What hasn’t been said about Top Gun: Maverick? The internet is swollen with well-deserved wonder at the technical work put in by director Joseph Kosinski and his crew. Stories abound of Miles Teller, Glenn Powell, and 59-year-old Tom Cruise getting their faces stretched under actual G-forces produced by actual F-18 fighter jets flown by actual Navy pilots.
I could gush for hours about the beautiful and very real F-18 footage, the segment featuring the Lockheed Skunkworks-designed Darkstar, and the sheer exhilaration I felt at watching some of the best pilots in the world do things I didn’t even know those planes could do. I really could. I’m obsessed with military aviation, and I harbor dreams of someday becoming an amateur pilot.
But instead I want to discuss an aspect few have covered since the film’s extremely successful release last weekend: the story. At first glance, it seems fairly standard, but could the writers, including the talented Cruise-adjacent Christopher McQuarrie, have layered some meaning beneath the obvious hard deck of “Reconcile with your past?” Could revisiting a character after 36 years actually be a benefit to the story engagement? Why does Top Gun Maverick succeed where other such sequels have failed?
Note: Since this is more of a story analysis than a review, I haven’t bothered to avoid spoilers for Top Gun: Maverick or the original Top Gun (which came out 36 years ago, so that one’s on you). Read at your own risk.
I’m not sure when the trend started, but at some point within the last 20 years, Hollywood became obsessed with exhuming the corpses of long-dead franchises (including standalone movies that were clearly never meant to bear more films) and attempting to puppet them around in the form of really bad sequels. From Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to Zoolander 2, these “zombie sequels” have almost universally been critical failures, though they usually make enough money to justify a studio’s next desecration.
The trend is so common there’s now an industry-sterile term for these money mills: “legacyquels.” Well, I hate that for several reasons, so I’m sticking with zombie sequels.
Two issues tend to capsize the zombie sequel.
- The legacy hero is sidelined in favor of a younger protagonist, relegated to a mentor role for the student. This can be done well, but usually isn’t, and these days the older character tends to end up disrespected and humiliated by his student, who never learned anything and just “found the strength inside” or some nonsense. See The Last Jedi for reference.
- The legacy hero behaves as if nothing has happened in the 35 years since we’ve last seen him. He’s still facing the same struggles and immaturities. The lesson from his first adventure apparently didn’t stick, and he’s still the same old guy we know, ostensibly to keep him familiar to the audience, but in reality because the writers probably couldn’t come up with anything better.
Respecting the Audience
Top Gun: Maverick was never going to fall into the first pit, since Tom Cruise has seldom taken a supporting role since 1983. He’s a leading man. So even though he plays a teacher and mentor in this movie, he’s still the protagonist. As the title suggests, this is still his story.
This is important, not only because it avoids the cheap, low-risk hero-replacement strategy, but also because it acknowledges that the audience is there to see him. We’re all fans of the first film, and we all want to know how old Maverick’s doing these days. Pay attention, because this respect for the audience will come up again.
No, the greater risk was the second pitfall. It would’ve been so easy to just copy and paste from the first act of Top Gun, with Maverick mouthing off to anyone with a pulse, chasing tail every night, and generally making immature, impulsive decisions. Yet the film avoids this, too.
See, the first sequence is a love letter to Tony Scott’s original masterpiece. It’s the same opening text about the Top Gun school. The same dawn-lit silhouettes of jets launching off an aircraft carrier at the command of hand-signaling sailors. The same epic guitar shredding. Cutting to the same Kenny Loggins. “I know this place,” you think. “This is how a Top Gun movie starts.”
But then it suddenly ends and we cut to the real first scene. A door opening, John Ford-style, on a silent room. Maverick emerging, old and alone, into the quiet of his personal airplane hanger (dream house, by the way), to thoughtfully work on his P-51D Mustang, a WWII fighter plane.
The symbolism in the contrast couldn’t be more clear, and the themes carry throughout the film. Maverick has changed since we last saw him. His courage remains intact, but his impulsive, obnoxious emotionalism is all but gone. He still takes risks, but his decisions are tempered with hard-won wisdom.
