Top Gun: Maverick

What makes a good sequel? Is it timing? Pacing? The new characters? The legacy characters? A careful, loving homage? A complete and total change to the material? Hollywood has asked these questions for years in varying forms, and while we can never really tell what combination works to make a great film, it is all too obvious when a film is bad. Luckily, Top Gun: Maverick was a great film, nailing each aspect to such a degree that it almost feels prescient in how it was developed. From the opening credits to several central scenes, the love letter to Top Gun was written well, and despite all of the hurdles it had to overcome in order to be released, the wait was well worth it.

While only two characters return from the first film, Maverick (Tom Cruise) and Iceman (Val Kilmer), the latter of whom is now an Admiral in the Navy, and one character who was mentioned but never truly appeared, that is not to the film’s detriment. That character, by the way, was the Admiral’s daughter, mentioned before Maverick and Goose learned that they would be heading to TOPGUN. Penny, played by Jennifer Connelly, is everything that Kelly McGillis’ Charlie was not, retroactively marking the infatuation between Charlie and Maverick as part of his impulsivity. Here, it is so obvious that Penny is his one true love. The romance between the two seems more genuine, and it certainly feels like the two could be together for real. Perhaps it’s because they included more than one female lead this time (two!), but the film also manages to balance the relationships between its male characters without making it too obvious that they’re all lovers. Funny, that.

The new cast includes Rooster (Miles Teller, who is Goose’s son that was briefly featured in the previous film, Hangman (Glen Powell of Scream Queens and Hidden Figures fame) as the antagonist, Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), the aforementioned second female lead character who is as badass as her name implies, Payback (Jay Ellis from The Game and Escape Room), Fanboy (Danny Ramirez who recently gave a smashing performance in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier), Coyote (played by Greg Davis fresh from his recurring role on Grey’s Anatomy), Bob, played by Lewis Pullman, Vice Admiral Cyclone (played by Jon Hamm who needs no introduction, and Rear Admiral Warlock (played by Charles Parnell from The Last Ship). Between them, they fill out the new class of trainees and those in charge of the training who, thanks to Iceman, have placed Maverick in charge of training them for a mission that can only be described as suicidal.

Maverick, revealed to have only lasted two months as a TOPGUN instructor after the first film’s hopeful, upbeat ending, is recalled to the program after his project literally crashes and burns due to his ego. Or, one could say, “His need for speed!” It turns out that Iceman has been protecting Maverick throughout his naval career, ensuring that he continues to do the thing he loves the most – fly. Unfortunately, the Admiral is dying throughout the film, tying into Val Kilmer’s cancer diagnosis, which caused him to step back from the Hollywood spotlight. Proving again that Maverick is keenly aware of his situation, even though he seems incapable of changing his actions, he knows that his days in the Navy are numbered. In fact, he is aware that they are directly tied to the Admiral’s, which he laments to Penny during the film, allowing him to show a kind of intimacy that he only shared with Goose.

As he flies throughout the film, Maverick never forgets his best friend, Goose, to such a degree that he speaks to him during each flight, asking his fallen friend to tell him what he sees. That closeness, however, is not the same as his relationship with Rooster, which could generously be called strained and still not hit the nail on the head. The why of this strain is revealed throughout the film, but Rooster never gets the true answer because Maverick refuses to damage Rooster’s view on his own mother (who sadly passed between films, Meg Ryan could not be reached for comment?).

One line oft asked in the trailers by Phoenix is, “Everyone here is the best there is. Who the hell are they going to get to teach us?” It tightly connects the arrogance of the main characters in the original Top Gun. They’ve been told their entire careers that they’re the best, but Maverick has learned a new lesson since his time in TOPGUN. It isn’t just about being the best; it’s about coming home. Even the best of the best has their limits, and on the mission, he is expected to train them, for he calls out from the beginning that somebody’s not coming home. Where the original had Maverick only doubt himself after Goose has died, the sheer fact that Rooster is among the class of trainees for the mission gives him that doubt from the beginning.

The kind of doubt that pushes him to push his class to be better than the best, to think about how they can conduct this mission and not just succeed but survive. Despite his ego, arrogance, and impulsivity, Maverick has learned humility, and while his superior officers can’t see that any more than his previous superiors could, it’s there. In those quiet moments where he speaks with Penny as their relationship develops, you can see that he has learned the lesson; even if he cannot keep himself from pushing to be better, faster, and stronger, he knows that there is going to come a time when death calls in their chip.

He just wants to make sure that it’s not that day. Not that mission. This is why he knows that he has to teach them the only way he knows how – and that means literally throwing out the book.

Top Gun: Maverick identified the best parts of its predecessor the same way its characters do throughout the film. But identifying them wasn’t enough. It had to execute them with precision to get them just right. The love letter I mentioned – you can see it in several scenes from the opening credits, the bar scene where the trainees throw Maverick out only to find out who he is the very next morning, to the point of the beachside football game, to the mission itself. At no point does it shy away from its history. In fact, Top Gun: Maverick embraces it with relish. By doing so, it can subvert several expectations and feel like it was a natural progression.

Let’s just hope that if another sequel comes out, it’s in a handful of years and not a handful of decades.

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