In an era of endless reboots and franchise-building, Top Gun: Maverick is that rare thing: a genuine sequel. In fact, it makes you realise that reboots are largely about foreclosing the vulnerability that always comes with a genuine sequel, which has to invoke the original enough to feel continuous with it, but avoid feeling derivative at the same time. That task is even more mammoth with an original like Top Gun, which spawned so many copies and parodies that the idea of a sequel felt all but impossible by the time Maverick was finally pitched. Yet somehow, miraculously, Maverick works, partly due to the charisma of Tom Cruise, who hasn’t dimmed since the 1980s, partly due to Christopher McQuarrie’s oversight of the screenplay, which thereby becomes a companion piece to Mission Impossible: Fallout, one of the greatest action films of the century, and partly due to the direction of Joseph Kosinski, who pays loving tribute to Tony Scott while never once wavering on his own vision.
From a distance, Kosinski was an unusual choice to direct Maverick, given how much of the original Top Gun depended upon stunt flying in real time and space. With Oblivion and Tron: Legacy as two of his biggest releases, Kosinski has developed an aesthetic at the nexus between cinema and digital gaming, which might initially seem inimical to the resolutely physical style of action cinema that we saw in Tony Scott’s original. Yet just as Scott uses physical action to gesture towards a digital horizon, Kosinski reaches back over that horizon to acknowledge the way that Scott laid the foundation for digital cinema as we currently know it. As a result, much of the first act of Maverick plays as a homage to and continuation of Scott’s distinctive vision. The entire film feels poised at the ecstatic moment just before takeoff, which is once again encapsulated in Cruise’s Maverick riding a motorcycle alongside an ascending jet. Kosinski, too, leans into the sheer muscularity of American spectacle, suffusing the film with images intoxicating enough to win (or displace) any ideological war. The volleyball match might have been replaced by a football match, but it’s still the same endless summer beach, full of air-sculpted physiques, irresistible reaction shots and contagious patriotic affect: the American body as a lithe, lean, perfectly constructed machine.
Yet this exquisite taste for the originality of Scott’s vision is offset by a potential decline narrative: the navy has decided to close down Top Gun, which means closing down widescreen spectacle as Hollywood once knew it. Maverick’s new boss, Beau Simpson, played by Jon Hamm, attributes this to the rise of fully automated planes, which promise to replace analog pilots with digital pilots. Maverick may still be “the fastest man alive,” but Simpson pointedly tells him that “the future is coming and you’re not in it.” Nor is any body, in the most literal sense, since this is a future where embodied feats in real space and time, along with the widescreen analog spectacle that once celebrated them, is on the verge of being subsumed into a digital culture that might be high on efficiency, but is very low on excitement. It’s hard, then, not to read this digitised future as an allegory for the endless Marvel-styled franchise-building that audiences are only now just starting to resist, as evinced in the box office success of both Maverick and Everything Everywhere All at Once, two very different films that nevertheless resist the Marvel model of world-building as we’ve come to know it.
Of course, this is also something of a personal decline narrative for Maverick himself. While Cruise is just as charismatic, there’s no doubt that he has aged in the last thirty years – or rather, that the people around him have aged. Kelly McGillis’ Charlie has long gone, replaced by Jennifer Connelly’s Penny, a love interest from the years between the two films, but even this romance is fading by the time she reunites with Maverick. While Maverick does maintain his macho banter with Val Kilmer’s Iceman, it’s only via text message, and so the film takes a powerfully poignant turn when we realise that text messages are all that Iceman can muster. He’s in the last stages of throat cancer, meaning that when Maverick visits his house, he continues to communicate by typing onto his laptop, leaving the strain of speaking for one final statement: “It’s time to let go.” In that sense, Iceman is a vision of the digitally remediated future, a world where all the thick macho texture and charisma of the analog era is rationalised into so many efficient (but, again, depressingly unexciting) digital exchanges.
Yet neither Maverick’s friendship with Iceman, nor his romance with Charlie, comes close to the emotional core of Top Gun – his love affair with Goose. Before Top Gun, action films asked their (predominantly male) audiences to gaze in awe at the hyperbolised musculature of Stallone, Arnie and Van Damme, even as they paranoically reproached those same audiences for even the slightest homoerotic inflection to their gaze. Scott changed action cinema (or perhaps just moved beyond it) by deflating that paranoia, instead inviting his audience to bask in the same homoerotic ambience that the men in the film so overtly enjoy. Maverick and Goose’s romance was thus an apotheosis of Scott’s vision, and was consummated in the film’s frankly sexual aerial sequences, much as Goose’s death was the most visually stunning and emotionally affecting point in the film, entirely eclipsing Maverick’s “romance” with Charlie.
