For nearly 25 years, nobody ever thought to conceive of a sequel for Top Gun. The original film came out in 1986, and the announcement of an impending sequel came from the late director Tony Scott in 2010. Nobody had any idea what he was thinking or why Top Gun needed a sequel, but Scott was going to try and make one with Christopher McQuarrie — Tom Cruise’s longtime creative/business partner — writing the script.

For over a decade afterward, there were doubts that the film would ever get released. Not only did McQuarrie pass on writing the script, but Tony Scott tragically committed suicide in 2012. Yet producer Jerry Bruckheimer inexplicably kept developing the project with Peter Craig, Justin Marks, Ashley Edward Miller, and Zack Stentz all passing through the revolving door of screenwriters.

Enter Joseph Kosinski, who had previously worked with Tom Cruise on Oblivion and paid cinematic tribute to heroic firefighters with the underrated Only the Brave. He was the perfect choice to direct the project (except maybe Patty Jenkins — I’d be gravely disappointed if the filmmakers never thought to meet with her at some point), and Kosinski signed on in 2017. Shortly afterward, Ehren Kruger (the overpaid hack) and Eric Warren Singer (a writer on Only the Brave) turned in a script with later revisions by McQuarrie.

Then came the production. Not only did the cast have to train for the skill and sheer physical endurance necessary to fly a goddamn F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Not only did special camera rigs have to be set up for shooting the jets and the cockpit interiors. On top of all that, the actors had to learn how to operate the cameras themselves while simultaneously piloting a jet worth the entire combined budget of the U.S. Department of Education. Hell, it cost the production $11,000 an hour just to rent the jets used in production!

And then came COVID. Though production had been wrapped for roughly a year by that point, the last few steps of post-production and editing had to be done remotely during lockdown. But that still left the issue of when the film could be safely and profitably released. As it was, delays in production had already pushed the film back from June 2019 to June 2020. When that release date didn’t happen, the film got pushed back to December 2020, through to July 2021, on to November 2021, and then to May of 2022. Through all that time, we didn’t even know for a certainty if the film would get a theatrical release or get pushed onto the fledgling Paramount+ streaming service!

Oh, and Miles Teller — Cruise’s costar on the project and another Only the Brave alumnus — was briefly the center of some anti-vax rumors, but it doesn’t look like anything came of it.

So May 2022 came and went, and Paramount finally got a completed movie out the door and into theaters. That’s Miracle #1. Top Gun: Maverick actually turned out to be a damn good movie that exceeded all expectations. That’s Miracle #2.

Before going any further, I have to point out that the opening credits are practically a shot-for-shot recreation of the opening credits from the first movie. The credits are in the exact same font. We get pretty much the exact same title card explaining what Top Gun is. It’s another extended sequence of fighter jets taking off from an aircraft carrier, set to Harold Faltermeyer’s iconic “Top Gun Anthem” — minus the guitar lead, exactly as it was in the opening credits in the first film. We even get Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” kicking in at the exact same time. The attention to detail is impressive.

Speaking of the music, Harold Faltermeyer’s “Top Gun Anthem” remains the greatest song in the entire series, bar none. That soaring guitar riff is iconic and timeless, while Kenny Loggins is corny and dated (for better or worse). And no, I’m sorry to say that I’m not impressed with Lady Gaga’s “Hold My Hand”, which was totally wrong for the project and doesn’t even sound like it came from the right decade. At least Loggins sounds inescapably ’80s, but Lady Gaga’s song sounds like it came straight from the ’90s. It’s like a warmed-over retread of “How Do I Live Without You” or “Where Are You Christmas?” — both of which were themselves Faith Hill songs made in blatant imitation of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” — yet somehow, all three of those songs meshed better with their respective movies than “Hold My Hand” does here!

With all of that aside, what’s been going on in the 35 years since Top Gun? Well, Tom “Iceman” Kazansky is now a highly respected admiral in charge of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, though he’s mostly been working from home in recent months. Alas, Iceman and Val Kilmer both have been brought low by throat cancer and they communicate mostly through digital means. A thoughtful concession that graciously allowed Kilmer to come back for a scene, though Iceman is a palpable offscreen presence through the entire film. I might add that Iceman and Maverick have remained good friends in close contact through the years.

