The Ludicrous Beauty of Top Gun: Maverick

It’s just what every cineplex in the country needs.

Tom Cruise staring intensely while standing in front of a plane in "Top Gun"

In the original Top Gun, the enemy is intentionally obscure: anonymous pilots flying MiGs from a hostile but unnamed country who have to be chased away and shot down by the heroic Maverick (played by Tom Cruise) and his fellow graduates of the Top Gun naval flight school. Who exactly the enemy is does not matter. What matters is that the hero is America. Tony Scott’s film was a highly successful, undeniably compelling advertisement for brash 1980s jingoism. Now, 36 years later, after many pandemic-induced delays, comes Top Gun: Maverick, a legacy sequel that brings the same hotshot pilot back to the fore, assigned to an all-new mission against another faceless antagonist. But this time, the hero isn’t America. It’s, well, Tom Cruise.

Of course, Top Gun: Maverick is still overflowing with muscular displays of American military might, but this follow-up, directed by Joseph Kosinski, has less flag-waving abandon. Instead, the propaganda is for its twinkly-eyed star, who throws on a pair of aviators and a flight jacket, revs his motorcycle, and zooms back to the Top Gun academy. His mission? Making the case for genuine movie stars continually blowing audiences away on the big screen. As a sequel, the film is not narratively groundbreaking, focusing on the protagonist’s struggle to let go of the past in our less sentimental present. But as a stand-alone blockbuster that’s just trying to suck viewers’ eyeballs out of their sockets with hellacious flight photography and thunderous sound, Maverick is just what every cineplex in the country has been crying out for.

If that assessment sounds hyperbolic, I urge every reader to try to see Maverick in major cinemas if possible, because even by the standards of today’s mega-budgeted blockbusters, this one is a particularly immersive experience. I myself was furiously Googling where to buy some Dramamine as I exited the theater. (I say this as a high compliment.) The screenplay also has a solid hook. Maverick returns to train a group of pilots that includes Rooster (Miles Teller), the son of his deceased wingman, Goose (Anthony Edwards), whose death in the first film hangs over this one. But Maverick works best when it’s in the air, battering the viewers’ senses and showing off just how much intense piloting Cruise and the rest of the cast did to achieve the film’s spectacular action.

Plenty of summer action films have exciting visuals—think caped superheroes shooting energy beams at one another while zipping around the galaxy. And yet, all the expensive CGI in the world can’t match the visceral view of Cruise sitting in the cockpit of an F-18 with plane-mounted cameras pointed right at him as the forces of gravity smoosh his face flat. The flight photography in the original Top Gun was massively impressive for its time, but it’s Stone Age stuff compared with what Kosinski and his team have accomplished here, where every action sequence looks utterly real even when the circumstances are absolutely ludicrous.

That quality is a hallmark of Cruise’s recent cinematic output, which has stressed big-screen verisimilitude and the sense that the actor is stretching his physical limits. His stunt work in the Mission: Impossible series has seen him strapped to the outside of airplanes as they take off, and tossed into the air at nearly 30,000 feet. In Maverick, he’s safely ensconced inside a cockpit, but the physical strain of what he’s doing still looks extraordinary. That tension is just about the only way he can function as a movie star anymore. Cruise seems aware that audiences stopped accepting him as a relatable, normal human being long ago—but will still buy in if he’s playing someone who’s unnaturally obsessed with succeeding.

For that reason, I’m surprised he took so long to return to the character of Maverick (that’s his aviator call sign, of course—real name, Pete Mitchell), who’s defined by his sense of defiance. In Top Gun, he’s a skilled pilot chasing the ghost of his much-admired dad, a deceased Navy legend, and he’s constantly taking risks, to the consternation of his commanding officers. In Maverick, he’s not all that different, having declined promotions beyond the rank of captain and now working as a test pilot for experimental military planes accelerating toward 10 times the speed of sound. After he flouts authority during a test flight, Maverick is bumped back to Top Gun to lead a team of graduates, under the grumpy command of a vice admiral named Cyclone (Jon Hamm).

This time, the ghost haunting Maverick is Goose, and the film’s emotional weight rests on him fighting to earn the respect of Rooster, a crack pilot who holds Maverick responsible for his father’s death. A few gentle subplots revolve around Maverick rekindling his relationship with an old flame named Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly, luminous if underused), some traditional macho jockeying for respect among the graduates, and a somewhat wrenching cameo by Iceman (Val Kilmer), Maverick’s old rival, an admiral who is now plagued with health problems similar to those that have curtailed Kilmer’s career in recent years.

That’s all secondary to the central question of whether Maverick, whose best-of-the-best attitude so closely parallels Cruise’s action-star exceptionalism, can still outclass all of his competitors. The character often ponders whether his individualism still has value in such a rigid field of work. But this is a Tom Cruise vehicle, one where he’s hitching himself to jets for our delight and amusement. The answer is never really in doubt.

Listen to David Sims discuss Top Gun on an episode of The Atlantic’s culture podcast The Review: