As a movie, Top Gun: Maverick is very good. As a sequel to a movie that’s good and not great, Top Gun: Maverick is excellent. The original Top Gun isn’t really bad by any means… it just doesn’t have a ton that makes it stand out, other than a sweaty, shirtless beach volleyball scene. The characters are fun and endearing, and it’s a wholesome romp, but the plane action, which should be the movie’s selling point, is indecipherable at times. Fortunately, Maverick — the sequel that came out 36 years earlier than it did — vastly improves on that, making it one of the few modern, mainstream action movies that can genuinely excite.
Much like its predecessor, Maverick is a perfectly neat, tidy, and wholesome action movie. But the ante has been upped this time because Tom Cruise is more likely to be seen hanging off the side of an airplane than having an intense, dramatic conversation when it comes to what he does on movie sets. In fact, Cruise, Miles Teller, Monica Barbaro, and Glen Powell each did at least some of their own flying in the film. The realism comes across on screen — the flights that Maverick teaches his new students are thrilling, whether they’re just doing practice runs, or if it’s the real thing.
The film, which is directed by Joseph Kosinski, and dedicated to Tony Scott, the director of the original, keeps all the charm that was present in the original. The events of the first film certainly hang heavy over the events of the sequel, but it’s a new story. 30-plus years later, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Cruise) is brought back in to the Navy to instruct their best aviators on a mission that can only be done by the best of the best. The details of the mission? Not important. For a movie that could easily fall into praising the military industrial complex, its references are vague at best. The aviators need to blow up the enemy’s base, but we never see faces or hear names of the enemies. The focus is kept solely on our cast of main characters, which is a highly effective choice.
Keeping the scope of the story small, while widening its overall scale helps to both increase both the charm and the awe of the original. The pacing is thrown off a bit in scenes where Maverick reunites with Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly), his long-lost love, but those scenes also carry enough levity and fun to not completely derail the story. And we quickly fall in love with the new group of pilots. (Val Kilmer does return in a touching scene, but we’re mostly limited to Cruise when it comes to the legacy characters.) Teller and Powell hold their own, but Barbaro and Lewis Pullman stand out as the sole female aviator and the scrawny RIO Bob, respectively. The film never goes out of its way to make a big deal about their inclusion, but the weight of them being there is felt nonetheless.
Most intriguingly, Top Gun: Maverick works well as an allegory for movie superstardom. Maverick is told from the beginning that he’s being grounded, phased out, and will be replaced by robots sooner rather than later. But much like Cruise, the character is unwilling to let his career be taken over by those with lesser abilities, or who don’t care about doing the job right. Maverick refuses to execute the mission in a way that risks casualties more than it should, which conjures memories of Cruise tearing into the crew of Mission: Impossible 7 for not following COVID-19 protocols. For Cruise and for Maverick, true excitement and safety in the workplace come first, and that’s at least a bit admirable. Ultimately, the young guns and the old guard may well be able to coexist.
Top Gun: Maverick is inextricably tied to its predecessor. They will doubtless be compared in all conversations about one or the other, but at the end of the day, Top Gun has simply turned into a solid action franchise. If you want charm and a small scale, watch the original. If you want charm and a large scale, watch the sequel. Or, you could always just watch both.