Speaking of Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, he’s still a highly decorated pilot, though he’s turned down numerous chances at promotion so he can stay in the air. Though Mav did go on to teach at Top Gun (as teased at the end of the previous film), his tenure proved to be disastrous and he was out within two months. Thus he’s spent the past several years as a test pilot, currently working on the “Darkstar” project to replace the iconic yet aging SR-71 Blackbird.

(Side note: Yes, that is a real thing.)

And what of Maverick’s love life? Well, “Charlie” Blackwood is never even obliquely mentioned in the sequel, but there were umpteen reasons why that cringeworthy and ill-advised fling was destined to fail. Instead, Maverick has spent the past few decades continuing his on-again/off-again relationship with none other than Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly), the infamous admiral’s daughter we heard so much about in the first film. Penny herself is a doting single mother and the owner of an officer’s bar affectionately called “The Hard Deck”. I feel compelled to add that Penny’s daughter (Amelia, played by Lyliana Wray) is most certainly not borne of Maverick, but some asshole who ran off to Hawaii with another woman.

Long story short, the plot kicks off with the arrival of Rear Admiral Chester Cain (played for all of one scene by Ed Harris), who announces that the Darkstar project is getting scrapped. He reasons that the future is in unmanned drones — air superiority through machines that won’t get tired, won’t disobey orders, and won’t be in any risk of dying on the battlefield. And with only the slightest trace of irony, Cain passes along a message that Maverick has been hand-picked by Admiral Iceman himself to go back to Top Gun and train a new class of pilots for a mission that cannot be accomplished by drones.

It seems that some rogue nation has started work on an unsanctioned and highly illegal plant to develop weapons-grade uranium, and the plant will be operational within three weeks. What’s worse, the plant is underground in the most laughably improbable geological formation since Dr. Evil’s volcano lair — the plant is in a deep pit surrounded by mountains on all sides and the only possible point of entry is a shallow trench. What’s worse, the mountains are loaded with GPS scramblers that make drones useless, radar-activated surface-to-air missile launchers to take down any approaching aircraft or missiles, and a hangar loaded with goddamn F-22 Raptors.

It’s important to note add that this rogue nation is never directly mentioned by name. In fact, I could swear I saw the “red star on black” emblem that would make these the exact same blatantly fictional one-dimensional nameless and faceless bad guys from the first movie. That said, at least this plot has a firmly established goal with global stakes, and a clearly-defined ticking clock for when our main characters have to be ready to take on this existential threat. So right off the bat, the film’s plot is measurably superior to that of the prequel.

What’s more, the premise establishes a solid reason why unmanned drones are not the end-all and be-all solution to airborne military superiority: Because overspecializing breeds weakness. Escalation means that if somebody comes up with a new technology, somebody else will come up with a way to counter it. And if all you’ve got is that new technology, you’re fucked. Moreover, it’s fundamentally impossible for machines to innovate or improvise like humans can, as Maverick constantly demonstrates for better and for worse.

(Side note: I strongly recommend the recent LegalEagle video explaining why Maverick would likely be put to death — or at the very least, grounded for life — if the original movie followed the laws and penalties of the real-life U.S. Navy judicial system. I’m sure it won’t surprise you to hear that Maverick somehow pulls off more of the same shit to even more egregious degrees in the sequel, with only the flimsiest of hand-waves as to why he gets away with it.)

That said, the film makes a huge deal about the one indisputable benefit to unmanned drones: It doesn’t put a soldier’s life at risk. All these years later, Maverick is still clearly rattled by Goose’s death, and training at Top Gun for an almost-certainly-fatal mission brings back a lot of unpleasant memories. It doesn’t help that Goose’s own son (Lt. Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw, played by Miles Teller, and I wish to the gods I could slap the writer who thought “Bradley Bradshaw” was a viable name for the character) is a candidate for the mission. It should come as no surprise that Rooster is still coping with his father’s death and Maverick’s role in it, but there’s a lot of other bad blood between Rooster and Maverick that I won’t get into here.

Maverick has a history of flying with Rooster’s father, much as Maverick’s old flight instructor (that would be Viper, played by Tom Skerritt in the first movie) had a history of flying with Maverick’s father. Yet Maverick has a harder time settling into the mentor role that Viper played, and the Viper/Maverick relationship was much more cordial and respectful than all the broken bridges between Maverick and Rooster. What’s more, while both characters had their daddy issues, Maverick’s grief pushed him to fly like a man with a death wish while Rooster’s grief holds him back to fly more conservatively.

