Top Gun: Maverick: The Earnest Blockbuster From Yesteryear
Why is Top Gun: Maverick a Success?
Top Gun: Maverick is earning both money at the box office and high praise from critics and moviegoers at Mach speed. In a movie landscape replete with reboots, cinematic universes and now multiverses (even independent films are in on it), why does Maverick stand as tall as it does? Simply put, Joseph Kosinski’s movie harkens back to the kind earnest filmmaking from a bygone era.
This article does not assume it possesses definitive answers. The appreciation of art is subjective. Any attempt to explain success or failure is itself loaded with interpretation and extrapolation. Still, it has a 97% Rotten Tomatoes critic score, a 99% Rotten Tomatoes audience score, and cruised past $300M globally in less than a week. As of this writing (June 2nd) Maverick is in the Apple Movies top 10…as a pre-order. Surely this means something.
Just Make a Top Gun Movie
Right from the opening credits, audiences are swept into the world Tony Scott introduced them to in 1986. Apart from the fact that the planes are more high-tech than the F14s seen in the original, it is virtually the same introduction. 80s computerized font, Harold Faltmeyer’s score accompanies slickly edited shots of US Navy fighter jets getting ready on a carrier ship at dawn, and Kenny Loggins’ now-iconic Danger Zone roars just as the planes do upon takeoff.
In many ways, the opening credits signal that the filmmakers are not out to reinvent the wheel. There are no moments at any point throughout Maverick that scream “this isn’t your father’s Top Gun!” It most certainly is, just with a new story. Sort of. The technology is new. The sound design and mixing are more sophisticated than they were back in the 80s. Several sequences are captured in the IMAX format. The story? All Top Gun.
The original film followed a group of hot shot pilots entering the titular school, all vying for graduation and the prize awarded to the top seeded student. Rivalries erupted, Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer were gorgeous Hollywood stars, military technobabble was uttered, verbal jousting was had, and superb model work and state-of-the-art cinematography and editing brought real aerial footage to the silver screen.
Maverick sees Tom Cruise’s Pete Mitchell teach a new batch of students at Top Gun for a super important mission. Rivalries make things interesting, Miles Teller, Glen Powell, and Monica Barbaro are hot Hollywood stars, military technobabble is uttered, verbal jousting is had, and unbelievable camerawork and editing bring real aerial footage to IMAX.
What it comes down to is classical Hollywood storytelling. Stories do not have to be complicated to be good. Simply being the latter is more than enough to carry a picture. More to the point, even a familiar story suffices if well told. As previously stated, there hardly anything novel in Top Gun: Maverick. It adheres to the original’s plot points quite closely whilst adding some new flavours.
There is a straightforwardness to the film that sometimes is lacking in modern blockbusters. No one will dispute that MCU films, Jurassic World, or Fast and Furious movies are successful. Legions of people love them. That said, once a series reaches its 6th entry, its 10th, or its 28th in the case of Multiverse of Madness, things often get convoluted. Maverick therefore operates as an antidote of sorts for those who may grow fatigued by the massive franchises that concoct loopy new ways to pump out new instalments.
Seeing something this simple ends up feeling refreshing. Sports films and heist films basically adhere to the same structure. A team is assembled, not everyone gets along at first, the leader finds a way to stitch the individuals into a cohesive unit, concluding with the team executing the gameplan. That Maverick transpires in a US Navy base and plants cameras in fighter plane cockpits adds to the experience. The audience feels like it is participating in Top Gun training.
It’s perfectly fine to be anti-war (laudable, even). Seeing a cockpit shot in IMAX format with surround sound of an F35 taking off from a carrier at sea is pretty cool.
The Importance of Being Earnest
Equally effective is the film’s earnestness. Kosinki’s picture doesn’t have a cynical bone in its body. Despite the rivalries within the squad, they all know they are working for the same cause. The harshest criticism any of them receives is that their reckless nature may get them, and a wingman get killed.
Following the opening credits, Maverick and a team of military aviation experts sneakily execute a test flight for a hypersonic plane still in development. An angry admiral is his way to cancel the project for “reasons”, so the team proves their worth by reaching Mach 10 speed before they are sent home. It’s a terrific example of dedication to a craft, to an idea, to ingenuity. It’s romantic, in the classical sense of term.
Touches from yesteryear Hollywood are everywhere. Maverick is desperate to be a father figure to the son he never had, a former Top Gun graduate frowns upon the hero’s off bold ways teaching methods, young bucks want to prove themselves, and there is a tender, very old school romance between the protagonist and a long lost love (Jennifer Connelly).
The icing on the cake is the bit of depth Maverick is awarded. His past with Goose’s son, callsign Rooster, weighs heavily. He desperately wants to protect him from harm’s way. Letting go would tie loose ends, but could send Rooster to his death. This element is handled confidently by the writing, direction, and acting. It’s not a complicated subplot in of itself. It complicates an already strained relationship.
Top Gun: Maverick is the sort of big budget Hollywood movie that doesn’t get made very often anymore. Were it not for the time jump and superior military technology, this could have come out a few years after the 1986 original. It’s so straightforward, the twist is that there is no twist.
As Maverick and Penny fly off into the sunset in their P51 and Lady Gaga belts out a new song written for the film, a lot of people are leaving the theatre thinking about an increasingly rare cinematic experience. Simple can still be good.