“Why Top Gun: Maverick Has Been So Successful (and What It’s Meant To Me)”
14 minute read
I could never understand the fascination with Top Gun.
And this is the original movie that I’m talking about, which was released in 1986 when I was just 8 years old.
I recall seeing it for the first time after we’d rented it from the local ‘mobile video’ wagon; an old converted Bedford Rascal van that was driven around the neighbourhood every Monday and Thursday evening by that dodgy bloke off the estate (1).
I remember cool flying sequences, nifty motorbikes, homoerotic beach volleyball, and Kelly McGillis’ big hair. We had Goose’s moustache, Take My Breath Away by Berlin, and Iceman would be your wingman anytime.
It was packed full of cheesy moments and one-liners that would soon reach cult-classic status, yet I just didn’t get it. I just thought it was okay. And then I pretty much forgot all about it.
I didn’t watch it again until just five years ago at the ripe old age of 39, and do you know what? I still thought it was just okay.
So when a sequel was first announced some thirty-plus years after the original, my expectations were low at best.
Yet due to the arrival of Covid-19 in our lives, it’s initial scheduled 2020 release was delayed, and delayed, and then delayed some more.
A full two years later, in May 2022, Top Gun: Maverick finally landed on the big screen.
Now it may have been a case of the right movie finding me at just the right time, but Top Gun: Maverick took me completely by surprise.
I’d gone with a group of friends that I’d known since childhood and who had also seen the original movie way back in the 80’s. The general consensus was that we expected it to be a nostalgic romp at best, but it turned out to be more than that. Much more.
In fact at the time of writing this article I’ve been to see it four times, and its appeal hasn’t diminished one bit. In fact, it’s only got better.
And it seems that I’m not the only person that feels this way, because in less than one month of it being released, Top Gun: Maverick (or let’s say TG:M for short) took in more than $1 billion across the global box office. And the takings are still rising.
The rate of its success went supersonic (2), but what’s the reason for this?
Taken on face value, TG:M is just a damn good action movie made with old school principals.
And if you wanted to you could leave the summary right there; in short, it does what it says on the tin, and it does it incredibly well.
But for anybody that likes to peel back the layers and enjoys going a little deeper with their critique, then we can definitely go deeper.
In many ways it reminds me of the first time I read Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea, because at its simplest level it’s just an adventure story about a man who sails to sea and then fights to catch a big fish.
But, if you wish to take it a little further, it’s an allegory about man’s internal battles and how the struggles of life can be conquered through perseverance and dignity.
Then peel back those layers even further, and you’ll find deeply-rooted religious elements interwoven within the story.
In short, it’s as simple or as complex as you wish for it to be; just like Top Gun: Maverick.
And for me, when I saw the movie for the first time in early June, I was at a point in my life where I was desperate for some escapism and some inspiration.
My mind was wide open to anything that it had to offer me.
Maybe another reason for its global success is because after more than two years of restrictions and lockdowns we’ve all been left feeling mentally fucked, and so we’ve all needed a feeling of normality to return.
Yet society has become anything but normal.
I mean, take a look around and then ask yourself how you really feel about society right now?
Even as an optimist, I cannot help but feel like something isn’t right. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I know that something about it stinks.
We have rising energy prices, petrol and diesel costs are through the roof, and the general cost of living is becoming unaffordable.
We’ve got an ever-expanding gap between the upper and lower classes. We have leaders that are failing to lead. And the lasting mental effects of the pandemic are becoming all too apparent.
Freedom feels like fantasy, and unless we think in the way we’re being told to think, or comply with what we’re being told to comply with; then we can be silenced and humiliated for it. As a result, healthy debate and the ability to ‘agree to disagree’ has been replaced by cancel culture.
With all this shit going on right now, and much more besides, people are desperate for simpler times.
And this craving for simpler times can result in us feeling nostalgic for times gone by, which in turn can make us clutch onto anything retro; like an 80’s movie about fighter pilots which has catchphrases along the lines of…
“I feel the need…the need, for speed!”
In my opinion, TG:M has felt like a comfort blanket to a large portion of its audience, and for the two hours and ten minutes that we were sat inside of the cinema, we were able to forget about everything else that was going on outside of it.
I’m still not able to work out whether the things I’ve taken away from the movie were intentional, or whether I’ve just read into it too much.
But my gut feeling says that the messages were always intended to be there, but that they were just very subtly and sensitively done; and if that’s the case then it makes TG:M a masterpiece of film-making.
