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Top Gun: Maverick shows Hollywood how to pass the torch

Edward Weech on Top Gun: Maverick (Joseph Kosinski, 2022, US)

BEFORE THE RELEASE OF TOP GUN: MAVERICK, amid all the excitement and anticipation, there was an ineffable sense that we were about to witness a cinematic event that mattered. It seemed as if more was riding on the film than even its $170 million budget, and the reputation of its iconic predecessor, would imply. Besides superhero movies, only a handful of films have had genuine blockbuster potential since the pandemic forced the widespread closure of cinemas: and Maverick promised the true return of the silver screen.

It also promised to help define the legacy of Tom Cruise. His role as cocksure Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell in Top Gun (1986) helped establish Cruise as one of the most popular and marketable figures in Hollywood, and Maverick exemplified the supreme confidence that would characterise Cruise’s public persona. Cruise subsequently displayed admirable dramatic range in films such as Jerry Maguire (1996) and The Last Samurai (2003), but his later career has generally seen him hone his unmatched skills as an action star. Cruise’s legendary commitment to authenticity has led him to risk life and limb to perform death-defying stunts, and few would accuse him of playing it safe; but roles such as Mission Impossible’s Ethan Hunt have not stretched his dramatic abilities. Turning back the clock to revisit the career-defining role of Maverick after so many years would always present a risk: but, considered in the wider story of Cruise’s career, it may have been a risk he needed to take.

Few, however, would bet against Cruise, still exhibiting boundless energy and enviable physical vitality even as he enters his sixtieth year. That audiences can accompany Maverick into the ‘Danger Zone’ almost four decades after Top Gun testifies to the astonishing, preternatural durability of its central star, who spearheads a production team including Top Gun producer Jerry Bruckheimer and trusted collaborators Joseph Kosinski (Oblivion) and Christopher McQuarrie (Mission Impossible: Fallout). 

A sequel to Top Gun was first announced over a decade ago, but development was delayed by the death of original director Tony Scott, before the pandemic disrupted plans for a 2020 release. Cruise’s apparent agelessness notwithstanding, the passage of so much time since Top Gun means that watching Maverick inevitably invites reflection on the vicissitudes of human affairs. Top Gun’s Cold War backdrop was a convenient canvas for a simple but sincere story which addressed themes of competition, friendship, love, and loss. It also projected an image of the United States at the zenith of cultural confidence, on the brink of prevailing in the Cold War to become the world’s only superpower. But the triumph of the ‘Free World’ did not lead to the easy diffusion of American values that many expected; and Top Gun: Maverick is released in a world riven along civilisational fault lines, with America itself increasingly divided by competing values. 

People today can also be ambivalent about air travel due to heightened anxiety about climate change, while the mundane reality of commercial aviation commonly inspires ennui and disgust. Maverick, however, has not outgrown his boyish enthusiasms, and it’s rejuvenating to be swept up in his infectious ‘need for speed’ …

Captain Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell (Tom Cruise), Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly)

While its military setting was not for everyone, Top Gun was also a paean to the magic of flight and the primal thrill of travelling at high speed. Despite their universal appeal, our enjoyment of such primitive pleasures commonly recedes as we age and become more aware of our physical vulnerability. People today can also be ambivalent about air travel due to heightened anxiety about climate change, while the mundane reality of commercial aviation commonly inspires ennui and disgust. Maverick, however, has not outgrown his boyish enthusiasms, and it’s rejuvenating to be swept up in his infectious ‘need for speed’ as the early scenes of Top Gun: Maverick restore to us our innocent wonder in the miracle of flight. 

Even as he approaches the downward slope of middle age, Maverick continues to work as a test pilot for the US Navy. Expecting to fly a prototype aircraft at hypersonic speed, he learns instead that the Navy brass have decided to shutter the programme and transfer its funding to drone research. Defiant rather than despondent, Maverick decides to fly the jet anyway, and we share a sense of exhilaration as he pushes the aircraft all the way to Mach-10 (ten times the speed of sound). Not satisfied with this, Maverick keeps going, taking the plane into the high-hypersonic range before it begins to overheat, as if it were re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. The inevitable results are depicted in spectacular fashion, the aircraft disintegrating in mid-flight like the wings of Icarus when he flew too close to the Sun. 

