How “Top Gun: Maverick” Exceeded All Expectations
Given that Top Gun was a box office smash and cultural phenomenon when it was released in 1986, it is no surprise that nostalgia-loving Hollywood decided to make a sequel. What is a surprise is that the long-gestating sequel is actually an utterly fantastic film, far better than the original.
[Author’s Note: This article contains spoilers about a recently released film. If you have not seen the film and wish to, I strongly recommend that you bookmark this article and return to it once you have seen the film.]
The Road to Top Gun: Maverick
On May 27, 2022, the sequel to the 1986 blockbuster Top Gun finally hit theaters after a remarkably long and complex journey.
The sequel was first announced by Paramount Pictures in 2010 with original stars Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer set to return alongside original producer Jerry Bruckheimer and original director Tony Scott. In 2012, Scott tragically died by suicide and the plans for the film were put on hold. In 2017, Joseph Kosinski was hired to replace Scott and he wrote a new draft of the script. Shooting began the following year and lasted a full 11 months from May 2018 to April 2019.
The film’s release was initially scheduled for July 12, 2019. Complications with shooting key action sequences led Paramount to push the film back a full year to June 26, 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic pushed the premiere further back to December 23, 2020. And then to July 2, 2021. And then to November 19, 2021. And then finally to May 27, 2022.
It would have been natural to expect all of these delays to result in a disappointing box office run. How could fans possibly keep up enthusiasm for that many years?
And then there was the even more daunting question — how many fans were actually enthusiastic about a sequel to Top Gun in the first place? The film was coming a whopping 36 years after the original. Audiences seemed interested, but it was unclear whether the older fanbase would be willing to come out to theaters with the pandemic still ongoing. It was also unclear whether there was enough of a fan base for the film to turn a profit given its whopping $170 million budget.
During its opening weekend the film blew past even the loftiest of expectations, grossing $160.5 million during the four-day Memorial Day weekend. As of this weekend, it is still going strong, with a gross of $521.7 in the U.S. and Canada and an additional $484.7 million in other countries, for a total of just over $1 billion. It is the highest grossing movie of Tom Cruise’s career both domestically and abroad, even when factoring in inflation. It is only the second movie of the pandemic era to pass the $1 billion mark after Spider-Man: No Way Home. And it shows absolutely no signs of slowing down, given that it had one of the strongest fifth weekend grosses on record despite facing hefty competition like the new Pixar film and the final installment of the Jurassic World saga.
So how did this extraordinary success come to be? Well, clearly there were more Top Gun fans out there clamoring for a sequel than anyone anticipated. And clearly older moviegoers were finally willing to come back to theaters given a film they deemed worthy of their time and money. But Top Gun: Maverick is such a massive hit that has truly transcended into a bona fide cultural phenomenon. And there’s no real argument explaining its unfathomable degree of success other than the fact that people just really, really, really love it.
And I am not just talking about moviegoers, who gave it an exceedingly rare A+ average rating on opening weekend. I am also talking about critics, who unexpectedly lavished the film enormous praise. The film has a 97% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes from 420 critics. Its Metacritic rating is 78 out of 100, a score more similar to Oscar frontrunners than summer blockbusters. Those who were skeptical about the film (like me) found it hard to resist the film when those glowing reviews and the incredibly positive word-of-mouth set in.
In this article, I revisit the original film, review the sequel, and give my thoughts on Top Gun’s future.
Revisiting Top Gun (1986)
Few films of the 1980s are as iconic or evoke as much nostalgia as Top Gun. Released nationwide on May 16, 1986, the film received mediocre reviews from critics but grossed an astonishing $357 million off of a $15 million budget. (When adjusted for inflation, the film’s global gross is about $952 million.) Its success was fueled by its 9x platinum soundtrack, which featured two classic hits — the Oscar-winning ballad “Take My Breath Away” by Berlin and Kenny Loggins’s “Danger Zone.” The film spawned numerous copycats and a high-profile spoof (the 1991 film Hot Shots and its 1993 sequel). And it made Tom Cruise a bona fide superstar. The actor was only 23 when the film was released and he had only a handful of minor successes like The Outsiders, All the Right Moves, and Risky Business under his belt. Top Gun was the movie that launched him into the stratosphere.
