In a series of special year-end roundtable discussions, The A.V. Club looks back at the stories that made the biggest impact on pop culture in 2022.
Did Tom Cruise make Top Gun: Maverick a mega-success through sheer force of will? When looking back at the film’s dominance of pop culture in 2022, it’s tempting to call Maverick a “long-awaited sequel.” But that’s the thing: were audiences really waiting for a Top Gun sequel? Or did it just appear out of the ether after 36 years and serendipitously turn out to be exactly what we needed? Here, A.V. Club staffers discuss the phenomenon of Top Gun: Maverick.
Sam Barsanti: Covering the Sunday news, I write up the box office numbers pretty much every week. Over the course of the pandemic and then through most of 2021, even post-vaccine, things were generally pretty dire. A few movies would do well here and there, but few things had real legs—and the ones that did still fell short of most pre-pandemic blockbusters (Spider-Man: No Way Home aside, but even that didn’t quite explode with mass-market appeal like Maverick did). When Maverick came out, it just played and played and played. New movies would come out and do good business, but then Top Gun would still be there in the number 2 or 3 spot, hanging on, and waiting to pounce when the newer releases failed to leave much of a mark. I think it was inevitable that something would be the movie to pull that off and be the one thing that convinces people to go back into movie theaters, but why do you think it was this movie specifically?
Jack Smart: The short answer to that question is “plane go zoom!” But seriously, I agree something had to break through pandemic-era paranoia, and it’s intriguing to look back at how Tom Cruise and his collaborators evidently believed—knew!—Top Gun: Maverick would be it. There was savvy foresight in delaying its theatrical release, planning a splashy Cannes Film Festival premiere, and promising but holding off, still, on the Paramount+ streaming option (starting December 22 we’ll see whether we can feel those Gs in our living rooms).
Pundits have also brought up the nostalgia factor: not just the fact that 1986’s Top Gun has benefited from maturing into more of a cult classic, but that Cruise has for decades represented the peak A-list movie-star, Hollywood’s most prized commodity. The industry, and it seems audiences too, needed someone charismatic and beloved to rally around. In my year of covering film at The A.V. Club, people have jokingly asked me if Cruise has saved movies. Looking even at the objective data Sam mentioned, I don’t think it’s too much of an exaggeration to say he has.
Matt Schimkowitz: To me, Top Gun: Maverick exemplifies something we get very rarely these days: A competent, well-made, well-acted, and well-told popcorn movie. It doesn’t rely heavily on its source material (or, at least, not so much that anyone has to do homework to watch Top Gun) and cruises on the charisma of its very talented cast. Compared to our blockbuster landscape where everything that comes out is either an advertisement for an old property or a future one, it makes sense that something as well-structured and confident as Maverick would break through.
And to be fair, this did not happen overnight. Tom Cruise has been dragging his star back up the mountain since 2005, and it took a solid 10 years of nearly killing himself in Mission: Impossible movies for anyone to really start noticing. To my mind, Top Gun offers something a little more relatable to people than his M:I stunt shows: The U.S. Navy. Rather than sticking Cruise in a space suit, they made him a spokesperson for the military.
JS: I also wonder if superhero fatigue factors in; a movie whose spectacle lies in putting us viscerally inside the cockpits of actual airplanes feels especially novel amid Marvel’s ongoing sea of colorful-yet-somehow-muddy CGI. Maybe audiences have evolved toward wanting more tangible, rather than fantastical, escapism. (What could explain the success of Everything Everywhere All At Once, 2022’s other notable success story, is its ingenious combination of both.) It’s a strange thing to say about such a high-flying movie, but doesn’t Top Gun: Maverick feel grounded?
MS: As you said Jack, it’s more grounded than Tom Cruise super spy. People have friends and family in the Navy. They don’t have friends named Ethan Hunt. Also, to your point, the spectacle, like all of Cruise’s work, is sold on real-world authenticity. There’s someone flying these planes and that someone is Tom Cruise. I think people were sold the sizzle but loved the steak. Mission: Impossible might be a little less of a draw plot-wise. Top Gun, however, gave people what they were missing: A solid action movie free from multiverses, CGI, and hours upon hours of additional content to digest.
