Actually, Top Gun: Maverick is Bad

January 4, 2023

I am not a shitposter, I swear. I don’t even really have time to construct inflammatory takes, let alone take abuse for them and somehow turn that into engagement or personal brand or whatever it is people do with internet rage.

So when I saw the Top Gun sequel, I kept things to myself. I listened to podcasts I respect, and heard nothing but total praise. I floated some criticism past friends and co-workers, and got the exact same reaction.

“This is one of the best sequels of all time.”

“It’s better than the original.”

“This is one of the best movies of the last decade.

I just can’t. I know what I saw, and it… wasn’t that good.

Why Top Gun Is Good

My argument — nay, feelings — about the Top Gun movies is/are not complicated. This is not some bank shot where I explain to you the history of aviation-based cinema and then at the last second make you realize something subtle but devastating about these movies. It’s much simpler than that.

Does this man exist? Who knows? But if he did, this is exactly how he would act.
  1. The original Top Gun movie created a bunch of awesome, exaggerated characters
  2. The setting/premise of the movie means you don’t have to unpack a lot of the details about those characters; Maverick and Goose are 20-something badass Navy pilots, Goose does young Dad things, Maverick does young non-Dad things, Iceman is a dick
  3. Maverick being awesome at flying is not weird. It might be UNLIKELY that he can do the specific things he can do, but who cares — someone is the best at flying F-14s, and it is not unreasonable to think that person is a 20-something non-Dad badass who would try to hook up with his attractive military consultant quasi-boss. The specifics of what you can do in an F-14 are not important to me; everything looks kind of real (and even awesome pilots like Maverick and Iceman make mistakes in the movie, validating how difficult all of this is), so a general movie non-expert like me is fine.
  4. These awesome exaggerated characters go through “relatable” things. It’s not that I can relate to going to fighter pilot school — I cannot. But I can relate to being good at something I’m good at, going up against other people who are also good, struggling, losing my mojo, and needing to think differently about my awesomeness to regain my confidence and save the day. That’s actually… super relatable.
  5. The important people grow and change, because people often grow and change under exciting, challenging, dramatic circumstances. Maverick loses his confidence and regains it through a series of trials. Iceman learns to respect what is different about Maverick after they overcome a life-and-death challenge together. Goose dies.

I’m not putting in “Tony Scott creates a magical, sun-kissed nautical playground” in here because obviously he does that. Top Gun is a great looking movie. It also has ridiculous shirtless volleyball scenes and other odd things in it, and all of that is fine. Sometimes it has perfect music, and sometimes it has slightly odd, borderline stupid music. Whatever. You could say doing more or less of those different things would make Top Gun better or worse, but I don’t really think any of those things make Top Gun fundamentally “good” or “bad”. Top Gun is an okay story — not great, but crucially, it is an okay story — attached to great characters, and getting those two essential things right enough makes it a fundamentally good movie to me. Are they great because they are incredibly deep? No, not really, but they are deep enough and vibrant enough that most of the time you are either rooting for them, mad at them, empathizing with them, or feeling bad for them.

Why Top Gun: Maverick Is Bad

When I say this movie is bad, it’s important to realize I mean more “it is a bad thing” than “it is a bad movie”. I say this because absolutely no one agrees with my “Top Gun: Maverick is bad” take at the highest levels, and I’m starting to think this is (partially) why. This movie does a bunch of things extremely well; it looks incredible, the flight footage is awesome, the sound basically rules, etc., etc., and so forth. Plus, even though it is stupid, movies can be fun and stupid and perfectly fine. Independence Day is a stupid movie that is totally fine. In fact, Independence Day is actually in the upper tier of stupid, totally fine movies for some of the same reasons Top Gun is, even though Top Gun is (while still ridiculous) less shlocky and eye-rolling and “better” for a variety of reasons. But I definitely did not want want Will Smith’s character to die, I definitely didn’t want Vivica A. Fox’s character to die, and I am legitimately happy for the drunk cropdusting veteran guy when he tells his children he loves them. It’s still a stupid movie, but I’m not like “this movie is bad for movies and the people who watch it”. In fact, I basically think the opposite.

So don’t come at me with “bro you are overthinking this”. How dare you. How dare you lower the bar for Top Gun like that, a movie that is directly responsible for me saying “talk to me, Goose” to my children when I am trying to get them to open up about their days at school. And I’m not even a Top Gun person! I am just a random general culture-consumer who realizes that Top Gun did a really good job of making me care about/relate to pretend, exaggerated fighter pilots!

