I want to talk about Top Gun: Maverick as an example of a successful sequel based on theme rather than plot. Especially as we’re seeing more and more of these reboot-sequels like Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Blade Runner 2049, the Star Wars sequels trilogy, and Jurassic World. I feel like Maverick is the first one to really get it right. Which is something I absolutely didn’t expect to be saying.
What I mean by “right” is that Maverick is one of the rare reboot-sequels that engages thematically with its original work. And does so in a way that makes both movies better.
How? I’ll explain. But you’ll have to bear with me through some brief summaries. They’re important, though. So don’t skip.
The first Top Gun (1986) featured Pete “Maverick” Mitchell as a young man with everything to prove. The character, born in 1962, was supposed to be in his early twenties. So we’re talking really the beginning of adulthood. He’s still figuring out who he is. And that’s part of the story: Maverick is full of potential but is a hot head and has a lot of growing up to do.
The film is smart and gave us a way to measure Maverick’s maturity: the race for the TOPGUN trophy for best pilot of the school. Maverick has all of the skill but is his own worst enemy. The immaturity costs him, time and again. And ultimately results in the death of his Radar Intercept Officer, Goose Bradshaw. Maverick comes in second for the trophy, losing to Iceman (Val Kilmer), but that’s not where the story ends.
We have a climactic scene where enemy MiG pilots attack Iceman, Hollywood (Whip Hubley), and Maverick. Our hero rises to the moment, overcoming several mental hurdles, and shoots down three of the MiGs, making him a legend in the world of air combat. The movie ends with Maverick seemingly on the threshold of living a great, happy, successful life.
Top Gun: Maverick
For the sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, we’re thirty years in the future. Maverick is 57 years old. And his life isn’t what most of us expected. He’s single. No kids. Still a Captain rather than rising in rank—a contrast to his old wingman, Iceman, who is Admiral and commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. It’s a quiet, isolated, and seemingly lonely life. Much of Top Gun: Maverick features Mitchell reflecting on his past. Past relationships. Past friendships. Past regrets. You’re seeing someone burdened by a life of choices, by what he’s done and what he never did. Over the course of the movie, he finds forgiveness, closure, and love. All of that occurring as he confronts his pseudo-past by teaching TOPGUN pilots who are just like he was so long ago.
The whole climactic mission that involves the destruction of an unnamed country’s uranium enrichment plant, that’s nothing more than a means by which to challenge the relationship between Maverick and Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s late friend, Goose. The movie ends with our hero having a pseudo-son in Rooster and starting to settle down with Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly).
The surprising thematic depth of movies about flying airplanes
Between the two films, you see innocence versus experience. You see the potential of early life versus the existential plight of later life. The first is a young man focused on what he will be. The second is an old man reflecting on what he never was. They’re two opposite ends of the human condition. It’s surprisingly deep. I mean, this is a movie about flying airplanes. It’s a summer blockbuster. It’s loud. It’s fun. It features beach sports. But yet it still manages to have more thematic poignancy than 99% of sequels.
I’d argue that Maverick is the rare sequel that, by existing, actually improves the original. That’s because all of that existential stuff is there to dive into. You can jump back and forth between how these films contrast the potential of being in your twenties against the weight of being older. What stays true? What was only a mirage? The regrets. The responsibility. The opportunities that remain. That’s heavy. And meaningful.
I’d go so far as to say…I can’t really think of another reboot-sequel that accomplishes this? Most are simply concerned with plot. Which is fine. A good plot is necessary. But it’s not like the Jurassic World trilogy really never says anything that Jurassic Park didn’t. Hell, the original JP sequel, Lost World, didn’t add depth to the franchise. Only plot.
Even Blade Runner 2049. I love it. It’s beautiful. The story has impressive scope and scale. K’s (Ryan Gosling) relationship with his perceived humanity and his holographic AI girlfriend, Joi (Ana de Armas), does provide a lot to discuss, thematically. But does it add all that much to Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner? I’d argue no. Not in the meaningful way we see Top Gun: Maverick do. K’s consideration of his humanity is ultimately just a repetition of Deckard’s (Harrison Ford) journey in Blade Runner.
Which is the same complaint I have for the Star Wars sequel trilogy. It retreads too much content. Rey (Daisy Ridley) has a near-identical arc as the original trilogy’s Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill).
- Grows up on a desert planet (Tatooine/Jakku).
- Joins the rebellion against an evil empire (Galactic Empire/First Order).
- Escapes home planet aboard the Millennium Falcon.
- Discovers the ability to use the Force.
- Is chased by the Sith Lord’s apprentice (Darth Vader/Kylo Ren).
- Ends up training with a legendary Jedi who lives in exile on a distant planet (Yoda/Luke).
- Fights on a snow planet.
- Ends up being the child of a legendary bloodline (Skywalkers/Palpatines).
- Ultimately defeats a Sith Lord and brings an end to a fascist regime.
To be fair, Maverick did the same. You have the bar scene where the TOPGUN pilots interacts with a TOPGUN instructor without realizing it. In the original, it’s Maverick with his instructor and future girlfriend, Charlotte Blackwood (Kelly McGillis). In the sequel, it’s Hangman and others with Maverick himself. That’s one of many small moments. Maverick even uses a similar structure of starting outside of TOPGUN, transitioning to training at TOPGUN, forcing a topless beach sport sequence, then concluding with a real dog fight with enemy fighters. You even have Rooster and Hangman (Glen Powell) recreating the Maverick and Iceman dynamic.
To me, the difference is how much Top Gun: Maverick serves as a contrast in perspective. You have the same character, Pete Mitchell, experiencing TOPGUN from the perspective of a 20-something versus that of a 57 year old. The repetition of moments allows Maverick to react to the present in terms of the past. He’s not the same person he was and we can measure the difference between the two movies.
And there’s something very powerful in that. As it challenges the viewer to actually consider their own life. If you’re young like Cruise in the original Top Gun, Maverick asks you to reflect on the limits of potential. The fact you might not have a perfect future. And if you’re older like Cruise in Maverick, then Maverick reminds you that there’s still time fill in some gaps. That it’s not too late to find the love you’ve been missing. To make amends. To still be useful and helpful.
You don’t really see that in Star Wars. In Blade Runner 2049. In Jurassic World. Or really anything else. I wouldn’t expect Top Gun: Maverick to become the go-to example for how to make a reboot-sequel thematically relevant…but here we are.