'Top Gun' and the Complicated Legacy Facing 'Maverick'

The 1986 film is beloved, but has also been accused of glorifying warfare, so how will Tom Cruise address what the franchise means for 2019?

What would San Diego Comic-Con be if not for a few surprises? Paramount had a big one in store for guests Thursday with Tom Cruise himself appearing to introduce the trailer for Top Gun: Maverick. The sequel to Tony Scott’s 1986 hit, which launched Cruise to stardom, picks up more than 30 years after the events of the first film and finds Maverick’s career grounded, thanks to his hot shot antics. Director Joseph Kosinski, who previously worked with Cruise in the sci-fi action film Oblivion (2013), brings his unmistakable visual flair to the film, which the trailer showcases alongside its nostalgic intent that works with chilling effectiveness once the first chords of Harold Faltermeyer’s iconic score begins to play. While audience members are no stranger to franchise revivals of '80s films, Top Gun: Maverick is an interesting case because it doesn’t have to build off of a decade’s worth of sequels. While it’s hard to believe it took this long for a sequel to Top Gun to come to fruition, Maverick being the first sequel means it doesn’t have to fight against franchise fatigue or rectify past mistakes. It only has to build off of a beloved hit, which of course has its own challenges.

The story has become pop culture legend by this point, but the release of Top Gun saw Naval Aviation recruitment go up by 500 percent. This factor has been rumored to be part of the reason Cruise starred in Born on the Fourth of July (1989). And if true, perhaps it was in order to show the cost of war and take responsibility for the part he played in Top Gun, which director Oliver Stone called a fascist film. Despite Stone’s prominent voice in the '80s, it was an era that romanticized war and American exceptionalism, and while Top Gun has had a lasting impact on action movies, it’s also had a lasting impact on military movies, with so many young leads being stand-ins for Cruise’s Maverick in everything from the often-imitated Pearl Harbor (2001) to the blessedly forgotten Battleship (2012). Now 30 years later, with America’s war in Afghanistan nearing 20 years, it seems impossible to consider the world of Top Gun the same way now as we did then. But with or without a Top Gun sequel, soldiers have become the equivalent of superheroes in many cinematic cases, and there is a certain distance from reality that comes with the military movie heroes of Jerry Bruckheimer’s films. The existence of Top Gun: Maverick doesn’t necessarily renege on taking some responsibility for military misinformation, but it does mean that for the film to work it has to have different interests and be discussed under different terms.

At Comic-Con, Cruise referred to it as a love letter to aviation, the distinction that it is not a love letter to war being the thing unsaid. While there will undoubtedly be plenty of fun and thrills to be had with Top Gun: Maverick, and seeing Cruise reprise that motorcycle scene is a thing of excellence, it also wouldn’t be surprising if Top Gun: Maverick, co-written by frequent Cruise collaborator Christopher McQuarrie, digs a little deeper than the first film did. There’s a space in which Maverick can honor real life military heroes without coming across as a recruitment video that romanticizes or gives false expectations of reality. Miles Teller will be playing Bradley Bradshaw, the son of Goose (Anthony Edwards), and no doubt that aspect will be a central factor in Top Gun: Maverick in terms of looking at the effect service has on fathers not returning home and perhaps Maverick’s decision to never have children of his own.

Top Gun: Maverick looks like it’ll be the fun summer blockbuster we’ve missed since superheroes took over, but there’s also a non-triumphant, almost mournful element to it, that makes a convincing argument that pilots aren’t just being subbed in for superheroes. Though brief, the trailer for Top Gun: Maverick makes a case that this will be a film about real characters, real stakes and real consequences. If Kosinski can pull this off, then Top Gun: Maverick is set to fly out of the danger zone that so many other '80s sequels have fallen into and reflect a real and changing world.