Old maverick vs. new maverick

Top Gun
Illustration by Harrison Freeman.

Action films have long been the bane of film critics. They often feature everything moviegoers want to see, and nothing that critics expect: lots of stylized fights, explosions, and mayhem, but no depth or substance. That can arguably be said for the Top Gun franchise. Starring Tom Cruise, “Top Gun” first came out during a period when stylized action was all the rage. In an era of pop culture filled with training montages and epic fight scenes, this film struck a tone with young audiences but was mostly panned by critics. Now, almost four decades later. a distant sequel has been released called “Top Gun: Maverick.” Both films feature the same level of action but still manage to be uniquely different.

The first Top Gun was released in 1986. Directed by Tony Scott, it was a film about a highly-skilled, yet unorthodox naval aviator named Pete Mitchell, known by his nickname “Maverick,” who sets out to prove he’s the best fighter pilot around. The film had gripping dogfights and action sequences as well as a protagonist that was charismatic yet down to earth, so to speak. 

 Like most ‘80s films it was filled with action cliches and messages about challenging authority, but today it is mostly just remembered for stylized aerial combat. Tom Cruise’s character, while coming off as likable, didn’t really offer much depth. Beyond his performances in the air, his interactions on the ground don’t give us much of a look into his character, besides the fact that he wants to follow in his father’s footsteps as an ace pilot. His romantic flings with Kelly McGillis seem like a missed opportunity to give him some of this much-needed depth and just seem like a motivational plot device. Despite the film’s general shortcomings, it still gained a cult following, and even today remains a popular action movie.

The fact that the film retains nostalgic value can be proven no further than by its amazing sequel.  Much like its predecessor, “Top Gun: Maverick,” directed by Joseph Kosinski, offers high-octane action with a bit of romance on the side, but with some added perspective. Pete “Maverick” Mitchells is no longer a young up-and-coming pilot, but rather a seasoned aviator who, rather than staying grounded in a high-ranking office, prefers to stay in the air. This time he has been called back to the Top Gun Naval Fighters Academy to train a new generation of pilots for a perilous mission. 

This movie offers everything the original did, and then some. That’s because, aside from the impressive visuals, we get a much deeper look at Tom Cruise’s Maverick. Unlike the younger Maverick, this one is haunted by past trauma and complicated relationships while still trying to move forward. He wants to keep flying and make sure the new pilots under him succeed not just in their mission, but in coming back alive. He’s no longer out for himself, but he still has something to prove. There are many more character connections here, and the chemistry between Tom Cruise and Miles Teller is especially moving. Of course, there’s still an unnecessary layer of implausibility like in the original Top Gun, especially in the final flight sequence, but, it was still wildly entertaining and had me on the edge of my seat at the theater. 

Overall, the two films fit very well together. I find them especially effective when seen back-to-back, as it makes the contrast between them more striking. One is a cult classic geared towards a particular demographic, while the other adds an extra layer that expands on the material of its counterpart, making it entertaining for all kinds of filmgoers. The sequel is arguably better written but might not have worked on its own. The original film was not the most substantial but still offered inspiration. Together, they make an epic saga that can be appreciated for its action and vision.

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