We, the audience, respond to this. Not only because we want his previous ordeal from the first film to have actually taught him something, but also because we’re older, too, and we know that people do change over time.
Speaking of the first film…
Since Maverick’s debut, I’ve heard from several friends that they “finally” watched the first film in preparation and weren’t that impressed. And while I’d like to tell them all to eject right now because that movie is an American classic and they’re all uncultured swine, I get it.
Top Gun is basically an ‘80s sports movie. The Karate Kid at mach 2. Most of it isn’t that serious, and until Goose dies, the stakes seem very low. It’s basically “I’M A BETTER PILOT THAN YOU GRRRR” until they get into a real (and really awesome) dogfight at the end. Since most modern blockbusters list “The world exploding” among their stakes, many viewers find the petty head-butting of Top Gun cheesy and the film overrated, only propped up at the time for its technical achievements.
But file away that chuckling revulsion by cheese. It will come into play later.
A Fresh Premise
We knew from the trailers that Maverick would act as a Top Gun instructor in this film, but thankfully we weren’t treated to a line-by-line rehash of Top Gun’s plot. For Top Gun: Maverick, the titular character must train his class for a specific mission, one with dire consequences. A select few will have to fly an impossible bombing run to an “enemy” base (as in the first film, the “enemy’s” country is never specified), to destroy their uranium enrichment factory, which exists in violation of a NATO treaty.
Right away we’re refreshed. We’ve seen Top Gun, and we don’t need to see it again. We know we’re getting something new. Top Gun’s premise works because it’s a school drama, and the surprise dogfight at the end weaves into this well, testing the pilots’ new technical (and emotional) knowledge in a real world scenario. But if we’re just expecting that again, we won’t be engaged.
Instead, we’re introduced early to a new type of external conflict. The training will be fast-paced and purposeful. The goals are clear and challenging. The stakes are high. We’re on board with this.
We soon meet the young, brash pilots. Hangman, the annoying, self-aggrandizing risk-taker. Phoenix, the cool, confident genius. And Rooster, the cautious, consistent son of Maverick’s dead co-pilot, Goose. This is where Top Gun: Maverick really gets interesting.
The young hotshots squabble and snap at each other, trading jibes in efforts to break each other’s confidence. Each wants to be Top Gun, to prove him- or herself the best of the best. And yet we find ourselves strangely detached from these conflicts. Why?
Because we view them from Maverick’s aged perspective.
Remember that revulsion to ‘80s cheese we felt at watching the first film? Suddenly, we realize that Maverick is feeling the same thing. He can see the shortcomings of his own youth in the foolishness of these younger characters. It’s like Maverick is watching Top Gun.
The film even goes a step further. Hangman is clearly set up as the Iceman-type antagonist, but as we learn more about him, we realize that his behavior is more impulsive and dangerous, like Maverick’s in the first movie.
To the students, being the best is everything. To Maverick, it’s an obstacle to the real mission. People could die if they let these childish emotions affect their performance. Maverick learned this the hard way with Goose, and he doesn’t want them to go through the same thing.
So he probes for weaknesses to repair, especially Rooster’s. See, the first movie was all about finding the balance between risk and caution. This was the dichotomy between Maverick and Iceman. In the years since, Maverick has come much closer to finding this balance.
Yet Rooster is unbalanced toward caution, having grown up in the shadow of his father’s death. He resents Maverick for holding him back, but the further he progresses in the class, the more he realizes that he’s holding himself back. Maverick, having erred toward risk in the past, can see this problem in Rooster, and helps him overcome it.
Can you feel how much more interesting this is than just watching Maverick childishly prove that he’s not some old geezer, or again trying to find courage after Goose’s death? Or, worse yet, getting shown up by some young pilot who’s just magically better than him?
The writers didn’t just mature the character. They matured the perspective with which we experience the whole franchise. They trust us with that, and it pays off.
Developing Old Characters
Character development is the engine of every real story. A character rises, falls, learns, and is redeemed. We can all relate to this cycle.
Even if we’re younger than Maverick. Even if we’ve never flown several times the speed of sound. Even if we don’t live in a perfect airplane hanger with a gorgeous P-51 and the perpetually stunning Jennifer Connely (who, of course, owns a classic Porsche 911), the writers still make sure we can relate to the character’s growth.