These days it has become far too commonplace for movies to include a deeper message (3) that has been so blatantly shoe-horned into it that it becomes borderline embarrassing. And don’t even get me started on the movies that prescribe to the new industry requirement to tick the ‘woke’ box, which can very often seem like a token gesture at best.
I go to see movies so that I can feel something and to be entertained; not so that I can be preached at. And TG:M doesn’t give in to this current trend one bit, because just like the characters in the movie, it stands by what it believes to be right; and it does so without apology.
One subject that I feel is covered so beautifully in this movie is the displays of masculinity and femininity.
All too often it feels as though we cannot hear the word ‘masculinity’ without the word ‘toxic’ following shortly afterwards, and as a man I often feel that through the filter of mainstream media (4) I’ve somehow become an enemy of society just because I have a penis.
On the flipside of this it can also feel as though it’s somehow become a bad thing for a woman to show her femininity, and as a result we now see men acting more feminine and women acting more masculine.
Call me old-fashioned, but I believe that when a man is in his masculine frame and a woman is in her feminine, then this provides the real sweet spot for a relationship. Because for as much as we like to talk about men and women being the same, the simple truth is that we’re not (5). And that’s a good thing. I’m talking about polarity.
And this brings me onto one of my favourite elements of the movie, which is the relationship between Maverick and Penny (played by Jennifer Connelly).
More often than not the representation of romance in movies does not mirror the realities of those in the real world. They’re a fantasy. They’re Hollywood construct. And they can very often be damaging, creating deluded expectations that can rarely be fulfilled.
Men fighting over women, the saviour role, love at first sight, the attempts to ‘convince’ somebody to be with them, and don’t even get me started on the bullshit of…
“you complete me” (6).
It all sounds so beautiful, so amazing; but it’s complete and utter arse. And before you tell me that I have no sense of romance, keep reading.
I don’t prescribe to the cliché of the damsel in distress or playing the white knight, because basing a relationship on foundations like these very often sets things up for a fall. Playing the role of the rescuer in an attempt to fix a broken person doesn’t work (7), and although it sounds wonderful on paper the reward is rarely a lifetime of reciprocated love and appreciation. Instead, it often leads to one person being pedestalised and the other bending the knee. There’s the giver, and there’s the taker, and this all leads to the toxic cycle of codependency (8).
I also don’t believe in the idea of two broken halves making a whole. Once again it sounds romantic as hell, and while there’s no doubt that the strengths and flaws of two people should somehow fit together in a way that soothes each other’s insecurities and compliments the relationship (9), the reality of two broken people needing each other in order to feel whole doesn’t exactly provide the foundations for a healthy and happy love life.
Instead, Top Gun: Maverick includes a romantic plotline that is grounded in reality yet can still give you the same jelly-legged dopamine rush that’s worthy of a Hollywood movie. It’s beautiful, and completely attainable in the real world.
Because what we see is two whole people, not two halves. Both have their vulnerabilities, but they’re not a threat to the relationship. And both characters are perfectly fine with being alone; Maverick being a man whose life is aligned with his purpose and doing what he believes to be right, while Penny is the epitome of a strong and independent single mother that has curated a successful life of her own.
In the end it’s a case of two people wanting to be together rather than needing to be together.
Throughout the film we see displays of their strength and areas in which they take the lead. Maverick is a fighter pilot and the best-of-the-best, and we see Penny taking a literal passenger role to this in one of their scenes. And in return we see Penny as an extremely able sailor, which during another scene we see Maverick as a passenger and a complete novice that is there to assist her (10).
Both characters show their strength and both show their support, and it also displays a willingness to become vulnerable and to place their trust in each other; these scenes providing metaphors for the basis of any strong relationship.
But despite these shows of strength, there are also displays of beautiful intimacy.
While the original movie included a sex scene between two silhouetted figures while the absolutely fuck-awful Take My Breath Away played, this new movie chooses to show very little. Instead we see an intense display of eye contact before the scene gently transitions to a half-naked Maverick and Penny lying in bed together, talking.
The normally stoic Maverick then opens up to Penny and lays himself bare (11), and without an inch of his masculinity being lost (12), he gives himself to her.
And in another scene in which Maverick rides a motorbike with Penny as the passenger, the importance of the moment in which she lays her head upon his back cannot be underestimated. For all that Penny understandably holds herself back in the beginning, she too then gives herself to Maverick.
The chemistry between them is incredible. The intimacy feels real.