No one can deny that the film was enormously successful and influential, but was it actually good?
If you ask my older brothers, they would be horrified that I would even question the film’s greatness. They were 11 and 7 when the film was released and it took on an almost mythic status with them (it certainly didn’t hurt that our father was career Air Force and worked on B-52 bombers). But I was never sold on it and rewatching the film as an adult — as I did on Paramount+ before going to see Maverick — reminded me of just what a messy and campy piece of filmmaking it is.
Let me be clear — Top Gun was and remains a wildly entertaining film. It has thrills, romance, and even a few solid laughs. It is exceptionally well-cast with Tom Cruise, Kelly McGillis, Val Kilmer, Anthony Edwards, and Meg Ryan giving charismatic performances. And the scenes of aerial combat are truly breathtaking. But despite these strengths, the film is staggeringly flawed.
For the uninitiated, the plot focuses on US Navy pilots LT Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) and LTJG Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards). They are best friends who get picked to attend TOPGUN, the Naval Fighter Weapons School in Miramar (just north of San Diego). Shortly after arriving, Maverick makes an enemy of by-the-books overachiever LT Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer) and falls in love with one of his instructors Charlotte “Charlie” Blackwood (Kelly McGillis).
Unfortunately, none of the character dynamics really ring true or become particularly interesting. Cruise and McGillis’s chemistry is fine, but their relationship is never particularly believable or engaging. Cruise and Kilmer have some solid moments of tension, but no real dramatic tension forms between them. The best dynamic of the film by far is between Cruise and Edwards, but even that one gets undermined by some preposterous and infuriating writing.
When Goose dies during a training exercise, the film’s tone abruptly pivots from playful adventure to melodrama. Within hours of his death, everyone is telling Maverick it’s time to move on and that nothing is more important than finishing the training program. (Mind you, they aren’t even at war, it’s just a training program!) Maverick feels guilt despite being instantly cleared of wrongdoing, but even Goose’s widow (Meg Ryan in a wonderful early performance) tells him to keep flying. A pivotal scene finds him throwing Goose’s dog tags into the ocean, finally freeing himself of the weight of his friend’s death. But didn’t his best friend just die in his arms like a day ago? And wouldn’t Goose’s widow or young son want the dog tags he just selfishly chucked into the Pacific? And, again, why is this training program so damn important that Maverick can’t take a minute to mourn his best friend?
The above is just an example of the many flaws in Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr.’s screenplay, which is full of hackneyed dialogue and contrived plot twists. But much of that could be forgiven if the film was more elegantly made. The film is shoddily edited, with jarring transitions and bizarre tonal shifts. Harold Falterman’s terrific score and the iconic hits of Berlin and Kenny Loggins are so exhaustingly overused in the film’s 110 minute running time that they begin to become irritating. And not that this gay man is complaining, but the film’s overwhelming homoeroticism borders on the bizarre.
With all that said, the film remains a fun ride with a legendary leading man performance from a never-more-charming Tom Cruise and some truly breathtaking aerial combat sequences that the late Tony Scott and his crew deserve immense credit for.
Rating for Top Gun (1986): 3.5/5 stars
Top Gun: Maverick (2022): Film Review
While watching Top Gun: Maverick, I was repeatedly struck with the same thought: “It’s like the entire creative team said, ‘What if we just remade Top Gun but used cutting edge technology and also tried to actually make it a good film?’”
The film mirrors the first one to such a degree that it absolutely should not work. Like in the original, the opening scene finds Maverick making enemies of senior military officials only for a stroke of luck to intervene and have him be sent to TOPGUN instead of facing actual consequences. (In Top Gun, the surly senior official is played by James Tolkan; in Maverick by Ed Harris). Like in the original, Maverick is in love with a strong woman who can hold her own against any military man and the two of them consummate their relationship in the bedroom of her seaside bungalow while the film’s love theme plays. (In Top Gun, the love interest is Kelly McGillis and the song is “Take My Breath Away” by Berlin; in Maverick, the love interest is Jennifer Connelly and the song is “Hold My Hand” by Lady Gaga.) Like in the original, there’s a cocky antagonistic blonde LT who challenges our protagonists. (In Top Gun, it was Val Kilmer; in Maverick, it is Glenn Powell.) Like in the original, there’s an extended scene where the gorgeous aviators have a scantily clad athletic competition on a sun-soaked San Diego beach. (In Top Gun, it was volleyball; in Maverick, it’s touch football.) Like in the original, the pivotal death of a main character helps Maverick set his priorities straight and go back into hero mode. (In Top Gun, it was Goose; in Maverick, it is…well I won’t spoil that part.)
