Why do we go to the movies? This has become an increasingly existential question in recent years, as theaters, threatened by epidemics of contagion and convenience, have struggled with dwindling sales and diminished cultural relevance. When Top Gun: Maverick debuted to around $160 million this past weekend, it wasn’t just celebrated for breaking Memorial Day records, or (incredibly) as the first $100 million–plus opening in Tom Cruise’s blockbuster-laden career. The sequel has been hailed as nothing less than an industry savior, capable of reversing the movie theater’s pandemic-induced slide in a way that no Marvel sequel nor vaguely menacing Vin Diesel PSA had been able to accomplish.
The plot of Top Gun: Maverick grapples with encroaching obsolescence, in such a way that it barely counts as metaphor. The film catches us up with Cruise’s title character, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, the cocky, now-fiftyish flyboy from 1986’s Cold War fever dream Top Gun, as he confronts his own extinction—smirking while a succession of superior officers take turns informing him that his era of ace fighter pilots is drawing to a close. War is all handled via drone now, Ed Harris’s gruff rear admiral tells him early on. With all this new technology, we don’t even need to leave the house. What use would we have for some toothy hotshot stunting in the air to the strains of Kenny Loggins?
But as Top Gun once taught us, the “need for speed” is just something you feel, rather than try to rationalize. Director Joseph Kosinski’s follow-up pays homage to that timeless appeal of watching brash, youngish daredevils fly their machines very fast, buffeted by sonic booms and power ballads, on the biggest, loudest screen possible. Like its namesake, Top Gun: Maverick is almost defiantly anti-modern in those aims. It traffics in non-CGI thrills involving actual planes and other practical effects, down to relying on that most endangered of beasts: the movie star. This has been the elemental draw of the movies since their very beginning, after all—since at least 1926, when Clara Bow and Gary Cooper descended on San Antonio to make Wings, wowing audiences and collecting Oscars with the film’s footage of real pilots engaged in fake combat over Kelly Field. Top Gun: Maverick is as much a sequel to Top Gun as it is a 21-missile salute to that kind of stupefying, square-jawed spectacle—a breed of blockbuster that may not be dying, exactly, but one that seems progressively old-fashioned.
This symbolism lends a slight heft to Top Gun: Maverick’s otherwise thin plot, whose outlines suggest one of those early video-game stages that’s designed to help you orient yourself with the controls. After Maverick finds himself booted from his test pilot job for breaking the rules (his call sign isn’t “Stickler,” y’know), he quickly lands a gig training a new generation of reckless young pilots, readying them for a death-defying run to destroy an unauthorized weapons facility in some rogue nation. As in the original Top Gun, this nation is never explicitly named—it’s referred to only as “the enemy”—although at least in the first film, the rah-rah Reagan-era context heavily implicated the Soviet Union. Here all of the antagonists fly blank-slate jets, their faces obscured behind blacked-out helmets, their features as vague as the threat they pose. Such ambiguity allows Top Gun: Maverick to jettison any political baggage while also securing those crucial foreign markets. It lets the audience project whatever “enemy” they want, from communism to COVID-19, then cheer Cruise and Co. along in their quest to blow it up.
It’s good, clean, bipartisan fun that also allows the film to direct most of its energies toward delivering the g-force pull of nostalgia, something Top Gun: Maverick deploys at spine-flattening intensity. Suffice it to say, if you enjoyed the first Top Gun, you’ll probably like this one, so faithfully does it pay tribute to—and even replicate entire beats from—its predecessor. Afterburners fire to the sounds of “Danger Zone” as Maverick races the California coast on his motorcycle, his worn leather bomber flapping in the breeze. There’s even a shirtless game of football on the beach, filmed in glistening slow motion.
Maverick must once again contend with humorless commanders, represented rather thanklessly here by Jon Hamm, and a crew of scrappy junior pilots led by the pompous Hangman, played with frattish charm by Austin’s own Glen Powell. His character is an update on Val Kilmer’s Iceman from the original, although Powell’s laid-back arrogance suggests a younger, country club–bred brother of Matthew McConaughey, right down to his drawling exhortation of “Alright, alright.” While Maverick’s former romantic interest, portrayed by Kelly McGillis, isn’t so much as mentioned, Maverick still gets to rekindle an old flame with the local bartender, Penny (Jennifer Connelly). They tease out a tentative courtship that feels like a pointedly chaste rejoinder to the original film’s awkwardly tacked-on love scene.
Kilmer himself turns up to share a small, tender moment with Cruise, one that incorporates the real-life throat cancer that robbed Kilmer of his voice. His appearance introduces a brief, quietly devastating meditation on the passage of time into the film’s otherwise-heedless sprint to the finish line. And, of course, Maverick is still haunted by the loss of his best friend, Goose (Anthony Edwards), all those years ago. How could he not be? Goose’s son, Rooster (Miles Teller), is the spitting image of his late dad, right down to his goofy mustache, his penchant for Hawaiian shirts, and his zeal for pounding out Jerry Lee Lewis songs on the piano.
Maverick goes to great lengths to keep Rooster from suffering Goose’s fate, while Rooster resents the way Maverick insists on being a de facto father figure—and here I’ll leave it to the Freudians to deduce why so many of these big franchise reboots, from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to Star Wars: The Force Awakens to Ghostbusters: Afterlife, are so awash in unresolved daddy issues. Nevertheless, their sparring, even as it occasionally strains credulity, adds a touch of grounded human drama to a movie whose central conflict is otherwise about whether Maverick is still the best. (Spoiler: He is!)
It’s all very predictable and corny, and next to the cool dogfights, that is precisely the film’s appeal. Top Gun: Maverick gives us a sky-blue world of unflappable heroism and reassuring moral clarity—handsome good guys in crisp white T-shirts battling black-helmeted baddies, all of it shot through with a sun-dappled gloss that makes the film resemble a “Hunks in Uniform” calendar. At a time when things are noticeably murkier and dour, there is obvious comfort in that, as there is joy to be found in a film that carries out its assignment with such effortless efficiency. At a time when so many are fretting over why people still go to the movies, Top Gun: Maverick responds with an emphatic sonic boom of duh.