[Before you read Part Two, which focuses on Top Gun: Maverick, you’ll probably want to read Part One — a quick overview of my history with Top Gun.]

Comments on this review are closed. If you want to know why, read the note at the end of this post.

More than 30 years since his heroic 1986 hi-jinx, Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell hasn’t matured much at all.

He lives in a man cave — scratch that: Mav cave — that is a museum to his own glory days: the motorcycle! The aviators! The jacket and its boy-scout badges! It’s as if Mav is a Marvel superhero who has been waiting for an upgraded costume and upgraded accessories, waiting more than 30 years for a sequel.

The fact that Cruise still looks 20 years younger than he is helps to make this illusion convincing.

Anyway, Mav’s still working for the U.S.A. — this time as a test pilot flying cutting edge stealth planes. And, surprise! He can’t be bothered with things like restrictions. So he’s working with a team that gets predictably nervous about his predictably boundary-pushing behavior. When Rear Admiral Chester “Hammer” Cain (played by Ed Harris, cast for gravitas that will make up for auto-generated lines) shows up (predictably) to shut down the hypersonic “Darkstar” program, declaring drones the way of the future, Mav (again, predictably) takes it personally.

So he reacts by living up to his name, testing Admiral Cain’s temper and pushing himself to a point of calamity. He’ll endanger the lives and cost the U.S. military extraordinary amounts of money, knowing that he has nothing to fear more than a lecture from a superior officer. (This sequence culminates with an amusing visual punchline that may remind you of the moments after Indiana Jones “nuked the fridge.”)

Mav pushes the IMAX envelope — again — in the long-awaited sequel to Top Gun. [Image from the Paramount Pictures trailer.]

During that shocking revelation of Mav’s lasting immaturity and egomania, we see — and not for the last time — women and people of color standing around in wide-eyed adulation at the ascendant Ageless White Man, while other, lesser white guys look on in solemn envy.

As my friend Jack Jamieson quipped on Letterboxd, “Maybe Scientology works?” He’s kidding, of course — but one can’t help but wonder if Cruise and Company don’t see this as a major marketing campaign. Even my friend Steven D. Greydanus, in his rave review at The Catholic World Report, says this of Cruise: “As hard as he’s worked over the last dozen years or so (oh, how hard he’s worked!) to win his way back into viewers’ good graces, the sense of weirdness around his personal life (including but not limited to his strong identification with Scientology and a series of media disasters) lingers.”

After the necessary verbal rebuke, Mav’s “misbehaviors” are all dismissed. It’s clear that even the Admiral understands Mav’s status as Man-God (Mav-God?), and thus he is beyond reproach. In fact, he is consequentially promoted, sent right back to the place he’s been yearning for: Top Gun. (Shocker!) He’s been summoned by Admiral Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer), who is now the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, and seems eager to use his power to glorify God (that is, Mav).

Mav in his man-cave motorcycle time capsule. [Image from the Paramount Pictures trailer.]

When he arrives at NAS North Island, Mav’s ego takes an initial hit when he realizes they aren’t asking him to fly into enemy territory, but rather to be an instructor for top pilots who will fly the mission themselves. For a moment, I was really intrigued: Perhaps Top Gun: Maverick would take us in an unexpected and meaningful direction! Perhaps this would be a story about learning to accept one’s age, and about humbling oneself to discover the rich rewards of teaching!

With respect to another big summer movie on the horizon… Nope.

Mav will, of course, end up flying the mission himself, with his students as his wingmen: the best pilots of F/A-18E/F Super Hornets pilots who are overseen by Vice Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson and Rear Admiral Solomon “Warlock” Bates.

Oh, I’m sorry — I meant wing-people. There’s a female pilot here — which shouldn’t even merit a mention in 2022, but I bring her up because the film is still so far behind the times that she’s subjected to being the punchline of a joke about being, yes, “a wingman.” (Sigh.) Okay. I guess the film’s target audience might still think that’s funny.

This team’s task is urgent and incredibly dangerous. A foreign country (we can’t know who it is or, you know, we’d actually have to think about the situation and consider America’s rapidly deteriorating role on the global stage) is enriching uranium in a depression surrounded by steep mountains. Pilots will have to sneak in by flying just a few feet above the ground to escape radar detection, and then they’ll have to fly out by veering up and over a high ridge, moving at high speed to elevations unfit for human life. And, of course, there are missiles and even more advanced aircraft ready to take them out — that’s how video games work.

Mav gets a new team, who make jokes that highlight the presence of (gasp!) women and people of color! How progressive! [Image from the Paramount Pictures trailer.]