And in a later scene in which Maverick reaches a truly low point and is fighting to find his way, Penny is there for him. She speaks very few words, but she listens to everything. She really hears him. And following a gentle touch and a few key words of encouragement, he knows what he must do.
Trust me ladies, I cannot emphasise enough what this does to a man. For all that we do our best to appear as though nothing can faze us, very often it’s just for show. We get scared, we have self-doubts, and we get lost, just like anybody else. The difference is that good men carry on regardless of all this, but it doesn’t mean that its easy.
As a man, there is nothing more intoxicating than the loving touch of a feminine woman. You can be as hard as nails, but the moment that your woman lays her hands upon you, it makes you melt. When she is there for you at your lowest points, and when she will listen, encourage, and stand by your side, it makes a man feel like there’s nothing that he cannot do.
We always hear that a man can be a rock for his woman, but a woman can be the guiding light for her man.
Throughout the movie there are references to Iceman; now Admiral to the Navy and at the complete opposite end of the authority scale to Maverick.
But these two men that were once bitter rivals now hold each other in extremely high regard. Between the two movies, a deep respect and friendship has been solidified between them, and in one truly emotive yet heart-warming scene, the two are reunited.
Iceman (or Admiral Tom Kazansky) is suffering from throat cancer, and when he responds to Maverick he does so by nodding, giving a pained half-smile, or by typing words onto a computer screen.
As they discuss the upcoming mission and the dangers that accompany it, the conversation also ties in with the guilt that Maverick carries with him for Goose’s death in the first movie.
He’s a man that’s fighting to keep it together, and with the burden of guilt and also the internal battle to do what’s right, Maverick needs direction. Kazansky has helped him throughout all of his career, but now he’s a dying man.
The poignancy of the scene is amplified all the more with the knowledge that, in real life, Val Kilmer (aka Iceman) is suffering from this very same disease, meaning the pain that you see is real.
In response to the key moment of the conversation, Kazanksy responds to Maverick by typing out five words that hang heavy on the computer screen, and on our hearts. Because they’re words that weren’t written solely for Maverick, but also for any member of the audience that needed to hear them.
Maybe there are people that have been carrying their own guilt for years.
Maybe there is somebody that has recently experienced the breakdown of a relationship and the loss of a partner.
Maybe there are people who had a dream that never got realised.
Or maybe there is somebody that has carried hurt for their entire life and is struggling to find forgiveness.
Whatever pain you carry. Whatever truth you’re struggling to accept. The words on the screen hang there intentionally and they speak to all of us. They tell us what we don’t want to hear, but what we may actually need to hear. And it tells us direct.
“It’s time to let go…”
As you can probably tell, TG:M has touched me deeply.
One moment it reaffirms things that I believe in and values that I hold deep, like the internal battle to always try to do the right thing, no matter how hard that may be. It can be a lonely path, and sometimes it can upset others, but when you know that something is right then you need to stand by it; even if you’re the only one doing so.
But in the very next moment it also delivers truth-bombs that cut deep, like in one intense scene between Maverick and Rooster (the son of Goose from the original movie, played by Miles Teller) where emotions are running high.
While discussing the mission that the pilots will face, Maverick tries to prepare Rooster for the reality that they may not return alive. And Rooster gears up to respond.
Maverick is getting older now and he’s never been married. Nor has he become a father. We don’t know why this is and it’s never explored, but it’s a truth nonetheless.
But as Rooster delivers his reply to Maverick, he does so with a line that cuts him right to the core.
“That’s easy for you to say. You’ve no wife. No kids. Nobody to mourn you after you’re gone.”
For my own personal reasons, that line cut deep within me too; and as I sat in the cinema I’m sure my face must have had the same expression as Maverick’s.
Because it fucking hurt.
Very often life doesn’t go the way we planned it, and no matter how hard we try to win the game, sometimes we can only work with the hand we’re dealt. We have highs. We have lows. We have disappointments. And we have pleasant surprises.
I’m a firm believer that our lives take the path that they do for a reason, but it doesn’t stop you from thinking about what could have been.
Ageing and regret; the former being inevitable, with the latter often accompanying it.
No matter how well we live our lives, it’s impossible to get everything right. Because sometimes we have to make difficult choices that are anything but clear-cut, and so all we can ever do is our best, based upon what we know at that time.
Yet somewhere, deep inside, there’s always that little voice that taunts us and makes us question our decisions.
