Purring engines, the constant pattering of bullets, anguished shouts and trails of smoke. After a nail-biting mission consisting of a high speed trench run and a one in a million shot reminiscent of the end of a New Hope, our heroes are caught in a fiersome dogfight against two planes that outmatch their own. Missiles and bullets litter the air. Our protagonists twist and dive around each other, calling back and forth as a team, fighting with every joule of energy they have left to survive. Until finally, we see a missile heading towards Rooster, Goose’s son, and there’s no way he can stop it. In a beautiful moment of self sacrifice, Tom Cruise’s Maverick pulls a manoeuvre that destroys the missile but sees his plane go down in a fiery blaze. None of the others see him eject, and are ordered to fly back home. The Navy can’t afford to lose another pilot.
This could have been the end of the movie, or at least the resolution to its conflict. After all, Maverick sets our expectations at the beginning, telling us clearly that someone wouldn’t survive this mission, and which Hollywood sequel nowadays doesn’t have our beloved ageing protagonist die in a moment of love for their young successor? Maverick’s career in the navy is over; wouldn’t it make sense for him to die protecting Goose’s only remaining family?
Except that’s not what this movie is about.
While it may be a film about jets and dogfights, Top Gun: Maverick’s focus is consistently on the relationship between Maverick and Rooster; the former doing whatever it takes to protect the latter, even if it means his resentment. Throughout the film we see them grow to respect each other, and we think this culminates in Maverick’s decision to make Rooster his wingman and Rooster’s decision to follow Maverick’s advice, leading to the mission’s success. But their arc simply wouldn’t be complete if Maverick died saving Rooster’s life - after all, what about Rooster’s relationship to Maverick? So Rooster flies in to save Maverick, getting shot down himself, and now the pair of them are stranded on the ground without a plane.
What unfolds is a climax even more intense then what we had before. While the mission may be complete, our two main characters are in jeopardy, and the sacrifices they made for each other may turn out to be for nothing. The writer’s of this film seem to understand a fundamental rule of storytelling - it doesn’t matter how world-threatening the character’s goals or missions are, the audience will only ever care about one thing - the characters.
We’re not desperate to see a box blown up, we’re desperate to see our heroes relish in their success. And we don’t care how many enemy planes are shot down, we just want our heroes to survive. By having this second part to the final act of the movie, the film makes the conflict on screen entirely character driven, and it’s exhilarating, because the entire film (and our entire experience of Hollywood) has led us to believe that there’s no way every character could survive this mission. It also allows for a delightful callback to the first movie with the use of the F-14, and a satisfying conclusion for Hangman’s character arc too, mirroring the relationship between Iceman and Maverick years ago.
(As a side note, the callbacks in this film are also done expertly. While most sequels are filled with nostalgia-driven homages intended to give audiences brief but ultimately meaningless dopamine boosts, Top Gun: Maverick uses such homages to enhance its onward-moving narrative. The Great Balls of Fire scene in this film provides an emotional moment of grief for Maverick’s character, the beach volleyball match allows the characters to bond as a team, the F-14 in the ending allows Maverick and Rooster to escape in a moment of complete vulnerability. Val Kilmer’s Iceman provides a strong emotional support and drive for Maverick’s character, and as for the use of Danger Zone or the shots of Maverick on his motorcycle… well okay maybe they’re just cool).
In the end, Top Gun: Maverick understands that audiences will always value character over narrative, and uses this fact to the film’s advantage. I may get a lot of hate for this, but I loved this movie so much that I’d say it beats the original. Fun, powerful and heart-racing, it’s a film the world should see, and proves that while some sequels are doomed to be joyless cash-grabs in the shadows of their predecessors, others can provide something special that audiences have never seen.
Until next time!
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