But here’s the sticking point: During their desperate run through the crater, the American pilots have to bomb a specific target. The approach will not be easy. The target area is only two meters wide. It’s a small thermal exhaust port, right below the main port. The shaft leads directly to the reactor system. A precise hit will start a chain reaction which should destroy the station. Only a precise hit will set off a chain reaction. The shaft is ray-shielded, so they’ll have to use photon torpedoes.*

Wait — forgive me! I lost my mind for a moment there. Those last several lines are actually drawn directly from 1977’s Star Wars. The mission just seems so familiar, I guess my brain switched tracks mid-review! Bear with me.

The training is rushed, tense, and complicated by two of the pilots: one, Lieutenant Jake “Hangman” Seresin (Glen Powell) and Lieutenant Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), who look poised to take over if Cruise doesn’t return to the franchise. Hangman has that devil-may-care smirk that is mandatory for a cocky hero, and Rooster… well, he’s capable of resembling Anthony Edwards’s Goose from the first film, which is appropriate since he is, of course, Goose’s son. One of the film’s central tensions flares up when Maverick and Rooster clash — but Rooster isn’t holding a grudge over Goose’s death in the first film, as you might expect; it’s over something much more bureaucratic and uninteresting than that. Never mind.

Hey, fans — remember Mav’s wingman Goose? If not, the film will provide plenty of flashbacks to remind you. [Image from the Paramount Pictures trailer.]

You can pretty much guess where it goes from here: Mav aggravates the Powers That Be. The deadline gets moved up. The mission is run when the crew doesn’t seem ready. And, yes, Mav will have to be heroic.

That leads to one of the film’s true highlights: a venture into unexplored narrative territory, as a rescue mission requires characters to take actions that have no parallel in the first film. I won’t spoil them for you. But for the first time, in its final 40 minutes, the movie surprised me. It surprised me with a tangential adventure I hadn’t seen coming.

Still, one of the two most promising opportunities that Top Gun: Maverick has to demonstrate wisdom comes in the development of Mav’s new love interest, Penny Benjamin. Penny’s played by Jennifer Connelly, another icon of ’80s fantasy films — Labyrinth most notably. (When Connelly first appears onscreen as a bartender, there’s a David Bowie song playing in the background, and I had to applaud the cleverness of that. It’s my favorite moment in the whole movie.) If anybody has a good chance to teach Mav something about growing up, it’s Penny. She has history with Mav and should be able to speak to him about his weaknesses in ways that he will hear. By devoting more attention to her character, background, and context than anyone else in either movie, they surprised me by making her interesting. So, does she matter much in the end? Does she stand alone as an individual, presenting us with another vision for what matters?

An awwwww-inspring moment from Top Gun: Maverick. [Image from the Paramount Pictures trailer.]

Again… nope! Penny only ends up throwing fuel on the fires of Mav’s ambitions, independence, and wish-fulfillment endeavors. She’s there to give him a second chance, to invite him into her bedsheets, and to show up as a trophy at the end of the film in a supermodel pose — I am not making this up — leaning on a shiny Porsche as if he’s won the grand prize on The Price is Right. I am not making this up. If the rest of the film had been crafted as satire, I would have laughed even harder than I did at this moment.

The second most promising aspect is a creative re-introduction of Mav’s former rival: Iceman. If you were one of the few who watched the remarkable recent documentary Val, about the actor Val Kilmer, and the ruination of his film career by one misfortune after another, you might have wondered, like I did, if they would find a way to bring Iceman back for Top Gun: Maverick. And they did! The reunion of Maverick and Iceman provides what may be for most viewers the movie’s most emotionally affecting exchange. For me, much of that emotion comes from the fact that they invited Kilmer to be a part of this at all! It’s just so good to see him again, knowing the suffering he continues to endure.

But I can’t help but feel they could have dignified Kilmer and his character by investing more imagination in his return. That’s the thing about Top Gun: Maverick — the very few things it does with real imagination shine out as highlights, even though I can still imagine more meaningful choices they might have made even there.

Live without a net: This time, the crew plays beach football. [Image from the Paramount Pictures trailer.]

It isn’t my aim or my duty to recount the rest of the narrative: Moviegoers are having fun with this one, so, by all means, go have fun! I’m just here to give you some thoughtful first impressions of the film without spoiling it for those who haven’t seen it yet.

