazzi shots of him with Katie and Suri. And, of course, Mr. All the Right Moves has been sort of idle for a while.