These aren’t just parallels or homages, they are blatant copies. And the examples above just scratch the surface. So, how is it possible that a film that is in many ways so unoriginal so damn good? The answer is that everything it redoes from the original film is immensely thoughtful and executed with extraordinary skill.
The plot of Maverick finds our hero (now a captain) returning to TOPGUN to prepare an elite group of aviators for a mission to bomb an unnamed foreign country’s unsanctioned uranium enrichment plant. One of the aviators is LT Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s late best friend Goose. Although he does not blame Maverick for his father’s death, Rooster is carrying around extraordinary resentment that Maverick blocked his entrance into the Naval Academy (the motivation for which is made clear in a particularly poignant scene). The dynamic between the two of them fuels the film and it is far more powerful than anything that occurred in the first film. It doesn’t shy away from the thornier issues and emotions and it refuses to resolve anything too neatly. The inevitable reconciliation between Maverick and Rooster is genuinely emotional and well-earned.
Similarly, Maverick’s romantic relationship with Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly) is much more interesting and believable than his relationship with Charlie in the first film. As opposed to his relationship with Charlie, which developed with a cheesy “meet cute” in a bar and escalated extraordinarily fast, this one has a thorny history. Maverick and her have gotten close to commitment before, but each time he has run away. She’s older and wiser now and unwilling to fall for his shtick again. Cruise is terrific here, but Oscar-winner Connelly is just as good. (It’s also worth noting that she’s one of the few women in Hollywood who has aged as extraordinarily well as Cruise has.)
The film also benefits from much more narrative cohesion given that the entire TOPGUN training program is preparing specifically for the climactic mission. We learn the parameters of the mission and intimately understand the extraordinary risk, resulting in the mission being infinitely more engaging and nerve-wracking than it was in the original film. After the mission objectives have been completed, the film goes for an unexpected victory lap with a stunning (if far-fetched) action sequence that had the audience in my theater hysterically cheering.
Maverick also benefits from the deeply humane and skillful way that it brings Iceman back into the fold. Kilmer is the only other actor from the original film to return despite the fact that he has lost his voice due to throat cancer. Although his screen time is brief, he looms large over the film and his pivotal scene with Maverick is deeply moving. (On a related note, my only real criticism of the film is that it could have and should have brought back Meg Ryan).
The extraordinary skill of director Joseph Kosinski and writers Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, and Christopher McQuarrie cannot be overstated. They manage to create a film that is deeply respectful of the original but improves on it in every conceivable way, while simultaneously creating a terrifically polished and entertaining action adventure film in its own right. The action scenes soar, the jokes land, and the emotions resonate deeply.
It is truly astonishing to see a film that works so well at every level. Every technical aspect and every creative decision was the right one. Watching Top Gun: Maverick feels like watching a team of top-notch artists capturing lightning in a bottle. It is truly extraordinary.
Rating for Top Gun: Maverick (2022): 5/5 stars
The Future of Top Gun
Given its astronomical box office, there is virtually no possibility that a third film will not be put into production hastily. Will it be as good as Maverick? I highly doubt it. As I said, Maverick has all the telltale signs of “lightning in a bottle” and its inevitable follow-up won’t benefit from the low expectations that so many had for the second film due to its endless series of delays and the first film’s campiness. Maverick’s sequel will have a lot to live up to. Furthermore, the Top Gun story arc really feels closed here with Maverick’s reconciliation with Goose’s son. To keep the plot going, they will have to spinoff in a new direction that will undoubtedly lead to the loss of considerable dramatic potency.
So, will there be a third film in the Top Gun series? Almost certainly.
Should there be? Probably not.
Will I be there opening weekend anyway? Absolutely.