And it isn’t my intention to take cheap shots or merely complain about the movie. [UPDATE: I’m going to say something now in bold print for those who keep firing f-bombs at me for my opinion of this movie, because they seem to be so upset by my Rotten Tomatoes blurb on this movie that they’re not able to read the whole review clearly.] I had fun watching Top Gun: Maverick. The flight training scenes and aerial combat are exciting and often exhilarating due to the fact that they aren’t animated — they’re actual footage of some impressive stunt flying. It’s fun to see familiar faces, although I’m not feeling compelled to highlight any particular performance — Cruise is doing things we’ve seen him do a million times. (As I said in Part One of this essay, He’s always best when he’s playing a self-doubting villain or a hot-tempered man-child who needs to grow up.) The whole operation has been carefully calibrated as one of the most powerful fan-service productions of all time, giving those who have the first film almost memorized so many dopamine hits — flashbacks, nostalgia hits, variations on familiar scenes — that they’ll be grinning as brightly as Tom Cruise himself when it’s over. As entertainment that rewards your senses without challenging us to consider anything of real substance, it’s great! Director Joseph Kosinski, who made an entertaining but unfulfilling sequel to Tron more than a decade ago, and whose 2013 sci-fi adventure Oblivion surprised me with its extravagant visuals and its playful genre references, is likely to have the biggest hit of his career with this film by delivering everything the studio could have hoped for, everything Tom Cruise could have hoped for, and everything they might have anticipated moviegoers could want.

But I’m not one of the moviegoers they were thinking about. I love a great action movie. This year, I’ve enjoyed Everything Everywhere All at Once multiple times. Raiders of the Lost Ark, Die Hard, and Mad Max: Fury Road are among my all-time favorite films. And I’ve seen films about the American military that rank as favorites: The Thin Red Line, for example, is a work of transcendent beauty and wisdom. But I’m afraid that Top Gun: Maverick is a shiny, well-executed barrage of clichés. And it ends up reinforcing archetypes and values that I see as root causes of destructive afflictions in our culture. As much fun as it is when a familiar formula is well-executed, this movie is also an altar to America’s obsession with youthfulness, its exaltation of white super-men (showing people of color as inferior), its worship of heavy artillery, its insistence that we not think much about the consequences of violence, its permissiveness toward what we now wisely call “toxic masculinity,” its adoration for recklessness rather than integrity, and (sigh) its objectification of women as trophies.

[UPDATE: That last line statement has triggered a bunch of white males to send me profane “comments” full of name-calling and rage — all kinds of ugliness that actually underline my point: This is a movie that amplifies a harmful ideal and caters to those who subscribe to it. Be careful, friends. If you dare to question the glory of an arrogant white male with a weapon, or challenge the perceived superiority of those men, you will suddenly become a target for the worst examples of that sort. They will try to tell you that you owe them, because all of the good things you enjoy came about because of them. I’m tempted to recommend they take some history classes, but I don’t think education — or criticism — on these matters is interesting to them. They are showing us — even in their reactions to film reviews — who they are… and how insecure.]

“What’s that? Do I do my own stunts? I’m glad you asked.” [Image from the Paramount Pictures trailer.]

So I wasn’t surprised when, as the end credits rolled, some young athletic white guys who had been cheering raucously throughout the film stood up, turned, and tried to get the rest of us in the theater to join a standing ovation. “Come on!” they roared. They had seen a worship service for the kind of guy they want to be, the kind of world they want to live in.

If you feel the need for speed, Top Gun: Maverick might be enough for some thrills and laughs in air-conditioning this summer. And it’s not imaginative enough in its storytelling, or as wise i what it celebrates, for me to give it a glowing recommendation. And it’s certainly not my religion. it shouldn’t be anyone else’s either.

In the interest of encouraging meaningful dialogue, and with great respect for alternate takes that are written with civility and thoughtfulness, I recommend the review by Steven D. Greydanus, who gives the film an “A-minus,” at Decent Films. (Of course, those who are sending me angry retaliatory rants full of juvenile locker-room insults won’t respect this gesture.)

If I were giving it a letter grade, I’d give it a generous “C” for the joys of the aerial stunt flying, which really is exhilarating.

Lost somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle, an aircraft carrier and its fighter planes seem to be stuck in time. [Image from the Paramount Pictures trailer.]

*The lines in blue are from Star Wars (1977).

Due to the number of people violating the Comment Policy here here, I am closing down Comments on this post. If you enjoyed the movie, I’m delighted! I enjoyed it too — I said so in the review. If you’re angry about my opinion or my vote on Rotten Tomatoes — live with it. I respect your opinion of the movie; I expect respectful responses to mine. But, due to a bunch of bullies who think verbal violence is better than thoughtful dialogue, the Comments are closed on this review. Hey, thank you to everyone who gave me great examples of reactionary, uncritical thinking to share in my film criticism class! It’s always good to encourage students toward civil criticism and strong arguments by getting them to laugh and roll their eyes at the uselessness of profanity and bullying.