Maverick’s reckless insubordination sees him hauled before Admiral Chester ‘Hammer’ Cain (Ed Harris), known to his men as the ‘Drone Ranger’. A younger Maverick was once admonished, ‘You don’t own that plane, the taxpayers do’; and Cain is understandably chagrined at the destruction of a frighteningly expensive prototype. Facing expulsion from the Navy, Maverick is thrown a lifeline courtesy of his friend and former rival, Tom ‘Iceman’ Kazansky (Val Kilmer), now Commander of the Pacific Fleet. Maverick must return to Top Gun, the training school for the Navy’s best pilots – but not to fly. Instead, Maverick is charged with coaching a dozen young tyros who will compete among themselves for the right to attempt an impossible ‘suicide mission’ to destroy a uranium enrichment factory. 

At Top Gun, Maverick’s unusual curriculum begins with literally throwing away the rule book, as he explains that the enemy knows the manual of the American F-18 aircraft just like they do. What they don’t know are the abilities and limits of the pilots themselves. Through a gauntlet of gruelling exercises, Maverick plans to test those limits and help his pupils discover that they are capable of more than they knew. But it remains a delicate balancing act. Pushing too hard might spell disaster, as with the prototype that couldn’t withstand speeds beyond Mach-10. Yet if Maverick eases off too much – as urged by his boss, Admiral Beau ‘Cyclone’ Simpson (Jon Hamm) – then the young pilots won’t be tough enough to survive their mission. 

He now seeks to assimilate the younger generation into a wider tradition of embodied knowledge, where technical competence results from physical imitation and repetition, rather than verbal instruction. The process mirrors the commitment to old-school authenticity that saw these youthful actors film their flight sequences in actual jets, eschewing studio-based CGI.

Top Gun: Maverick (Joseph Kosinski, 2022, US)

Because the pilots operate at such extraordinary speeds, there’s little time for deliberation: in the air, they must learn to rely on their training, instincts, and experience. As Maverick puts it, ‘Don’t think. Just do’. Maverick learned this the hard way, sharpening his skills during an earlier era in dogfights with Soviet MiGs. He now seeks to assimilate the younger generation into a wider tradition of embodied knowledge, where technical competence results from physical imitation and repetition, rather than verbal instruction. The process mirrors the commitment to old-school authenticity that saw these youthful actors film their flight sequences in actual jets, eschewing studio-based CGI. Maverick’s allegiance to the old ways evokes Cruise’s equally unswerving commitment to a traditional cinematic ideal, blurring the lines between actor and persona. 

Besides the high-octane thrills of supersonic flight, Top Gun was also an engaging and often humorous portrayal of the role that confidence plays in the development of the young male psyche. This earned it cherished status among virile youths who ensured that terms like ‘wingman’ would become staples of the popular lexicon. The brash overconfidence of youth is supposed to give way to other qualities over time, a process traditionally associated with marriage, fatherhood, and family life. Maverick, however, has not followed this path, instead remaining footloose and fancy-free. Admiral Cain chastises Maverick for his irresponsibility and refusal to climb the ranks in conventional fashion: at his age, and with his record, Maverick should be an Admiral or a Senator. But this would have taken Maverick out of the cockpit, and as he later explains, being a pilot is not just what he does: it’s who he is. To Cain, Maverick’s lack of conventional ambition seems contemptible and untrustworthy. But the selfless purity of Maverick’s commitment to flying, and his indifference to utilitarian considerations, lends him a youthful innocence in the eyes of the audience. 

Nevertheless, this Peter Pan-state of eternal youth also represents a form of arrested development. Returning to Top Gun provides Maverick an unexpected second chance for family life; and his halting and uncertain response to this opportunity elicits considerable dramatic tension. Top Gun: Maverick thereby explores the eternal family drama and the different challenges faced during the archetypal journey through life. This helps explain its strong – even therapeutic – appeal to mature audiences who enjoyed Top Gun in earlier years. It’s not simple nostalgia, but a cathartic response from moviegoers who, in recent years, have been starved of stories that explore transpersonal realities with this level of visual artistry and panache. 

The drama centrally concerns Maverick’s relationship with Bradley ‘Rooster’ Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s friend ‘Goose’ Bradshaw (Antony Edwards). In Top Gun, Maverick blamed himself for Goose’s tragic death, which seemed to fulfil the warning received from Commander Tom ‘Stinger’ Jordan (James Tolkan): ‘Your ego is writing cheques your body can’t cash’. Maverick’s overconfidence was a way of compensating for the confusion issuing from the mysterious death of his own father, who was also a pilot: Goose once said that every time Maverick went in the air, it felt like he was flying against a ghost. Maverick’s abrasive egoism was deceptively fragile, and the death of his friend caused it to collapse. In order to develop a more stable and resilient form of self-confidence, Maverick needed to discover a positive father image. This was provided by instructor Mike ‘Viper’ Metcalf (Tom Skerritt), who revealed a fact which had been hidden for reasons of national security: that Maverick’s father actually died a hero behind enemy lines. 