When we’re younger we feel like we have all the time in the world. We believe that if our decisions turn out to be wrong then we can always backtrack and take the alternative path; to reverse our decisions if you will.
But the older we get, the more we see that this isn’t possible. Instead, we have to learn to come to terms with the consequences of our actions, to find redemption wherever possible, and to reach a point of acceptance and to find peace within ourselves.
And if we can reach a point in which we are able to find acceptance and inner peace, we can then develop a sense of wisdom and use our experience for good; like helping others to find their way. Because the only other alternative is to throw in the towel, to claim defeat, to cash in the chips, and to become irrelevant.
But like I wrote in a previous article (read this – The Young, The Old, and The Easy Tiger), what’s the point in living life and learning its lessons if all we do is let that wisdom die with us?
We understand that our time is finite, and so we’d better make the best of whatever time we have left.
TG:M is a testament to this ethos. Because while respect is given to the young and it is accepted that change is inevitable, it doesn’t always mean that new equals better.
Sometimes the old ways are the best ways.
And sometimes the elders need to set the example for the generations that follow.
Over the years, many people have tried, and still try, to bury Maverick. And while he may not have advanced in his career, this has been through personal choice; because being a pilot in a cockpit is where he belongs. In his own words, it’s not what he is, it’s who he is.
And just like when Sylvester Stallone reprised both his Rocky and Rambo characters in two very credible storylines back in the early 2000’s, TG:M also demonstrates that if somebody has something of value to offer, then their advancing years do not need to be an obstacle; if anything, they’re an asset.
While ageing is something that we desperately fear in western culture, I think that another reason why TG:M has been so successful is because of its portrayal of an older character that is still proving their relevance.
We all love inspirational movies about the underdog and we all love movies about people that defy all odds and succeed where others thought that they’d fail; and the reason we love this is because we can’t help but find ways of seeing our own lives and our own struggles reflected in those of the characters.
By doing this we can then take comfort from the fact that if Maverick can still be relevant in his own way, then maybe we can be relevant in ours too.
Maybe it’s not too late to right the wrongs.
Maybe it’s not too late to make a difference.
Maybe it’s not too late to find, and to keep, true love.
Maybe it’s not time to give up just yet.
Some people have often questioned the importance that I see in films, but I respond to them like this.
Films are art, and art is a creation that’s made through expression. And if somebody expresses themselves honestly, then there’ll be somebody that identifies with it. And whether that’s expressed through written words, paintings, music, or movies; it has the potential to speak directly to us.
It doesn’t matter what form it takes, but if we hear the right thing at a key moment in our life, then it has the ability to have a profound impact. It may even help alter the course of our lives.
It doesn’t happen all the time. In fact it doesn’t happen very often at all. Sometimes several years can pass. But then right out of the blue a movie can come along to give us exactly what we need, right when we need it.
And for me, Top Gun: Maverick has been one of those movies.
Check out the trailer below, and then take a read of Afterword – On Tom Cruise and the Future of Cinema
AFTERWORD (on Tom Cruise and the future of cinema)
Say what you like about Tom Cruise, because many people do. And some of the most common things I hear people say is that “he’s a scientologist” and that “he can be a bit of a dick”. Well, my response to that is, do they actually know the man?
I’m sure that if any one of our lives were scrutinised there’d be at least one or two things that could be conflated and then distorted into a sinister kind of semi-truth.
Personally, I couldn’t care less if he did lose his shit with a member of staff one day while somebody just happened to record it. And I most definitely don’t care about his religious beliefs.
He could be a scientologist, mixologist, or a T-Rex loving palaeontologist; all I’m bothered about is his professional career. And when it comes to professional careers, this man pushes the bar to the stratosphere. He defines the term ‘superstar’.
His commitment is inspiring, and his ongoing determination to carry out all his own stunt work just beggar’s belief.
In this article I’ve mainly covered the more emotive elements of the movie, because as I’ve said before, I like films that make me feel something and force me to look within (13).
But TG:M is a masterpiece of an action movie, and the realism of the flight sequences and dogfights is an experience to behold; and this is exactly why it needed to be seen at the cinema. No matter how good your home set-up may be, trust me, as a lifelong fan of cinema I can tell you that nothing can rival the big screen experience for a movie like this.
And this is exactly why Tom Cruise stood by his belief that the release of the movie should be delayed until the right time. Pressure was being applied to follow the current trend of sending blockbuster movies direct to streaming services, but he wouldn’t budge an inch on this.