Now, for those of you — and there are many, including film and TV critics/professionals who I really respect and who make me embarrassed to even write this — who legitimately think Top Gun: Maverick is a great execution of a Top Gun sequel (let alone a good movie on its own), here are my problems.

  1. Maverick is not a blank slate. This is the character we met in Top Gun, thirty five years later. He is not “aging out” of fighter pilot age. He has absolutely blasted past the window when you are even allowed to fly these planes at all, and he is clearly still — at present — the best pilot who has ever lived.
  2. This is… absolutely incredible, and yet it’s not really considered that big of a deal. What has Maverick been doing? It says that he is extremely decorated, which seems unsurprising (and is very easy to accept), but lots of people don’t really seem that impressed with him?
  3. This is even more absurd because Maverick is clearly still vastly better than every single person around him at all times. Wouldn’t it be well known by all these hotshot fighter pilots training for this mission that not only is Maverick the best ever, but that he is STILL the best, and is showing zero signs of even slowing down?
  4. It would make sense if maybe the young pilots were BETTER at some stuff, but Maverick came in and said hey, you guys don’t know how to dogfight, all you do is shoot missiles from 100 miles away, etc., etc., and his old guy tricks became relevant and helped him compensate for being SIXTY YEARS OLD.
  5. But that’s not what happens! He’s already better than everyone at everything! Imagine if Michael Jordan walked into Charlotte Hornets practice, today, except instead of being old and kind of chubby, he was in peak physical condition and actually BETTER than he was in, say, 1993. And then, on top of that, imagine if when an absolute space-alien like that walked into the gym, LaMelo Ball was like “you’re old news, grandpa”. And then all the other players laughed and high-fived, and the big drama in the room was that, I dunno, Horace Grant’s kid was on the team or something and had a problem with MJ. Who cares! 60 year old Michael Jordan just came in after putting up 85 points against the Bucks last night! The only thing that matters is this absolutely incredible space alien who is standing here.
He’s like Iceman, except he is absolutely no competition for Maverick whatsoever.

Do you see the problem here? It’s not a “the writing is weak” complaint — although the writing IS weak! It’s a “what are we doing here?” complaint. The fundamental canvas of this movie isn’t just implausible from a what is happening standpoint (i.e., Tom Cruise keeping a plane flying at record speeds and then surviving a crash of said plane through…. sheer force of will, I guess?), it’s that even accepting all the implausibility, the reactions of one implausible thing to another just don’t make any sense. The entire plot is just the Navy not understanding that they have peak Michael Jordan sitting there, on the bench, and they are like “MICHAEL, CAN YOU TEACH GORDON HAYWARD SOME MOVES”. There isn’t even a Lethal Weapon style “I’m getting too old for this shit” vibe. He’s very specifically not getting too old for this shit — it’s all he wants to do, it’s an apparently desperately needed skill, and he’s unquestionably the best at it. There’s no actual conflict!

The only time the next generation is relevant at all is when Maverick simply runs out of hands from doing too many awesome, incredible things at the same time. Thanks for the assist, Hangman, I really needed your help after singlehandedly saving Rooster with my plane, somehow not dying, stealing an ancient, abandoned F-14 and almost killing all the bad guys with it.

In the original Top Gun, Maverick thought he was good enough, and the plot proved him wrong. He had demons to overcome, and ultimately the story of him overcoming them is a story of a guy who should be the best figuring out what it took to actually be the best. You can make fun of the details, but the journey holds up.

There is no journey at all in Top Gun: Maverick. Maverick is inexplicably, uniquely incredible the entire time — no one else, friend or foe, comes close. Not even THE EARTH, which he crashes into at phenomenally high speeds not once, but twice in this movie, both while (of course) being totally badass (saving a fellow pilot from a missile, and breaking some speed barrier). It’s just a matter of how big of a problem he can unilaterally solve (quite big, it turns out!), until he requires someone to basically hold his beer for a second until he can catch up with whatever the impossible challenge is.

That’s not a journey! Top Gun: Maverick says “let me tell you a story” and then proceeds to do a series of cartwheels while beatboxing. It’s 100% humility-free boomer pornography. It’s here to tell you not only that the old dogs still have value, but that it’s the (accomplished, adult) kids themselves who are completely unnecessary — they are simply impediments to the best thing doing what it does best, which is whatever it wants to be doing at the moment. 60 year olds were the best when they were 25, they’re the best now, and they’ll always be the best! You kids will never understand! VRRRRRROOOOM off on my motorcycle!

Top Gun: Maverick is bad.