His dilemma symbolises the situation of any anxious parent trying to decide whether they can trust a child to face a potentially dangerous challenge on their own. Things were simpler when Maverick was younger, and he just needed to show confidence in himself and his peers. As a father-figure in his own right, he needs both courage and judgement to show appropriate confidence in the younger generation.

Lt. Natasha ‘Phoenix’ Trace (Monica Barbaro), Bradley ‘Rooster’ Bradshaw (Miles Teller)

Now, a much older Maverick is faced, in his turn, with becoming a mentor to the Top Gun pilots and a father figure to the orphaned Rooster. Maverick’s anxiety about Rooster’s inexperience, and guilt over his father’s death, once led him to interfere with Rooster’s career progression. This sparked enduring resentment, but Maverick has a chance to make up for his lack of confidence in Rooster by including him on the suicide mission. Yet if his surrogate son were killed, could Maverick forgive himself? His dilemma symbolises the situation of any anxious parent trying to decide whether they can trust a child to face a potentially dangerous challenge on their own. Things were simpler when Maverick was younger, and he just needed to show confidence in himself and his peers. As a father-figure in his own right, he needs both courage and judgement to show appropriate confidence in the younger generation. 

The family drama is completed by Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly), an ex-girlfriend who Maverick bumps into after returning to Top Gun. Cruise and Connelly have undeniable chemistry, but slow narrative development threatens to render Penny a ‘satellite love interest’ without significance to the plot. Eventually, however, the burgeoning relationship – and Maverick’s fatherly interactions with Penny’s daughter, Amelia (Lyliana Wray) – allows us to develop a fuller image of Maverick’s possible future, which makes us more anxious about his fate. And at a key moment in the plot, Penny helps Maverick stay true to his values. 

In this age of reboots and remakes, the portrayal of long-established characters and universes has sometimes proven contentious. Without being in thrall to the success or reputation of its predecessor, Top Gun: Maverick treats its legacy with the respect it deserves and which its fans expect. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the handling of Val Kilmer’s ‘Iceman’ character, who plays a pivotal role in this new story. The poignant dignity of Iceman’s portrayal is an object lesson in how to do justice to the heritage of a beloved franchise, and the moving reunion between Maverick and Iceman serves as a worthy capstone to their friendship. While Kilmer’s screentime is understandably limited, his return is hugely welcome, if bittersweet. 

At a time of continuing uncertainty about the prospects of big-screen entertainment, it suggests that the keys to a bright future can be found in the past.

Captain Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell (Tom Cruise), Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly)

Otherwise, Top Gun: Maverick features numerous callbacks to the first film. The opening montage sees flight crew high-fiving on an aircraft carrier in the evening sun to the tune of Kenny Loggins; there are reappearances for the hero’s famous jacket and the Navy’s F-14 Tomcat; and a game of mixed-gender football successfully evokes the exuberant camaraderie of Top Gun’s all-male ‘Playing with the Boys’ beach volleyball. Yet the new film never threatens to feel like a mere tribute or remake, becoming instead a genuine sequel told in the same spirit and with no less conviction, but with its own, mature identity. 

The passing of the torch involves both the older generation’s desire to transmit something acquired through sacrifice, and the desire of the younger generation to inherit something of value. Even after Maverick accepts that it’s time to let go, he must demonstrate the effectiveness of his methods in order to show their continued relevance. Top Gun: Maverick proves that the traditional cinematic formula still works, and to the extent that it finds a hearing with younger viewers, it will help reveal cinema’s ongoing potential to induct people into a shared cultural inheritance. 

In the best possible sense, Top Gun: Maverick is a throwback to a more innocent cinematic era. At a time of continuing uncertainty about the prospects of big-screen entertainment, it suggests that the keys to a bright future can be found in the past. Maverick’s cultural resonance and roaring commercial success prove the public’s demand for visually spectacular films, made to exacting standards of craftsmanship, that tell sincere and heartfelt stories with compelling characters. If it wants to remain the superpower of world entertainment, Hollywood should watch and learn.  — Edward Weech

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Edward Weech

Edward is a London-based writer. He has a PhD in Cultural Studies from SOAS, an MPhil in History from Trinity College Dublin, and an MA in Library Studies from UCL. His writing has appeared in Arc Digital, The Coleridge Bulletin, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society.