Top Gun: Maverick is film obsessed with its former self

In a new article on The Conversation, University of Canterbury Dr Erin Harrington explores the themes of nostalgia, loyalty and heroism in the new Top Gun film.

  • Tom Cruise Top Gun

    Photo credit: Skydance Media

Legacy films are more than a sequel: they hand franchises down to a new generation of viewers, passing a cultural baton.

At the opening night screening I attended of Top Gun: Maverick, when the lights went down, someone loudly whispered “let’s go!” – a perfect evocation of such films’ sense of expectation and repetition.

Films can’t entirely escape their contexts.

Top Gun (1986), an arena rock concert of a film, paints hot-shot US Navy aviator Lt Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) as a charismatic all-American rebel. He doesn’t play by the rules, but knows how to be loyal when it counts.

Maverick and his best friend Lt Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards) train at the elite Naval Fighter Weapons School, dubbed TOPGUN, which schools the “best of the best” in aerial dog-fighting.

Accompanied by a hyper-masculine soundtrack of screaming electric guitars and thudding synths, the reckless Maverick must negotiate his grief at Goose’s accidental death, his rivalry with Lt Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer) and the long shadow of his father’s reputation – before beating out enemy fighters and getting the girl.

In this new film, Maverick, now a test pilot, is reluctantly recalled to TOPGUN to train top graduates in a seemingly impossible mission of global importance – or be grounded forever.

A film obsessed with itself

Like recent legacy hits such as the third Star Wars trilogy, Blade Runner 2049 and The Matrix: Resurrections, Top Gun: Maverick is a film obsessed with its earlier self.

It’s still a competition film with exhilarating action and flight sequences. It matches many of the original film’s narrative and emotional beats. It restages key moments and re-imagines others.

The film revisits old characters, reworks the original score and incorporates earlier footage into flashbacks. It surrounds the characters with photographs of their younger selves. It even rolls its end credits over the same burnt orange skies.

Legacy films always have an implicit relationship with the older films’ ideas and politics, and the conditions of their creation.

Top Gun heralded a new, powerful relationship between Hollywood and the US Department of Defense that persists today. Producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson had pitched a film to the Pentagon based on journalist Ehud Yonay’s 1983 article Top Guns well before any screenplay was written.

The US Navy was actively seeking a beneficial project to support. The Navy offered significant practical support and had input into the script, and the film was regarded as a seductive recruitment tool.

The TOPGUN program

The TOPGUN program was established by the US Navy in 1969 to train elite pilots in response to aerial combat failures during the Vietnam War. The 1986 film helped rehabilitate the US military’s image in popular culture after Vietnam.

The film expressed vibrantly the jingoistic patriotism of the Reagan era. The Americans are noble good guys who don’t shoot first. The “bogeys” are faceless antagonists, their red star insignia and Soviet MiGs marking them part of a Communist threat.

The geopolitics of Top Gun: Maverick are vague, even chaste. The baddies are an unnamed power that has developed a secret uranium enrichment facility deep within a mountainous region. They are a threat to NATO allies, have superior technology, and anonymous soldiers – and that’s it.

This doesn’t affect the action, but the mission is backdrop to a small-scale, human story about bridging intergenerational divides, coming to terms with the past and re-establishing familial bonds.

It is inoffensive enough to cater to Hollywood’s global audience. Beyond mention of contemporary American pilots spending more time dropping bombs from on high than engaging in aerobatic dogfights, and passing references to Iraq and Bosnia, this is a military film largely devoid of war.

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