Even before the original “Top Gun” was released to explosive reception in 1986, Paramount Pictures wanted Tom Cruise to sign on for a sequel. Cruise, then a new American idol and de facto proponent of aviator eyewear, was reluctant to commit. At just 24, his career was still gaining momentum and he was eager to expand his repertoire.
Since then, 36 years have passed. The prolonged stretch between the two films, exacerbated by a delayed release due to the pandemic, has greatly expanded the viewership base for “Top Gun.” “Over time, every year I would release a movie, people would say, ‘What about ‘Top Gun?’ Do another “Top Gun,” Cruise said in an interview last month. “And it didn’t diminish – now it was generational.”
Like the 1986 original, “Top Gun: Maverick” follows Tom Cruise as Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell. This time, however, instead of being an arrogant prodigy enrolled in the US Navy Fighter School, also known as “TOPGUN”, he must teach the new class of elite fighter pilots. Grappling with the ghosts of his past, Maverick struggles to train a new generation of TOPGUN pilots for a risky operation to take down a uranium enrichment plant built in violation of a transnational treaty. Although decades have passed since Maverick’s upbringing at the exclusive military base, his unorthodox approach to flight has not changed. He struggles to gain the trust of talented young lieutenants, especially Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s best friend and former colleague, Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards). Goose dies while flying alongside Maverick in the first film. Beyond its stunning aerial sequences, punchy dialogue, and balanced sentimentality, the film’s most interesting aspect is its implicit meditations on change.
“Maverick” is driven by the titular protagonist’s anxieties about the passage of time. In a private and moving exchange, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Admiral Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer) tells Maverick, in reference to the latter’s lingering guilt for Goose’s death and his reservations as for sending Rooster on the new mission: “It’s time to let go.” The ghosts of Maverick’s past give the film a strong metastructure: just as Maverick struggles against history, so does the film itself. Like its protagonist, “Maverick” doesn’t forget its past or deny the call of the future. He listens, as does Maverick, to Iceman’s bittersweet words. The result is a soaring film, reaching even greater heights than the 1986 original. Cruise’s latest is an uncommon generational event.
Even for the uninitiated, the aerial lingo of “Maverick” isn’t confusing or overwrought. The seamless integration of viewers into the world of TOPGUN is one of the film’s many successes: With sharp dialogue, understated yet revealing idiosyncrasies, and anecdotal glimpses into the characters’ pasts, “Maverick” welcomes longtime fans. and neophytes in the California base. with ease. The early scenes in which the young pilots take to the skies are especially vital in orienting viewers to the insecurities and particular strengths of the new class – not to mention that this introduction is hugely entertaining. Natasha “Phoenix” Trace (Monica Barbaro) proves to be a reliable partner, encouraging her new weapons systems officer Robert “Bob” Floyd (Lewis Pullman) in the face of taunts from prideful Jake “Hangman” Seresin (Glen Powell) , who navigates through tough drills at the expense of her partners. The camera’s focus on these granular interactions provides rich windows into the characters’ personalities.
The TOPGUN crew put their jovial camaraderie on display at a bar owned by none other than Maverick’s former romantic interest, Penny Benjamin, played by Jennifer Connelly. (Although Penny is not featured in the 1986 film, she is mentioned in an early scene). Despite the film’s attempts to paint the Captain’s love interest in bold strokes, Penny ultimately falls flat, serving primarily as a source of solace for Maverick in times of self-doubt. A scene in which she steers a boat over unruly waves – her feet planted firmly on the dock as a wobbly Maverick clings to the vehicle jostling for support – rather simplistically aims to portray her as stubborn. Yet this character never gets the airtime to fully develop. The film’s struggle to give strength and dimensionality to its women reaches to the skies. Although Phoenix – notably the only woman to fly on the six-person mission – is a formidable lieutenant in her own right, she unsurprisingly plays the role of mediator, serving as a liaison that stabilizes and soothes towering male egos.
As D-Day approaches, “Maverick” grapples with the cinematic responsibilities of elevation and erasure. Vast, exhilarating aerial sequences often make Cruise look larger than life. Always ready to take risks, he escapes death time and time again by the skin of his teeth; indeed, he behaves like a demigod. This stratospheric stature is selectively extended to those who wear the red, white and blue flag on their uniforms. Enemy fighters are faceless, making them effectively dehumanized, and don opaque black head protection, all in uniform, juxtaposed sharply with American pilots whose call signs are embossed on their colored helmets. The contrast between vibrant individuality and monotonous conformity is not just a cinematic technique, but also a common feature of military narratives – one that makes foreign death easier to swallow on the home front. Amid the raging entertainment, “Maverick’s” darker subtexts are easy to ignore. That doesn’t mean viewers shouldn’t consider the film’s choice to paint a deeply asymmetrical portrayal of the human impact of military violence.
The film’s heavy symbolism extends beyond the binary of ‘us’ and ‘them’. In fact, “Maverick’s” most impactful symbolism is in the tools it uses to convey arguments about the inevitability of change. One of the most notable is an unsuspecting aircraft that becomes extremely practical later in the story: an antiquated F-14 Tomcat that one dismayed Rooster calls a “museum piece.” As Maverick pilots the plane into fierce combat with the enemy’s slender obsidian planes, the symbolic message resonates: despite the inexorable march of the future, the best of the past endures.
As the F-14 slices through the clouds, Maverick squeezes the grimy controls with Rooster in the backseat – an image that is vividly reminiscent of his former partnership with Goose. The film’s thesis on the relationship between the past and the present is perfectly illustrated in Maverick’s response to Rear Admiral Chester “Hammer” Cain (Ed Harris), who insists that the captain’s species is doomed. ‘extinction.
“Maybe so, sir,” Maverick said, a faint smile crossing his face. “But not today.”