Call it what you like. Ego. Heroism. But whatever his reason, he believed that TG:M had to debut in the cinema, and I stand by that completely. He played the long game (read this – Play The Long Game).
With the rising popularity of streaming services coupled with the restrictions of Covid-19, the cinemas have struggled. When my local Showcase Cinema closed down during the pandemic, I felt lost. Because it’s not just about the movies, but it’s about the actual experience of going to the cinema and losing yourself for a while.
And it’s also about the people.
At my local cinema there’s the goofy kid that works at the drinks counter, and there’s the ridiculously friendly guy with the goatee beard who checks off our tickets and makes each visit a pleasurable one. These are the people who would also suffer from the decay of cinema. And these are some of the people that I actually missed during lockdown.
Having witnessed the cinema struggling to get back onto its feet and with seriously depleted audiences upon first re-opening, Top Gun: Maverick saw a much-needed breath of life being pumped back into it (14).
But is Tom Cruise really the saviour of cinema like some people have claimed? I don’t know, only time will tell. But from what I’ve witnessed in my little corner of the world, I’d say he’s made a damn good claim to that title.
(1) Yes kids, this was actually a thing back in the 80’s. You’ve heard of VHS tapes, right? Well somebody would actually drive them around in a van and park up on the street so you could pick out a movie and rent it for 3 days. It was a bit like an ice-cream van, only without the ice cream…or the silly tune playing.
(2) Pun intended.
(3) Which can sometimes border on propaganda.
(4) And I emphasise the point about mainstream media because what we get fed through this platform doesn’t always represent the realities of what we see in society (what a shock). In my day-to-day life, in my little corner of the world, I very rarely encounter such issues on a personal level. Maybe this is because of who I choose to surround myself with. Maybe it’s the nature of the industry I work in. Who knows? For sure, the feminising of men is something I’m witness to, and likewise with women showing more masculine traits; but this only represents a pocket of society. Because I also see plenty of the opposite, where the polar sets of traits are both valued and craved by the opposite gender.
(5) Before you flip your shit after reading this and start reading into this as meaning that men and women shouldn’t have equal opportunities or rewards, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m talking about our biology and our psychology. Science. We were created as opposites for a reason, and that reason is survival.
(6) And I understand the irony of this given that it was from another Tom Cruise movie (Jerry Maguire, which I absolutely love), because damn, it sounds good and looks good in that movie. But in reality it’s just complete and utter bollocks. Complete yourself. Don’t put the burden on somebody else.
(7) Because a person can never be ‘fixed’ by another person, they can only do the work themselves. Yes the right partner can support them on their journey and stand beside them, but the real work can only be done by the individual.
(8) Meaning that the broken elements of both people need to remain intact in order for the relationship to keep functioning in the same way. One person needs the other for validation, and the other person needs to be needed in order to feel their own sense of validation. If just one person attempts to break out of the cycle in order to work on themselves, albeit with healthy intention; the remaining person feels abandoned, and then the whole thing can implode.
(9) Because nobody is perfect and everybody has their flaws and their insecurities. These should always be worked on and improved as an individual, but if you’re in the right relationship and provided that they’re nothing major, these things should not keep two people apart. There will always be differences within a relationship, but it’s the nature of the differences that determine whether it will work or not. It’s about compatibility.
(10) Don’t underestimate the importance of their positioning in the sailing scene, with Penny stood bolt upright and full of confidence, while Maverick is almost squatting behind her, splayed out in an attempt to stay on his feet while holding on to the railings for dear life.
(11) No that wasn’t meant to be a naked pun.
(12) And no, this is not a pun about penis measurements.
(13) I struggled to find a relevant place to mention the soundtrack, so I’ll just include it here. With the emotion that’s delivered throughout TG:M, it wouldn’t have had even half the impact if it hadn’t of been for the incredible score. It’s fantastic. It’s beautiful. And it’s absolutely up there with some of the best.
(14) And I firmly believe that Tom Cruise will make another significant impact in 2023 when the next instalment of the Mission Impossible series is released. It’s a franchise that gets better and better with each movie.
Did this article resonate with you and do you know of anybody that would appreciate reading it? If so then please do feel free to share this article wherever you can.
Do you have any thoughts or opinions on anything you’ve just read? Have you seen Top Gun: Maverick yet? What did you think of it? Did you take anything in particular away from it? Did you just see it as a damn good movie and nothing more? Did you think it was completely over-rated? And why do you think this movie has been so successful? Please feel free to leave a comment below and we’ll begin a conversation.
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