Another day, another secret bunker full of uranium to wipe out. At the start of Top Gun: Maverick, our man Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) is working as a test pilot. He’s still ranked as captain: Some 30-plus years into his career and he’s advanced very little. His reputation for abandoning protocol in favor of following his own instincts precedes him. It’s “Maverick” after all: not exactly a man for rules, even if it means pushing a plane past Mach 10 against all common sense, even when there’s a risk of casualties — as in the first movie, when he lost his wingman Goose in a tragic accident, the bitter, karmic outcome of having played it too fast and too loose.
The difference between the Maverick of 1986’s Top Gun and that of Joseph Kocinski’s new sequel, beyond Cruise having aged a couple of years, is that the first movie was very much a young man’s game. The characters were fearless, reckless, because their youth afforded them the right to be. They were the pupils. It was the job of the Top Gun program to take that wild energy, untempered by any practical fear of death, and make good soldiers out of it: compliant, regulation-aware representatives of the USA who were nevertheless brave. The lesson, appropriate to the Cold War era, is that individualism was to be celebrated — and, yes, put on a leash. In Maverick we get a version of the best-case scenario for the boys-turned-men who take easily to that leash, which you could call a career. The once-villainous Iceman (played then and now by Val Kilmer) is a commander today, with a family and a big house and, despite illness, the stature and wisdom that career longevity can afford.
Maverick, meanwhile, is still getting shuffled around. The price of straying from the beaten path is glory, no bambinos, seemingly no permanent residence, barely any money — nothing but a spotty reputation and a permanent spot on the chopping block, like he’s arrested development incarnate. Somehow he, not Iceman, is the one we’re supposed to want to be. Cruise movies of late sometimes get talked about like metaphors for the man himself, or at least for his approach to Hollywood stardom in a century that’s mightily eroded what that means. The willingness to flirt with failure, with just enough fallibility and insecurity to make failure seem possible, remains central to Cruise’s appeal.
But Top Gun: Maverick finds him in his Show ‘em how it’s done mode. Here, student becomes teacher. Maverick returns to Top Gun to train a crew of young aces in the making, among them the troubled Rooster (Miles Teller) and a wise-ass who goes by Hangman (Glen Powell). The young guns play out their own version of the Maverick vs. Iceman dilemma. In truth, Powell, shorter than Teller in stature and blessed with a too-perfect grin, is the Cruisier of the two. But the balance has shifted. As a character, he’s an Iceman: accomplished in the way that you can’t really admire, because we’d all rather believe that we’re the guy with adversity, not the champion-by-default sort who’s never met a worthy adversary. And Teller does his part to give us a Rooster who’s a put-upon fuck-up, worthy but unlikely, flailing his way through his natural abilities and diminished confidence. He and Maverick have history, and this is in many ways as much his journey as it is the older man’s.
But only barely. It’s not Top Gun: Rooster. The mission undertaken in this movie is, of course, impossible. Much of Maverick is an attempt to make a case for the utter implausibility of anyone pulling it off. And so, even in a movie which in so many ways neatly follows the blueprint of the original, there’s the thrill of being numbed into thinking they won’t make it.
Again, Cruise’s own vulnerabilities account for a lot — as do Maverick’s. This is a movie set at the dawn of automation. One day, the planes won’t need pilots. If you invite pilots, you get human mess. That’s a terrifying prospect for Maverick, but you can see how the establishment types (deftly represented in this movie by a wonderfully humorless Jon Hamm) got there. When machines rebel, it terrifies us. When people do it, we cheer, unless they’re coming for us.
One of the many essences of the Top Gun franchise since the start is man’s mastery of those machines, a mastery that always felt like a form of rebellion. It’s as much a franchise about individuals breaking the rules (to the benefit of the rule-makers) as it is a franchise about planes that break through to Mach 10 because the pilots at their helm have an almost otherworldly control over them. The most exhilarating thing about Top Gun: Maverick is the case it goes out of its way to make for the mess of humanity as a form of mastery over steel, air, everything else. It’s no wonder that the training scenes start off a bit inchoate, random shots of planes flying intercut with reaction shots that are meant to making us believe that something is actually happening up there, before gradually, over the course of the movie, getting sharper, more active, and inching closer and closer to making us feel like we’re playing an RPG.
No, it doesn’t totally make sense that a league of young people would be put at risk — the price being their lives — to do an impossible job, a job that nearly requires to break the backs of their machines, in order to save the world (or, anyway, the United States). So the movie is making an intriguing case. If you want Mavericks — people, not machines, controlling machines — you’re inviting the risk of casualty, which is higher-cost and more emotional. But we’re meant to think that the emotions make it worth it.
Maverick rightly presupposes that we’d rather root for Tom Cruise than a machine. We’d rather watch a movie about team-building, overcoming the odds, and defying our own limits than about robots roboting their way through a war. But this is an idea that only really works if you strip the war of anything that makes it feel too personal. That’s what always felt eerie, for me, about the original Top Gun. When the battle gets real, the movie still feels like a training mission. And it’s always been curious that Top Gun — a movie about American might and mastery, about preparing fighters for war — could feel like it was playing out in such an other-world that training missions and the actual mission were forced to blend in the viewer’s mind. “The enemy” still feels like it’s in quotes. Maverick is less surreal in that sense, but only barely. The planes that “the enemy” is flying look awfully like Russian Su-57s, which are stealth fighters incarnate, even as this is not a movie that makes an explicit point of being about Russia. The toy merchandise calls them “Enemy Strike Jets,” but no one here is fooled, and we aren’t really meant to be. Either way, the people on the other side are only barely people, helmeted bodies with no voices, faces, or fear, which is the kind of illusion that this movie needs to sustain to make sense.
It’s got other things on its mind. There’s Maverick’s loneliness, and the sparks rekindled with Penelope (Jennifer Connelly), a new love interest given an old storyline: This is a woman Maverick has seen and abandoned before. There’s that uranium that Maverick’s top-shelf pupils must learn to blow up for NATO’s sake. There’s also the problem of mortality, the harbinger of which hangs over Maverick by way of his memories of Goose and Iceman. (Kilmer’s only scene in the movie, a cherry-on-top callback that can’t help but feel like a tribute to the ailing actor’s iconic career, is moving.)
It’s a fresh-faced gloss on the original, in other words, powered, like the original, by a star who’ll simply never stop being a star. The big mission makes for the most exciting moment; the build-up is worthwhile. When Maverick goes its own way, it tends to lose itself — as when that last mission offers up a blindside and an extra leg of action, a bit of syrupy character building by way of an old junk plane. “The enemy,” in this movie, has a curious way of popping up and pulling back when it’s convenient, as if the movie’s conceding that this is all mere simulation. As hero-cosplay for Cruise, a simulation was all it was ever meant to be.