However, they take care to align this growth to his age. We all look at our pasts with regret, wishing we knew then what we know now, wishing we could’ve surfaced in the emotional seas of those heady days to make clear, rational, selfless decisions. Yet as we get older, this regret becomes sharper, especially if we still cling to some of these immaturities.
This didn’t come to me during the aerial combat scenes or the tense classroom sessions. It was during one of Maverick’s scenes with Penny, his love interest. After sleeping with her, he jumps out of her upstairs window in an attempt to avoid notice by her teenage daughter, Amelia. He lands awkwardly, rolling onto his back and getting up slowly, a rare showing of his age, only to find Amelia glaring at him through the kitchen window. You can see it on his face: “What am I doing?”
Gone are the days of “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling” and following women into the bathroom. It’s all been replaced by quiet and respectful visits, waiting patiently for Penny’s reciprocation. He’s done walking out on her, and clearly regrets having done it the first time.
It’s a picture of a man who has learned and grown. He’s endured pain and loss. He’s achieved much. But he still has room to grow, namely in the area of relationships. With Penny, and especially with Rooster. Loving is the final thing he needs the courage to do.
He learns to love Penny by committing to her, which he shows when he arrives at her bar the night before the mission, decked out in dress whites. And he learns to love Rooster by trusting him, showing him the respect he showed Goose, and selecting him for the mission over the unbalanced Hangman. Remember, Hangman is a reflection of Maverick ‘86, while Rooster is a reflection of Iceman ‘86. Maverick is essentially rejecting himself to choose the better pilot, a sure sign that he’s grown in humility.
Internal conflicts sorted, Maverick is ready for the external, the impossible mission (no pun intended, Tom). This third act is all beautifully crafted, with Rooster finally overcoming the last of his clinging fear to accomplish the bombing run with perfect accuracy.
But then the writers crank up the danger, throwing in some “5th generation” enemy fighters, just as Maverick added a surprise attacker to the team’s practice bombing runs earlier in the film. One thing leads to another, and before we know it, Maverick has to take a missile for Rooster, sacrificing himself to save his surrogate son.
This could’ve been the end. Maverick could’ve died and it would’ve been a worthy way to go out. We probably would’ve even been happy with the film. It was still an awesome spectacle, still a redemptive story, still a successful mission.
But instead, we get what we might call “act 3.5,” a surprising rescue mission to save the downed pilot, culminating in a final reconciliation between Maverick and Rooster and a desperate but successful escape in a classic F-14 Tomcat, the jet Maverick flew in the original film.
This, by the way, is foreshadowed early on, when Cyclone, Maverick’s superior officer, uses its presence on the enemy base to take a shot at Maverick’s age. It’s a great example of setup and payoff, because even though we know at that moment that Maverick will somehow fly that jet, we’ve completely forgotten about it by the time act 3.5 rolls around. Like any magic, setup and payoff is always about misdirection.
Act 3.5 is how to properly subvert expectations and keep us invested in the franchise. We’ve all seen the mentor character sacrifice himself to save his student. It’s familiar territory, from Obi-Wan Kenobi to Flynn in Koskinski’s own Tron: Legacy. We’ve tread this path many times, and this is how we expect a zombie sequel to end.
Instead, we get an incredible F-14 sequence so seamlessly woven into the story that we don’t care that it’s just fanservice. This is propped up by the emotional transformation of two characters, previously at odds, now learning to communicate, work together, and trust each other. We get a heroic, satisfying ending that doesn’t just make us happy to cheer for our aging hero, but keeps us expectant for the future of the characters.
Dead franchises can be resurrected, and that doesn’t mean our heroes need to be sidelined and humiliated, or that they must repeat their previous mistakes. But it takes respect for your audience. Top Gun: Maverick, like so many other Tom Cruise films, was written by adults, for adults. It’s not inaccessible, but it is emotionally realistic. We, the audience, understand that people change. None of us are the idiots we were in our youth. And watching characters grow and mature at any age can inspire us to do the same. In one respect, that’s what storytelling is all about.