Even better is the rivalry between Rooster and classmate Hangman (Glen Powell), mirroring the iconic Maverick/Iceman rivalry from ’86. But while Iceman talked a big game about how Maverick was a danger to himself and his squadmates, Iceman never really walked that walk. Rooster shows a much greater concern for his teammates’ safety, and that concern is rooted in far greater pathos. As for Hangman, the guy’s a preening reckless narcissistic dickbag with a pathological need to be the best and the fastest. He’s like everything insufferable about Maverick, but without the modicum of respect or integrity that makes Maverick sympathetic.

To wit: Maverick was first introduced going out of his way to guide a shell-shocked pilot safely back to base in the first movie. Would Hangman ever do such a thing? Hell no.

The whole movie is like this, with various beats that are similar to the prequel yet slightly different. We’ve got Maverick’s reassignment to Top Gun, we’ve got the bar scene that ends with Maverick getting humiliated by his love interest, we’ve got the Top Gun students’ awkward re-introduction to their instructor, we’ve got the training exercises taking up the bulk of the dazzling dogfight sequences, we’ve got Maverick and his love interest playfully going back and forth about whether they should try something that they know will be a bad idea, we’ve got the gratuitous beach sports scene, we’ve got the training exercise gone wrong, we’ve got the funeral scene followed by Maverick hitting his lowest point, we’ve got Maverick coming back implausibly strong on the way to the climax… it’s all here.

But more importantly, it’s better.

For one thing, the filmmakers found a way to put in a well-oiled beach sports scene, but they found a way to do it that’s legitimately justified by the plot and the characters’ development arcs. Likewise, the romance arc works better here because Cruise and Connelly do such an amazing job at selling the characters’ chemistry and shared history, and we don’t have to worry about any squicky conflicts of interest this time.

Most importantly, the sequel builds on the history established by the first movie in ways that are delectably satisfying. There’s one point in which Maverick tries to pass along a speech that Viper made to him in the first movie, and it’s incredible how much is visibly going through Maverick’s head in that moment. Maverick (along with the audience and Rooster, to some extent) has already been through so much shit, he’s so much more visibly scared to see tragedies repeat themselves, and so much more elated to relive the good times. Plus, in those blessed moments when the film zigs where the prequel zagged, it subverts expectations in a way that’s great fun.

Moving on to the performances. Honestly, Miles Teller is the only one in the cast who even looks like he’s trying, and I mean that as a compliment. It’s not easy for an actor to transition to adult roles in real time, but Teller has done a remarkable job of aging artistically. He’s genuinely playing a character here, and that’s worth respect.

By contrast, everyone else is playing well within their established wheelhouses. Tom Cruise has been playing some variation of Maverick for the past 35 years, but of course that won’t stop him from going with 100 percent full intensity like he does in every movie. Val Kilmer is playing an iteration of Iceman that was literally written around him. Jennifer Connelly, Ed Harris, Jon Hamm, and Charles Parnell have all played their respective tropes so many times, they might as well be sleepwalking. As for the various other Top Gun pilots, the only noteworthy ones are played by Monica Barbaro, Lewis Pullman, Jay Ellis, Danny Ramirez, and the aforementioned Glen Powell. All of whom look like they’re having the time of their lives.

With the exception of Miles Teller, nobody in this cast feels like they’re acting. Yet it somehow works. There’s a sense of comfort and familiarity to these particular actors playing these particular roles, like these people are the best at what they do and they’ve been doing it for years. Even the exception of Miles Teller works because the character is trying so hard to bottle up his childhood trauma and pretend everything’s fine.

In the end, Top Gun: Maverick is a perfectly worthy sequel. The narrative is flimsy, but the film is overflowing with heart. The politics are simplistic and highly questionable, but it’s all for the purpose of straightforward dogfight scenes that we can sit back and enjoy without the strain of thinking too hard. Perhaps most importantly, this movie actually has something to say about the value of human life, the pros and cons of getting older, and the wisdom of knowing when (not) to play it safe; all of which is a huge upgrade over the previous film’s vague moralizing about learning from mistakes or something.

The best compliment I can pay this film is that I don’t think I’ll ever see the first movie again without seeing the second one immediately after. This is the sequel we didn’t know we needed. Definitely check it out.

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