Earning $1.4 billion in the box office (on a budget of $170 million), the highest-grossing movie of 2022 and of an aging Tom Cruise’s career, and 12th in the roster of most successful Hollywood films ever, Top Gun: Maverick is truly a high-flying achiever. Critics quickly rallied to sleuth the recipe for the success of the 1986 cult classic’s belated sequel. Was it the amazing CGI? There is little to be found; the director kept simulated enhancement to a minimum and maximized on live stunt possibilities. Was it the riveting story? Although gripping, Top Gun: Maverick is no Shakespearean drama. Perhaps it was the unparalleled cast? While Tom Cruise and Miles Teller are brilliant, the movie’s cast is not nearly as extravagant as that of a run-of-the-mill superhero movie. What then is the secret strategy that earned the flick a rare A+ from the audience on CinemaScore and a 99% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes?
More striking than this is the apparent gap between the audience’s accolades and media critiques. The self-proclaimed taste-elite hounded Top Gun with headlines such as: “Hollywood, don’t take the wrong lessons from ‘Top Gun: Maverick’,” “Empty Thrills,” and “Top Gun doesn’t deserve Top Gun Maverick.” What is unfolding before our eyes?
Critics slating the movie seem to be begrudgingly aware of the reason for its success, but will not admit to it. The numbers have spoken for themselves, so why can’t they? The simple reason is that it should not and, therefore, cannot be successful, since it goes against the narrative. In order to be successful today, a movie needs ‘representation’ in the cast and crew, it needs to virtue-signal, it needs to be ‘inclusive’ and ‘affirmative.’ In short, it needs to be ‘woke.’ Movies that do not submit to wokeness are—or were—doomed to fail, at least if you take the tendentious journalists at their word. But their slumber has been violently disrupted by the breaking of the sound barrier overhead.
The truth is plain and simple: The movie entertains and does not educate. Absent is any trace of ‘woke’ preaching, shoehorning unrealistic token-diversity actors into jarringly awkward posts, or any reference to homosexuality or gender ideology. Even the most severe critics had to admit with a shrug that the movie was “studiously a-political,” politics being painstakingly avoided in the film, such that the adversary was simply referred to as “the enemy.” The movie is about aviators flying jets, success and failure, personal struggle in the face of obstacles, facing ghosts of the past, family, and ultimately about pushing oneself to the limits. Period.
Top Gun: Maverick is not alone in continuing a long-established franchise. Hollywood today likes to rely on tried-and-proven content and has been churning out prequels, sequels, remakes, and re-hashes of ’70s, ’80s, or ’90s franchises. The hope is that by relying on old characters, beloved stories, familiar soundtracks, and a heavy load of nostalgia-milking, they can recreate past successes and cash in, championing the motto: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But they do “fix it.” Or, do they? The fate of franchises such as The Terminator, Star Wars, Star Trek, Ghostbusters, Predator, Alien, Indiana Jones, Rocky, Rambo, etc. (the list goes on) proves that modernizing these stories to fit the narrative does not improve them, it ruins them. Each franchise in this list was broken in the process of bringing it back to the big screen. A recent example of this is the most expensive TV show ever produced, Amazon’s “Rings of Power,” which boasts an unholy combination of lore dumping, bad writing, and ‘diverse’ characters. It has alienated Tolkien’s fan base to the extreme and is desperately clinging to its eye-boggling CGI and special effects as its only hope for success. The envisioned five-season enterprise seems dead in its tracks after airing only two episodes.
Time and again, remakes and re-hashes have turned into failures—financially, critically, and with the fan base (which is not negligible in cases like Star Trek or Star Wars). With so many examples, the anatomy of failure is predictable at this point: The source material is not honored, diversity quotas receive more attention than quality casting, the writing is abysmal, and the ‘woke’ message is shoehorned into every relationship and element of the story imaginable. Ridiculous nostalgia references—be they familiar sets, musical tracks, or even CGI versions of original characters—are inserted to make the movie resonate with audience members who remember the original’s glory. The result is a gutted, loveless, distorted, deflated, boring movie, a mere product of the culture industry that is thrown to the audience to be consumed, discarded, and forgotten. What remains is a bitter aftertaste and emptiness where once beloved characters and stories were enthroned in glorious memory. Once the film unavoidably flops, the ‘toxic’ fandom is made a welcome scapegoat. Repeat and repeat ad nauseam.
Top Gun: Maverick is not great because it is anti-‘woke.’ It is a great film because it tells a good, well-crafted, and well-written story and communicates timeless truths. The plot is skillfully developed, the set ups are appropriate to the payoffs, the action feels real, and it is populated with likable, interesting, and realistic characters. The film also stays true to the lore. It picks up where Top Gun left off and tells the story of U.S. Naval Aviator Lt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, who after 30 years of service has become a test pilot, pushing the envelope of new aircraft in a race against their limits and his own body. Not the most popular man in the Navy for his unpredictable, impulsive, sometimes even defiant behavior over the years, he is surprisingly called back to his old playground, Top Gun, where he must train the next generation of elite fighter pilots and prepare them for what may well turn out to be a suicide mission. Unlike his companions in the Navy, Maverick has not advanced in his career and has stayed true to his roots as a rough-cut, feisty aviator. Faced with the difficulty of having to bequeath his hard-earned skill and wisdom to a young, smug, and reckless—but also purposeless—generation, he finds himself confronted with his greatest challenge yet: Overcoming the ghosts of his past while teaching the son of his former flight partner, “Goose,” who tragically died.
Maverick quickly realizes that to truly teach this new generation, he must give a part of himself to them and let go of his overprotectiveness towards Goose’s son “Rooster.” Only in staring death in the face will the fighter pilots have a chance to succeed. Rather than rest on his laurels and retreat in apathy, handing over the reins to other instructors, Maverick accepts his responsibility, overcomes himself, and risks everything for the young pilots. What unfolds is a beautiful story of friendship, fatherhood, duty, and an explosive cocktail of young talent and old wisdom.
Amid the excitement, the movie’s quieter moments remind us that the everyday normality is not a given. Retirement should not be taken for granted. On the contrary, a quiet, perhaps married, life is a hard-won reward for years of struggle and strife. Simple love, natural and assumed family, and a peaceful rest at the close of the day are invaluable and irreplaceable.
Despite his age in real life (and in the movie), Cruise delivers the perfect performance of a purpose-driven, laser-focused, dedicated, yet preoccupied man past his prime, who in his heart is torn between living up to his own legacy and passing on true wisdom (including a cautiousness he rarely knew) to his successors.
So much could have gone wrong in the production of the movie, but it sailed beneath all the sirens and led the story to a safe harbor. It pleases both old fans and the new generation unfamiliar with the ’80s classic. It’s a movie enjoyable on its own and for its own purpose, and the viewer walks out invigorated, excited, and refreshed. It instills hope and optimism and—if nothing else—is exceptionally entertaining.
Top Gun: Maverick is unashamedly nostalgic, reflective, and patriotic. It is action-packed, visually stunning, adrenaline inducing, and gripping. In a time of tired superhero movies, failing franchises, and the ever-growing ‘woke-ification’ of the entertainment industry, this film is what audiences have been yearning for. Its box office success pays tribute to this undeniable truth. All this evokes the ambivalent recognition that the movie made by a prominent Scientologist is the least problematic and least cult-like piece of media that the entertainment industry has recently produced. The movie shows that the era of the good-old action flick may come to an end soon, but, in Maverick’s words, “not today.”