Rarely does a nostalgia-driven sequel make a case for itself as well as Top Gun: Maverick does. Picking up 36 years after Top Gun, we find Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) working as a test pilot on a next-gen jet on the brink of being scrapped in favor of unmanned drones. Maverick may be older, but he is no wiser, and he pushes boundaries and pisses off admirals with the same unrepentant attitude he had back in his heyday in the 1980s. But this time, he’s on his last chance, handed one more opportunity to stick around by Admiral Kazansky, the once and future Iceman (Val Kilmer), and it is apparent that over the years, Iceman has saved Maverick’s bacon more than once. (Maverick has this weird thing where everyone berates Mav for being “just” a captain—the naval equivalent of a colonel—when it would have made so much more sense to turn that around to everyone being amazed he made even made captain, since it’s clear Iceman is the only reason Mav has survived so long in the Navy.)
Iceman’s last-chance orders are to train a cohort of young aviators for a top-secret mission that combines a number of precision skills Maverick possesses. The student is now the teacher as Maverick returns to Top Gun and is confronted by a sort of mirror image of the past. There is Hangman (Glen Powell), who has Iceman’s blonde good looks and Maverick’s asshole attitude; Phoenix (Monica Barbaro) and her second-seater, Bob (Lewis Pullman); and Payback (Jay Ellis), Fanboy (Danny Ramirez), and Coyote (Greg Tarzan Davis) as the second-stringers in the class. There is also Rooster (Miles Teller), the grown-up son of Goose, who cannot stand Maverick, and is the kind of careful aviator Maverick never was. (Not included: Manny Jacinto, who only appears in the film for like 30 seconds.)
There is plenty of nostalgia packed into Maverick, but what saves it from being a soulless memory exercise is the sincerity of the emotional connection between Maverick and Rooster, as well as between Maverick and Penny (Jennifer Connelly), the admiral’s daughter Mav fooled around with back in the 80s. It is implied Mav and Penny have had an on-off relationship over the years, but Maverick has never really grown up and has not made connections the way he once had with Goose. The film does not belabor the point, but it’s pretty clear Mav never recovered from Goose’s death, and Iceman is the only real grounding circuit in his life. It would be tempting to paint a portrait of Maverick 30-plus years later as a larger-than-life hero as he was in 1986, but Maverick, while noted as a top aviator, is a lonely, almost pitiable figure.
Oh, he’s cool in the cockpit, for sure. The aerial stunts are amazing, the flight photography utterly breathtaking (the film is directed by Joseph Kosinski with cinematography by Claudio Miranda). Technology has advanced such that the filmmakers can seamlessly put the audience in the cockpit in the midst of death-defying stunts, and the result is viscerally thrilling. Is Top Gun: Maverick shameless pro-military propaganda? Yes, absolutely. Is it also an electrifying piece of action cinema? 100%. It is a gorgeous film from every angle and is equally sure to inspire a new generation of would-be pilots as the first film did. But matched with that is Maverick staring down the end of his career, a surrogate son who resents him, and a lover who doesn’t trust him. Maverick is essentially the story of a grief-stricken man who buried himself in work trying to figure out what life is when that work is ended.
But with lots of cool flying! Don’t worry, Maverick isn’t going to bum you out. But the emotional beats work, and the payoffs mean something because the core of the narrative is grounded in real emotions and not just pure spectacle and nostalgia. It would be easy to just make a cool spectacle and cash in on the Top Gun name, but Cruise & Co. tell a great story, with all that shiny spectacle in service of bringing Maverick full circle, honoring what came before while still pushing forward with a story that feels worth telling all these years later.
Top Gun: Maverick is the kind of film that will make you cheer in theaters, but it should also withstand the test of time, just as Top Gun has.
Top Gun: Maverick is exclusively in movie theaters from May 27, 2022.