Reviewer’s note: Although Top Gun: Maverick was released a month ago in other countries, release in South Korea (where I live) was delayed until today, June 22.
In 1987, the original Top Gun portrayed a very specific moment of time, making it one of the definitive films of the 1980’s with its crop of up-and-coming actors, including Meg Ryan and Tim Robbins alongside the iconic performances of Tom Cruise, Anthony Edwards, and Val Kilmer, the synth-driven Kenny Loggins soundtrack, Kelly McGillis’s big hair and bigger shoulder pads, and, as a product of the Cold War, its unabashedly pro-military agenda. Even its unwitting (or intentional) homoeroticism is supremely 80’s. Of course, those of us who were children or teenagers of the era didn’t notice the propaganda. We noticed the cool music, cool motorcycles, cool jets, cool shades, cool jackets, and cool dogfights where America kicked some implied Russian @$$. We also didn’t notice that much of Top Gun‘s rah-rah sentimentalism came as a result of the turbulent decade before it with Watergate and the Vietnam War shaking the country’s pride and place and leaving much of the population longing for the “good old days” when we viewed America as the beacon of hope for the world.
In 2022, and after several delays, Top Gun: Maverick portrays another very specific moment of time, one where many of the people who loved and grew up with the original are wrestling with their own sense of pride and place as the world changes without them, again leaving much of the population longing for their own “good old days.” However, unlike the distinct throwback vibes of the 80’s Top Gun, this modern Maverick uses its roots to branching into a more welcoming present and promising future.
As the film began with a text screen and aircraft carrier montage to the unforgettable lyrics of “Highway to the Danger Zone” blaring, it took until the appearance of Miles Teller’s name in the credits to confirm that I hadn’t mistakenly attended a revival screening of the original. This opening sets the tone for a film that is almost an exact parallel to its predecessor, with several matching shots and sequences, and even another homoerotic beach sport, almost becoming more a remake than a sequel. Despite Maverick‘s adherence, one could argue dependence, on the original occasionally bordering on cheap nostalgia, the early film offers enough variation to set this new installment apart from the previous. This distinction is entirely due to one thing: the cast.
Since its release certain filmgoers have used the success of Top Gun: Maverick as an opportunity to decry “wokeism” (or what they interpret as being “woke”) without mentioning that the cast is notably diverse. Where Top Gun had one non-white character, whose most memorable scene was getting chewed out for being as good as the white man he replaced, Maverick includes four black characters, Latin characters, and one of the best pilots is a woman. Despite Scientology’s extreme prejudice, it wouldn’t be surprising if one of the characters turned out to be gay and we don’t know it because like in real life a person’s sexual orientation has no bearing on how well they do their job.
An important early scene actually revolves around a sign warning against any disrespect of women and the US Navy, a clever mixture of both modern and “traditional” sensibilities. While one side of the ideological spectrum or the other may have an issue with these rules, the sign, like the film itself, serves as a melding of old and new values. The original Top Gun could be seen a celebration of traditional masculinity, where men, all but one of them white, fight wars and women dote from the sidelines. Maverick is a celebration of inclusion. Sure, these characters are still instruments of war, but Maverick doesn’t consider race or gender a hindrance on one’s ability. If anything the film is apolitical in that politics are never mentioned, even “the enemy” is unnamed, yet modern in that reflects how America actually looks. There’s no replacement. There’s just progress. What’s more, beyond their demographics, these characters are better formed than those of the previous movie.
Much of the film revolves around Pete Mitchell’s (Tom Cruise) relationships with figures from his past, his ex Penny (Jennifer Connelly), his former wingman Iceman (Val Kilmer), and most importantly his former co-pilot’s son (Miles Teller) whom he tried to raise after his dad died. However, unlike the previous film where characters exist only when Maverick was present, the side characters here have personalities, previous relationships, and, while minimal, their own narrative arcs independent of Mitchell. Miles Teller’s Rooster may be an exact duplicate of Anthony Edward’s Goose, with a matching mustache and wardrobe that nears parody, but through his time on screen we become more invested in Rooster’s growth as a character than we did in any of the non-Maverick characters in Top Gun. Similarly, Jennifer Connelly’s Penny is much more active than Charlie, sharing the same playful, combative banter, but with a richer history through inclusion of her daughter. It’s also been interesting to see a new generation of filmgoers come to realize just how gorgeous and talented Jennifer Connelly is, especially for those of us who fell for her after seeing Labyrinth one year before Top Gun‘s release (yes, she was 15 in that movie, but I was 11 when I first saw it so don’t judge me). Our investment in these characters fills in the gaps of what would otherwise be an empty film.
