It’s damn hard to make a good sequel. Think of how many absolutely ass ones have polluted our cinema and entertainment room screens. So when one hits all the right notes, it feels like a triumph.
And when you do it nearly 40 years after the original, you’ve really pulled off a miracle.
I took C and L to see Top Gun: Maverick last week. We all loved it. I think C liked it the most, and it was her second time seeing it!
I watched the original Top Gun a few nights before, so all of its elements were fresh in my head. I loved how the creative crew behind Maverick sprinkled plenty of callbacks to the original throughout the new flick, but never so heavily that they weighed it down. That said, having the opening scene be a near shot-for-shot repeat of the original, complete with the same music, was pretty genius. It sucked in us Gen Xers and, hopefully, blew away new viewers.
When I re-watched the original I was struck by how cheesy it was, but how it embraced its cheesiness. Tom Cruise especially seemed in on the joke, and if he never exactly winked at the audience, you felt like he could at any moment. That gave it a playfulness that made the cheese tolerable.
A lot of that cheese got removed from Maverick. That, along with better writing and a more impactful emotional element, made the movie smarter and better than the original.
Afterwards I read through a series of reviews and thought pieces I had stored away. One, from The Vulture, struck a chord with me. In it Bilge Ebiri wrote of how unexpectedly emotional Maverick was. I realized that I felt that myself while watching, although I was thinking about it in a slightly different way than Ebiri.
While watching the original, I was a little overwhelmed by realizing that Tom Cruise was 24 when it came out. He’s done so much and been such a massive part of American pop culture since then, and it was all just starting for him back in the summer of 1986. That, more than me being 15 when it first came out and I was obsessed with it, made me feel my age. Kids in the ‘80s wanted to be Tom Cruise/Maverick because of the possibilities they represented. Today we all probably still want to be Tom Cruise, but more because he looks and moves like he’s 20 years younger than his biological age.
I wonder if younger viewers sensed the same emotional weariness in Maverick that I sensed. The movie lays out his remaining guilt over Goose’s death, his attempts to sidetrack Rooster’s career, his sadness about Iceman’s health/death, and his understanding that his career as a Navy pilot is nearly over. As a Gen Xer, it’s easy to project that unease onto my own life and the changes that come as we move into middle age.
OK, enough of that heavy stuff.
This was a remarkable movie to watch. I had heard going in that very little CGI was used in the flying scenes. So I marveled at the shots, thinking them 100% real. After I got home I read that, in fact, there was plenty of CGI, but the flight scenes still had a healthy amount of video shot from actual F/A–18s. That knowledge didn’t decrease the impact of those scenes very much. The moments when you see the actor’s faces contorting from real G-forces were incredible. Another thing that stuck out in the original was how tight all the dog fights were shot. You often had no broader context for what was happening, just a series of quick, tight shots from the involved jets. In Maverick there were plenty of tight shots, but also a lot that were shot wider to give you a better sense of space and what the jets were capable of. I assume that’s just better technology that allowed that, but it certainly added to the realism and impact of Maverick
Did they have to rip off every Star Wars movie that involved blowing up a Death Star, or Death Star-like object, though? My least favorite aspect of the movie, even if it made for some amazing visuals.
It also made me wonder, “Why couldn’t cruise missiles do this way, way easier?” Or some combination of drones and cruise missiles? Or missiles shot from higher altitudes? But that wouldn’t give us a very cool movie now, would it?
The Val Kilmer scenes made me sad. Not for the character but for the real man. I’ve been meaning to watch the documentary he made about his life for over a year. I need to get to that.
I offer my next statement fully aware of Kelly McGillis’ comments about why she was not asked to be in Maverick. Women, and especially women in Hollywood, face pressures men don’t face as they age, and it sucks that, because she looks like most women who are in their mid–60s look, she had no chance to reprise her role as Charlie.
Jennifer Connelly has aged very well. Very well. And she’s a year older than me. Damn.
If we can’t have Charlie, bringing back the mythical Penny Benjamin was a pretty great move.
Beach football was a nice replacement for beach volleyball, especially since Maverick used it as a team-building effort, not just a testosterone fest. I laughed at how all the guys were shot shirtless, oiled up, and in good light, while the two female pilots were wearing standard workout gear and generally stayed in the shadows.
That brings me to another difference. Top Gun was all about swaggering masculinity, amped up to comical levels. Maverick certainly has swagger, but it felt less aggressively masculine. And yet I don’t think it got into any territory that a serious commentator would lament it was neutered by “wokeness.” Although since we have few serious commentators anymore, I’m sure plenty of people have bemoaned its honest reflection of its time.
One area where I though the original was better was in its humor. I still laughed out loud at several lines in Top Gun when I re-watched it; I just chuckled a couple times during Maverick. I don’t know if that’s more a statement on me or the movie, to be honest.
Top Gun: Maverick isn’t high cinema or anything. It is a visually stunning, surprisingly emotional, and completely entertaining 130 minutes of film.