Things have changed in gay liberation since the 1980s, meaning that the homoerotic content is at once more overt, more banal and more poignant in Maverick. On the one hand, Maverick’s romance with Goose is deflected and desexualised into being a father-figure for his son, Rooster, played by Miles Teller, who’s coming through the Top Gun program at the very moment that Maverick tries to save it. On the other hand, the film is full of much balder queer images and allusions than the original, from the double entendre of Rooster’s name, to the constant references to the suggestively titled “hard deck” (the highest altitude a plane can fly in any given mission) to the pervasive imagery of aircraft going from horizontal to vertical inflections in the space of seconds. Combined with the melodramatic flashbacks to Goose’s death, this shifts the emotional core of the film from a gay romance to a single, older gay man reflecting back on his life, which possibly resonates with Cruise’s own life as well. If Cruise is indeed queer, it explains the peculiar poignancy and intensity he brings to this part.
As in the original, however, these homoerotic elements are largely explored through the spatial and aerial schemes that Kosinski unfolds. Whereas Scott’s version was poised at the cusp between the upper sky and outer space, Kosinski unfolds two discrete aerial zones that initially seem somewhat incongruous with one another. We see the first of these in Maverick’s opening flight, which takes place at night, and propels him so high above the cloud layer that he seems on the verge of going into orbit, especially since he’s using this flight to prove that a human pilot can fly faster and further than a digital surrogate. This evening backdrop is all the more striking in that the film starts by reprising the sunkissed oceanic images of the original, meaning our eyes are still attuned to that warm palette when Kosinski rockets us into the heavens. As Maverick goes faster and faster, his plane abstracts into a mere pulse of light, a shooting star, before the engine gives out and he plunges to earth like an alien spacecraft, culminating a sequence that plays more like science fiction than anything in Scott’s vision. When Maverick survives the fall, and stumbles into a nearby tavern, he asks the locals a simple question, and receives an equally simple response: “Where am I?” “Earth.”
Yet this new cosmic dimension to aerial travel is also offset by a more grounded sense of what flying entails. We see hints of it in the strange tone of this last scene, which is cosmic, to be sure, but also somewhat bathetic: the kid who tells Maverick that he’s returned to Earth is midway through a bowl of cereal when he delivers this critical piece of information. Accordingly, once Maverick agrees to train the last generation of Top Gun pilots (including Rooster), the second major flying sequence stays as close to the ground as the first one reaches for the heavens. Whereas Scott tended to shoot the plane cabin side on, Kosinski favours front-on perspectives, meaning that the horizon is always present somewhere in the background, especially because Maverick’s first training manoeuvres involve keeping the plane as close to the ground as possible. At times, these scenes seem to be paying tribute to the low-flying yet hypersonic aircraft scenes that unfold over the opening credits of Revenge.
Whereas Scott’s original poises us between upper sky and outer space, then, Kosinski’s aerial scheme alternates between ground-hugging and universe-aspiring trajectories. This conflict epitomises the challenge of the sequel itself, which must stay close to the original but also chart out its own path, while also reflecting the peculiar plight of Maverick (and Cruise), who are on the verge of being grounded by age, but for that very reason yearn for transcendence as never before. That dialectic between ground and sky produces the romance of Maverick – or, rather, supplants the ostensible romance with Connelly’s Penny, whose most important contribution is teaching Maverick how to sail. As he learns to tack to and fro, he becomes adept at reading a volatile surface from close range (in this case, the ocean), but also uses that surface to lean into the vast cosmic wind that blows across this scene, which is easily the most interstellar in the film. For a moment, Maverick is poised right on the surface of the earth, and communing with the most distant and sublime reaches of the universe, and it’s only in the context of this spatial scheme that his romance with Penny really makes any sense.