Maverick, like Top Gun before it, has a barebones plot that falls apart under even the slightest bit of scrutiny. No modern military would conduct the climatic mission the way it’s done in the film. However, it’s this mission, and the stakes of it, that provides Maverick an emotional heft the original film lacked. Even with Goose’s accidental death, the characters in Top Gun never felt like they were in danger. These were training missions without weapons or consequences beyond those the pilots took upon themselves. The ending dogfight, while the single greatest thing I’d ever seen when I was seven years old, was a low-stakes affair that lacked genuine intensity. By using the entire film as build up to an impossible mission (see what I did?), Maverick establishes its stakes early on, beyond a mere rivalry between arrogant alphas, bordering on a suicide mission. It’s also established early on that Maverick isn’t the type of film to kill off its major characters, but it is intense enough to plant the possibility in one’s mind. After all, No Time to Die felt like just another James Bond adventure, until it didn’t.
Like Bond, it’s when Maverick stops cruising on its predecessor’s momentum that the afterburners finally kick in. The first two acts almost feel as though they had to fill some nostalgia quota so that when the third act begins the film is free to cover new and better ground. Of course the dogfights are spectacular throughout with amazing stunt flying and camera work that brings to mind the best fight or dance sequences every choreographed. Seeing the performers experience the g-forces as they turn and climb provides a tactical, almost visceral thrill to the action sequences, and our immersion is maintained by limiting CGI to compositing and augmenting rather than replacing the practical effects. The promised climatic mission is nothing short of spectacular, and yet surpasses expectation by unfolding in a way that feels inevitable only in retrospect. It’s these scenes, in watching Maverick roll and spin his way on to his target, inverting into a dive over a mountain ridge, seeing the ground pass below and the canopy reflecting the sky above, or witnessing another jet, real or not, so close that one erred motion would kill both pilots, that the cynical part of my brain that’s grown over the last 36 years turns off and I’m in child-like awe once again. Sure, Cruise deserves much of the credit for pushing the film, and himself, in the direction of practical effects, but he is only as outstanding as the director, choreographer, stunt pilots, cinematographer, and visual effects team allow him to be, and Top Gun: Maverick allows Cruise to look absolutely spectacular. Yes there are times when Maverick is basically a remake of Top Gun, but once the remake ends Maverick becomes better.
The easy analysis of Maverick is to liken Tom Cruise to Pete Mitchell, the last of the great marquee movie stars and the last of the great dogfighters. Even the film drives this point home with its references to time having passed Mitchell by. Yet the more interesting approach is not to look at the past, with Maverick serving as symbol of how the old ways were better, but at the future, where the old ways develop into, inform, and merge with the new. There are many ways in which Top Gun: Maverick is a throwback, with its perpetual golden hour lighting, helmetless motorcycle rides, leather bomber jackets (serious though, has he been wearing the same jacket for 30 years?), and rah-rah American pilots against implied Russians. While there is a level of self-awareness to the film, its lack of cynicism propels the escapist qualities enough that we don’t even wonder why an entire bar of millennials knows the words to “Great Balls of Fire,” or that Maverick sets out for his initial test flight in the late morning but takes off at sunrise on the same day. Much in the same way that people of the 1980’s were eager to push away Watergate and Vietnam to live in a world of fast jets and beach volleyball, we of the 2020’s want to move away from our own troubles, whether that be Covid and “wokeism” or Covid and insurrections. Despite its war trappings, Maverick is a rush of pride and unabashed enthusiasm delivered at Mach 9. Sure, it’s propaganda, but it’s propaganda anyone can enjoy!
It’s doubtful that Top Gun: Maverick, while a fun crowd-pleaser, will become an era-defining film. However, it’s in being so crowd-pleasing that Maverick can become informative for both our current era and the future. Like Maverick, we as a people, a culture, a society, are flawed. We are reluctant to grow and accept new ideas. We do dumb and dangerous things that we know are dumb and dangerous but still do. Yet, like Maverick, we are at our best when we use our skills and our knowledge not to suppress or limit others, but to inform and push them further. We are at our best when we mix technology with skill, old techniques with new developments. We are at our best when we are diverse, calling upon all our resources. We are at our best when we lead by example. Maverick tells us that in trusting each other, uniting, never leaving anyone behind, never letting ourselves give into hopelessness, fear, inevitability, or failure, we can accomplish spectacular, impossible things. Conservative outlets are pushing an idea that Maverick succeeds because it is a simple, pro-military story with no politics. So what? Why are complicated narratives inherently liberal? If anything, Maverick rejects modern conservatism by highlighting a diversity of skilled people, and fighting against implied Russians. As the film itself tells us, it’s the person, not the machine, and people can be skilled no matter where they come from. Rather than immediately seeking to divide or show us at our worst, Top Gun: Maverick succeeds by bringing everyone together to show what we can be at our best.