Like John Gotti before him, Tom Cruise really is the new Teflon Don. Not a stranger to career adversity, such as a highly publicized divorce, this bit of celebrity nonsense, or a changing movie industry that prioritizes franchises over A-list actors, Cruise perseveres as his own franchise. Hell, the marketing for Top Gun: Maverick sees his name as practically the same size as the title, and rightfully so. He is one of the few needle pushers left as far as A-list drawing power is concerned, and he may just top the list. Which makes his return to the Top Gun franchise an interesting homecoming, as it represents an era of big budgeted filmmaking that is slowly dying around us.
A bit refresher for the uninitiated – the original Top Gun is a 1986 action drama, centering around U.S. Navy pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Cruise) and Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer) as they train under the “Top Gun” aerial program. The two have an eventful rivalry, as well as a budding brotherhood, while Maverick balances a relationship with the program’s instructor, Charlie (Kelly McGillis). The film, directed by the late Tony Scott, is one of the most iconic 80s action movies, establishing Scott’s penchant for fast paced editing mixed with Twilight hour/sun-soaked cinematography. Basically, many of the visual motifs we associate with Michael Bay were established by filmmakers like Tony Scott.
Thus, Top Gun was not only a smash box office hit, but it influenced how action movies would look for the proceeding 40 years while cementing Cruise as an iconic superstar atop the Hollywood hierarchy. Fans adored it, referencing the instantly quotable dialogue and turning the movie’s soundtrack into a frequent resident on the Billboard charts. However, critics were less enthused by the film’s “style over substance” appeal, aggravating an already existing angst amongst the critical community that 80s movies were becoming soulless corporate engines that prioritized flash over cinematic invention and themes that dramatized the human condition.
Today, much of that angst still exists, but the “villain” is now Superhero movies and endless franchises. However, unlike the socialites of the 80s, today’s critics are much more forgiving of these franchise pictures, many of whom grew up with Top Gun and view it as a cultural touchstone rather than a sign of cinema’s end times. As a result, Top Gun: Maverick, a legacyquel that sees Cruise returning to the skies, is likely to draw far more critical adulation than its predecessor. That can be ascertained by the welcoming reaction to the movie’s trailer, which can be viewed below:
It genuinely looks like a fun, mesmerizing time that blends action with comraderie among an interesting cast of characters. That sounds very similar to the original. Which calls into question what a movie is or isn’t allowed to be. Some movies have no interest in being elevated by complex narratives filled with rich themes and metaphors that “say something about life,” or that are “for adults.” Some movies just want to be a good hang while giving the audience visual splendor. But often critics can’t handle that, feeling that if they can’t bring their unique eye of critical inspection to a story, then that work is somehow lesser. Often, movies are entertaining for very obvious reasons that do not require a critical lens, while some critics feel more at home analyzing material that’s deeper than the surface.
This anxiety created much of the chasm between audiences and critics when Top Gun graced screens in 1986. Luckily, the critical community has changed greatly since then – both in terms of demographics and background. While critics of that era, such as Pauline Kael, bemoaned the ubiquity of popcorn features, Top Gun: Maverick is being welcomed as a throwback: an action romp where no one has super powers, and the biggest draw of the movie is the name above the title. In many ways, Kael and her peers were right about how commerce would negatively affect the movie industry. But many of them often lacked an ability to let their hair down and have fun, a trait that has been employed by their successors. Which begs the question, why make a Top Gun 2? The answer is not that there’s some gigantic loose end from the original that needs to be addressed – that movie was very self contained. The reason for it’s existence is the same as its predecessor – bringing some frivolous fun to multiplexes while making a shit ton of money along the way. Hopefully, that should be more than enough.
Top Gun: Maverick hits theaters everyday, May 27th.