Hollywood is notorious for relying on sequels, which often falter in comparison to their predecessors. In 1986, “Top Gun” arrived to box office success and minor acclaim on the production side, garnering four Academy Awards nominations for its sound editing, music and film editing. Thirty-six years later, the announcement of another “Top Gun” seemed like an admission of creative failure on the part of Paramount and Skydance. And yet, “Top Gun: Maverick” is in the running for six Oscars — including Best Picture — at this year’s Academy Awards.
While the movie is not the artsy, campy film that viewers might imagine succeeding on the award circuit, this entertaining and action-packed picture has earned its status as an Academy Awards contender due to the scale of its impact, its traditionally feel-good yet effective storytelling and its outstanding action sequences.
For starters, the summer blockbuster film was a huge crowd-pleaser, ranking number one at the box office in 2022, domestically grossing over $718 million and beating the second highest-grossing film, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” by almost $300 million. With this level of success, “Top Gun: Maverick” pushed the tide back in the battle between theater and streaming.
But box office success alone isn’t enough to prove “Top Gun: Maverick” will actually be competitive for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. In February, Tom Cruise, who produced and starred in the film, was awarded the David O. Selznick Achievement prize at the 2023 Producers Guild of America Awards, which “recognizes a producer or producing team for their extraordinary body of work in motion pictures.” But Cruise’s win was for his career’s work, and “Top Gun: Maverick” did not win the PGA Awards’ equivalent of Best Picture; the honor instead went to “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” The PGA Awards have labeled themselves a “bellwether” for the Oscars, having predicted 23 of the 33 winners of the Academy Award for Best Picture since the PGA Awards’ founding.
Even if it doesn’t end up as a true contender for Best Picture, “Top Gun: Maverick” still proves an enjoyable watch with sharp video and audio editing. It opens with the same iconic title sequence and song as the original “Top Gun,” evoking a nostalgic 1980s vibe. Thirty years after graduating from Top Gun Academy, US Navy Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) is a test pilot, unable to rank higher for repeated instances of insubordination. Maverick is called to return as an instructor at Top Gun to train the Navy’s most elite pilots for an impossible mission: destroying a uranium enrichment plant defended by an unnamed geopolitical enemy in possession of fifth-generation fighter jets. Easy enough, right? To complicate matters further, among Maverick’s trainees is Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), son of Maverick’s late best friend, who died in the original “Top Gun” due to an accident involving Maverick. Rooster rightfully harbors a grudge against Maverick and clashes with fellow pilot Jake "Hangman" Seresin (Glen Powell).
Either in an appeal to nostalgia or as homage to the original “Top Gun,” the sequel contains many parallels to the first film, including a shirtless beach football scene reminiscent of the famous 1986 volleyball scene. Similarly, Rooster and Hangman’s relationship closely mirrors the interpersonal conflict between Maverick and Tom "Iceman" Kazansky (Val Kilmer) in the first film. While “Top Gun: Maverick” tries to mirror its predecessor in a number of ways, though, it still fails to capture the grittiness of the 80s — OneRepublic’s whistling tune “I Ain’t Worried,” although catchy, is no match for Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away.”
But the huge time difference between the films allows for a new chapter that is more than a cheap sequel or reboot and allows the predecessor’s locker room talk and boys club attitude to be replaced with a good-natured and realistic dynamic in a more diverse group of pilots that reflects the modern times of the sequel.
“Top Gun: Maverick” tells a compelling story about the complexity and depth of relationships, touching on themes of grief, love, friendship and camaraderie. Maverick’s romance with bar owner Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly) — a callback to a comment in the first film about an incident with an admiral’s daughter — is only a side plot. The true messages about loyalty and trust are found in Maverick’s developing relationship with Rooster as a father figure and mentor, and a nostalgic reunion between Maverick and Iceman. Without the distraction of the pilots’ posturing and bravado seen in the first film, “Top Gun: Maverick” reiterates lessons about overcoming interpersonal conflict and trusting your teammates.
The nostalgia admittedly comes off as heavy-handed or manufactured at times, but “Top Gun: Maverick” makes up for this with its outstanding action scenes. The film used minimal computer-generated imagery, and all of the aerial sequences were filmed with actors in real jets. In an age where action films heavily rely on CGI (see the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe), the light use of visual effects to support these real aerial sequences makes for a gravity-defying and exhilarating viewing experience. Cruise, who has always been known to perform his own stunts, likely had a heavy hand in the return to these old-school methods, proving to audiences that the improvement of CGI technology in the past few decades is no replacement for classic movie-making techniques. For this reason, “Top Gun: Maverick” was an edge-of-your-seat, massively entertaining film, leaving audiences in awe of incredible dogfights and impossible flight paths.
Whether audiences watched the film for Teller’s TikTok-viral dance in the football scene or were returning fans of the original, it is undeniable that “Top Gun: Maverick” was a huge force in the theater business’s revival and offered a refreshing reminder of all the right parts of old Hollywood. Though director Joseph Kosinski had large shoes to fill after the passing of “Top Gun” director Tony Scott, “Top Gun: Maverick” is an entertaining, action-packed sequel with more than enough nostalgia to appease older audiences and a breathtaking viewing experience for younger viewers, with a feel-good story to neatly tie everything together.
Ashley Guo is an arts & culture writer and layout designer. She previously covered city and state politics as a Metro section editor. In her free time, Ashley enjoys listening to music, swimming, and reading!