In the middle ages, European armies kept investing in heavy cavalry charges long after it had already proven ineffective as a battle strategy, presumably for one simple reason: it looked cool. Knights were society’s most glorious gloryboys, and watching them clatter around on their gigantic horses wearing hundreds of pounds of shiny plate armor was an impressive spectacle that no one wanted to give up, no matter how many times they got aerated by commoners with longbows or drowned themselves falling into waist-deep rivers or whatever. Knights made sense as an avatar, regardless of how actually useful they were.
A similar kind of impending obsolescence and stubborn chivalry suffuses Top Gun: Maverick, which in the very first scene sees its title character (played by Tom Cruise) trying to justify an experimental fighter program to a disapproving admiral. The admiral, played by steely Ed Harris, who has looked the same age for even longer than Tom Cruise, is nicknamed “The Drone Ranger,” and he’s determined to shut down this wasteful program, using the fact that they’re behind schedule on hitting their benchmarks for speed as his excuse. Bad move, pal. Tom Cruise eats afterburners and shits sonic booms.
Instead Maverick hijacks the experimental plane (apparently designed specifically for the movie but based on the SR-71) and takes it up to Mach 10, even though they’re barely cleared for Mach 9 (that’s so many Machs!). In effect, Maverick puts himself at great personal risk to save a jobs program. Guaranteed another paycheck, the ground crew cheer like the brake pad factory workers at the end of Tommy Boy. Tom Cruise isn’t being badass for him, he’s being badass for us. Wouldn’t we rather have Tom Cruise as a national avatar than some pimply drone pilot?
It’s a triumphant moment, even if the part left unsaid is what actual battlefield utility there is in having a fighter plane that goes 7,000-some odd miles per hour. For which war would we need such a plane? Doesn’t matter, looks cool! This turns out to be an oddly refreshing take on the military-industrial complex.
It’s notable, in fact, that in Top Gun: Maverick, an adversary is never named. Most of the movie consists of “Maverick,” in his proverbial “one last shot” at keeping his job as a pilot, training a team of young hotshots for a big mission. Nestled deep in an unnamed mountain range, there’s a uranium enrichment facility which, we learn, will soon be capable of producing nuclear weapons. It’s surrounded by SAMs (surface-to-air missiles) and heavily patrolled by “fifth-generation fighter jets.”
Which entity actually owns this facility is left unsaid. The adversary in Top Gun: Maverick is only ever referred to as “The Enemy,” and those “fifth-generation fighter jets” are unmarked, flown by pilots with blacked out helmets conveniently concealing any facial features and hints as to nationality. (Which is maybe an ironic choice in a movie that’s otherwise a sentimental ode to the value of actual humans in battle).
This ambiguity gives it all the feel that what these pilots are training for is more like a really dangerous video game or an important air show than a war. The enemy is, essentially, logic itself. Maverick and his team don’t need to prove that pilots are the most effective weapons, just that they’re the coolest. Would drones or cruise missiles or satellite guided bombs work better for destroying that uranium-enrichment facility than supersonic jets and cocksure flyboys? Sure, but it wouldn’t be nearly as inspiring. It would deny us the thrill of seeing a pilot try to survive nine Gs, expanding the limits of human skill, endurance, and ingenuity, and becoming, essentially, the Ubermensch, justifying the existence of the human race by defying its limitations.
On that note, it’s hilarious the degree to which Top Gun: Maverick positions Tom Cruise as the personification of this übermensch. While all his contemporaries from the original movie seem to be either dead (Goose), MIA (Kelly McGillis’s Charlie), or stricken with cancer (Ice Man), Pete “Maverick” Mitchell has barely aged. He’s still flying experimental planes at hypersonic speeds, chasing tail (in the form of San Diego bartender Penny Benjamin, played by Jennifer Connolly), and playing football shirtless on the beach despite being 59 years old and five foot seven. Sorry, it’s actually “dogfight football,” which involves playing offense and defense at the same time or something (feels very much like a sport invented by someone who didn’t grow up playing sports).
The first Top Gun hinged on Maverick learning enough humility and self-possession to be a good teammate. With that in mind, you might think that the big conflict in Top Gun: Maverick would be “Can aging, decorated ace Maverick learn to let go and pass the torch to his younger, more capable successors as he nears retirement?”
But again, that’s logic, and logic is the enemy. Maverick is a human fighter jet program and he will not be mothballed, no matter how expensive and impractical he is. This is a movie that (at least as it relates to Tom Cruise) stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the realities of aging in any way. Humility is merely an obstacle to greatness. Day in, day out, Maverick shows these whippersnappers what’s what during their simulated dogfights, from too-cocky “Hangman” (Glen Powell, whose over-the-top clean-cut masculinism sort of makes him look like a gay porn star), angsty, conservative “Rooster” (who is also Goose’s son, played by Miles Teller), girl-pilot “Phoenix” (Monica Barbaro), and all the others. The big conflict is whether Maverick can get anyone to be as good as he is. In the end he can’t! So he bets on himself, another triumph.
Maverick is still the best pilot, best lover, best football player, best teammate, and best trainer the Navy has to offer. Maneuvers that make younger pilots, notably “Payback,” played by Jay Ellis from Insecure, pass out from excess G force, Maverick powers through on sheer force of will. He’s constantly putting himself at personal risk to save the project or the mission, and his plane even seems to have, and there’s no other way to say this, a big black cock on the bottom. It’s like a supersonic strap-on.
Top Gun: Maverick is, in the end, a glorious justification of excess. Tom Cruise gets the girl, old guys win, humans beat the machines. It makes no attempts to be timely or realistic, probably for the best. Timeliness, realism, and logic would cut against Top Gun‘s basic reason for being: screeching around the sky in a multi-million dollar jet is cool. The fact that it’s so wasteful and unnecessary and romantic is part of why it’s cool. We don’t need a Top Gun movie to be clever any more than we need a Tom Cruise who acts his age.