Editor’s Note: Sara Stewart is a film and culture writer who lives in western Pennsylvania. The views expressed here are solely the author’s own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
The op-ed below contains mild spoilers for “Top Gun: Maverick.”
“Top Gun: Maverick” may well be the box-office hit of the year, thanks to a perfect storm of circumstance. It’s Memorial Day weekend; people are feeling a tiny bit more adventurous; everyone needs an escape from the horrors of the real world; and… Tom Cruise.
Cruise, one of our last bona fide Movie Stars, is the one who reportedly insisted that this movie, shot back in 2019, not be released on a streaming platform. And damn, was he right. This glorious blockbuster demands to be seen on the biggest possible screen, and hold on to your popcorn, because the for-real aerial stunts must be experienced in high definition to be believed. (The academic dean of the Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics was seated behind me at our screening. His review: “Fantastic!”)
More crucially, “TGM” pulls off the highly tricky maneuver of bringing back all the adrenaline and bravado that made the first “Top Gun” such an indelible 1980s milestone, while excising some of its more toxic elements and (at least mildly) updating its worldview. Its politics are just vague enough to inspire nearly everyone to leave the theater cheering. Who but Pete “Maverick” Mitchell could unite this deeply fractured country?
As much as the callow, high-flying original was a product of its era, the long-delayed “Top Gun: Maverick” manages to be the perfect sequel for now – weighted with melancholy and mortality, but still striving for meaning and glory. It might just be the first movie since the beginning of the pandemic to really remind us of the sheer fun to be had in a communal theater experience.
Now, I don’t know how long it’s been since you’ve seen 1986’s “Top Gun,” but spoiler alert, it is quite dated: The late director Tony Scott’s fighter-pilot saga embodies the red-white-and-blue macho ethos of the Reagan years, complete with a daredevil hero literally flipping off the Russians.
Hilariously, there is no such thing as subtext in Scott’s film. The rogue protagonist is named Maverick. The guy who’s cool under pressure is named Iceman (Val Kilmer). The goofy sidekick is Goose (Anthony Edwards). The boss who chews people out for violating protocol is Stinger (James Tolkan).
In a movie about a character with a deep disregard for authority, well, here’s some subtle dialogue:
Iceman: “I don’t like you because you’re dangerous.”
Maverick: “That’s right, Iceman. I am dangerous.”
The original “Top Gun” also manages to be one of the most (unintentionally?) homoerotic films of the decade, thanks to its sun-drenched beach volleyball scene and male pilots who say things to each other like, “This gives me a hard-on” while watching videos of warplanes. But it’s also rife with eye-rolling sexism, from the way the Top Gun recruits snicker at Kelly McGillis’ Charlie when she debates security clearance with Maverick, to lines like Iceman’s, “The plaque for the alternates is down in the ladies room.”
It’s also the kind of movie where Maverick following a woman into the bathroom and suggesting they do it on the countertop is supposed to be seen as hot, not creepy. I can’t speak for all womankind, but this is the kind of stuff that makes a gal feel like a movie really wasn’t made with her in mind.
Under the director of Joseph Kosinski (“Oblivion”), Cruise’s older, craggier Maverick appears to have done some growing and changing. He’s still weighed down with sorrow over the death of his wingman, Goose, and he’s feeling his wheelhouse of capability has narrowed. That ambition to teach that he teased at the end of the first movie didn’t work out so well. He doesn’t seem to have fared any better romantically; maybe the tactic of enlisting an entire bar to drunkenly sing along with the Righteous Brothers to woo a love interest didn’t age all that well.
What breaks “TGM” out of its sexist history is its embrace of a different kind of masculinity. The film is an exploration of what it is to be incredibly good at one thing – yes, he’s still dangerous in the air! – while quite vulnerable in other areas. One of the film’s many high points is a short, emotional scene between Cruise and Kilmer as the now-ailing Admiral Tom “Iceman” Kazansky; the onetime adversaries have forged a friendship in the intervening decades. Jennifer Connelly steps in as Pete’s old-and-new love interest, bar owner Penny Benjamin, and if there’s one actress who really radiates that she doesn’t take any s**t, it’s Connelly. Penny takes Pete sailing, only to discover that – despite being a Navy man – he has no idea which rope is which.
The film even uses his real name a lot of the time – sometimes he’s a Maverick, but a lot of the time he’s just a Pete.
But don’t get the wrong idea: There is no shortage of truly intoxicating action here. The new group of Top Gun recruits, for whom Maverick is brought in by Iceman to teach about a super-treacherous mission, are dewy and cocky in all the best ways. But they’re not a-holes about it, with the possible exception of “Hangman” (Glen Powell, in the Iceman model).
They’re also a more diverse group, with some non-White actors and one female pilot (Monica Barbaro) who’s never depicted as belittled or harassed by her peers. Importantly, the film also goes to great lengths, which are pretty thrilling to watch, to show just how hard it is to fly missions like this: The crushing weight on your body as you climb straight upwards, the nerve-shredding adjacence to death.
“TGM” is the latest project to mine our action-movie nostalgia while updating, or straight-up mocking, dusty old stereotypes. The Sandra Bullock movie “The Lost City” tweaked the “Romancing the Stone” formula with a charming performance from Channing Tatum as a beta-male hero. And Peacock’s criminally underrated “MacGruber” series, spawned by the 2010 movie, stars Will Forte in a pitch-perfect parody of obnoxious, rule-flouting 1980s action stars. (The most hilarious sequence from the “MacGruber” movie draws heavily on the cringey, tongue-heavy sex scene from “Top Gun.”)
At its core, of course, “Top Gun: Maverick” still goes hard on the American exceptionalism, on the idea that being smug and difficult and breaking the rules is just part of patriotic heroism. It’s bellicose in a way that is not un-problematic: In what reality is it OK for the United States to just bomb another (unnamed) country’s uranium stores, even if it is suggestively implied to be global pariah Russia? There are some legitimate diplomacy concerns to have around the film’s major plot point. While Cruise has said that he never thought of the original film as propaganda, the original film reportedly inspired a spike in military enlistments. And, as Cruise has said in a recent interview about “TGM,” he and the rest of the cast and crew “worked with the Navy and the Top Gun school to formulate how to shoot it practically.” So, it’s not not a pro-military movie.
But mostly, honestly, it’s two hours of sheer, visceral fun on the big screen, which feels very retro. In the best possible way.