It’s only a matter of time, however, before this grounded-cosmic romance is redirected back towards Goose, via two surrogates: Rooster and flying. For Maverick soon learns that he has to take Rooster, and several of his other trainees, on a mission that combines this ground-hugging and interstellar flight more minutely than any he has ever flown. The target is a nuclear power plant, in an unidentified rogue state, although the ideology of this state is quickly deflected into the topography surrounding the plant. To approach the plant, Maverick and his pilots have to navigate their way through a river valley, while remaining as close to the ground as possible, in order to avoid aircraft-detecting radar. Similarly, the plant itself is underground, meaning they almost have to cruise along the ground to bomb it. However, the plant is nestled in a massive caldera that rises from the end of the river valley. To enter this caldera, the pilots can simply hug the rock surface as they crest over the top, but to leave it they have to execute a supersonic vertical egress, since they will quickly become detectable to anti-aircraft radar once again. In other words, having hugged the terrain, they have to set their sights on outer space when they finally depart to have any chance of making it out alive.
The mission thus encapsulates and fuses the ground-hugging and supersonic dimensions of the film and, in doing so, changes the nature of the aerial action. In the original, Maverick was set in splendid isolation against sublime abstractions of sea and air, and while we do approach the river valley from that oceanic expanse, the action quickly becomes far more embodied and contorted once the low-level flying begins. Rather than focusing on great loops through space, Kosinski hones in on the bodily pressure of the mission – first, from the intensity of the twists, turns and torques needed to hug the ground through such contorted terrain; then, from the intensity of the final “high-G climbout” from the valley, which places the same pressure on the brain, lungs and heart as a rocket launch into outer space, but without the amenities of space technology. At the peak of this climbout, we’re told, the pilots will weigh over 2000 pounds, and will likely lose consciousness, meaning it’s critical they pull vertically as hard as possible, to take them well beyond the anti-aircraft gun if they do indeed pass out.
This is an extraordinary spectacle in theory, but it’s even more incredible to see it performed in actuality, in a final act that counts as one of the best aerial sequences of all time. It’s a spiritual sequel to Mission Impossible: Fallout that also stands wholly within the Top Gun brand, and may be even more visceral to watch than the original. Certainly, there’s a much greater focus on what happens inside the cabin, where the best way to measure the most important parts of the mission – the rapid pivots through the valley and the vertical high-G egress – is via the traumatic toll they take on the pilots’ bodies. At times, it’s almost too vertiginous and nauseating to watch, and often had me leaning back in my multiplex seat to recoil from the impact, much as the pilots themselves brace backwards for every fresh move.
That in itself would be an extraordinary climax, but McQuarrie and Kosinski include one last touch to reprise the original romance with Goose. While Maverick and Rooster have a tortured relationship for the first two acts, they finally reconcile on the tarmac before taking off, and promise to talk when they return from bombing the plant. It makes sense, then, that Maverick puts himself in the line of fire to protect Rooster, and that Rooster then circles back to rescue him when his plane goes down, paving the way for a supplemental third act that condenses this dialectic between grounded and supersonic flight to the relation between the two men. In the first part of this process, Maverick is grounded as never before. All of a sudden, he looks short, running across the wintry landscape as a foreign helicopter tries to shoot him down. Maverick is so synonymous with the pilot’s seat that it’s almost comic to see him on foot, and that comedy continues when Rooster lands, seeks him out, and then runs straight into him in the middle of a forest. These two might have a sublime rapport in the air, or on a tarmac, or at a military training facility, but there’s a bathetic quality in seeing them meet on foot, in the midst of a landscape so remote from sunkissed America. For a brief beat, their rapport has all the awkwardness of meeting in an all-but-forgotten cruising site of yore.
Yet this bathetic sequence, which encapsulates all the groundedness of the film, gives way to the most daring vertical egress of them all, as the two men creep back to the enemy base, steal an F-14 Tomcat, and use the “very short taxi way” that they just bombed to execute a total vertical liftoff. The plane reaches verticality in an instant, the film leans into that same climb, and Maverick and Goose escape, only to realise that the ejector seat has broken, meaning they’re destined to lose consciousness and head into outer space indefinitely, in a relic of the space age and the original film. In the end, they’re saved, and Maverick reunites with Penny, but everything from here feels like an afterthought, since this is the true final note of Maverick, the last echo of its homoerotic romanticism: Cruise losing consciousness as he sinks into total vertical liftoff, groundedness to cosmic sublimity in the space of seconds.