SB: That’s a good point, Matt. My working theory was that Maverick broke through and became The Thing That Everyone Had To See In Theaters this summer simply because it wasn’t a comic book movie—finally, a chance to be excited about action and quips and larger-than-life characters without needing to care about who got bit by a radioactive what or who does or does not get their powers from the X-Gene. But that argument doesn’t really hold up, because as much as Vin Diesel hoped it would be true, F9 didn’t exactly make a globe-shattering smash in 2021. Those movies are fine, we’re not here to debate that (I’ll take a John Wick or an M:I over a Fast And Furious any day), but were F9 and Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness just too stupid/silly for mainstream audiences in a way that Maverick wasn’t? Is it that simple?
MS: There is a difference between how Top Gun made money and how F9 and Doctor Strange made money. The latter is all opening day, but Top Gun was a grower. People went to see it over and over, whereas I think the other two were more or less enjoyable obligations. I love the Fast movies, but outside of one or two exceptions (Fast Five and Furious 7), they don’t provide the same juice on rewatch.
SB: The other question I have is: Does the success of Maverick really mean anything beyond “people still like going to the movies”? This kind of many-years-later sequel has been a thing for a long time, but are studios going to start making more of these classic, star-driven action movies that everybody can get behind? I kind of doubt it, but that might just be because I’d miss the experience of walking out of a theater and having to explain that that woman was Doctor Strange’s girlfriend from the comics, and that I also have no idea how they convinced Charlize Theron to do it. But maybe it would be good if blockbusters had less of that.
MS: The actual impact of Top Gun: Maverick won’t be felt for a while. I don’t think it really teaches any lessons that studios don’t already know. People obviously still love going to the movies, and a movie like Top Gun can remind those that haven’t been to the theater in a while what they’re missing. There’s an interview with James Grey that goes around every so often, where he argues that people are simply out of the habit of going to the movies. This is especially true for older moviegoers. I agree with Grey and think that Top Gun has such broad appeal for older moviegoers that it will actually get them back into the theaters and, hopefully, back in the habit, to pull a Sister Act 2, if you will.
JS: The other thing I want to throw out there about Top Gun: Maverick is one of my favorite aspects of it: the faceless, nameless, utterly-lacking-in-distinguishing-characteristics bad guys. Much like Matt’s point about thankfully not having to do homework here, removing any overt politics, xenophobia, even a specific era and place, made this a blissfully straightforward good-versus-evil story. The pre-pandemic, pre-Trump me would have balked at screenwriters Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, and Christopher McQuarrie’s unwillingness to connect this story to real-world conflict. Instead, I went to the movie theater seeking escape from, not reminders of, our various impending world wars. It’s actually because of Hollywood types like Cruise that we associate all of eastern Europe with a vague animosity, or harmful stereotypes about Middle Eastern countries endure. So part of the appeal of Maverick, at least for me, was seeing them confidently opt for universality rather than specificity.
MS: I have to say, I kind of hated that about Top Gun: Maverick. I resent the idea that the military defends the country from a faceless, nameless other. Though I know I’m in the minority on this, but the lack of politics in Maverick only made me think harder about them. There’s that shot of Maverick pushing his throttle toward the camera, with the words “Lockheed Martin” basically shining off the stick. That’s political!
SB: I guess that’s another example of that weird magic that Maverick captured: Most people seemed to prefer the extremely vague enemy combatants, and nobody seemed especially bothered by the obvious military “product placement.” The simple fact is that everything just worked out in its favor—the timing, the lack of superheroes, the seemingly apolitical politics. I don’t know if it made heartbreak feel good or whatever, but this is just the exact thing that Nicole Kidman was telling us about.
MS: It was really fascinating watching Tom Cruise introduce the movie and then having Nicole Kidman do her own introduction.
But yes, timing is key here. Although the pandemic certainly changes the calculus here, I do wonder how the movie would’ve done even two years ago, when the Navy bombed a Syrian runway in a strategy very similar to the one pulled in Maverick’s finale. I don’t think this movie would’ve played as well at the height of the Iraq war or even during the Trump presidency—at least with those on the left. The surprising lack of criticism about the militarism on display here was pretty surprising. That felt like low-hanging fruit, but, for the most part, people really did not want to engage with the movie in that way. I think that speaks to just how badly people wanted to see an action movie with a satisfying script and very few bigger, meatier ideas.
JS: It’s only occurring to me now that the ironic-unironic love for Nicole’s AMC ad became such a sensation this year for the same reasons Top Gun: Maverick did. We do need dazzling images on a silver screen; we do have a need for speed. P.S. I’m not speaking on behalf of all LGBTQuties here, and on paper Top Gun remains quite heteronormative. But seeing a film bookended by the Nicole Kidman AMC ad and a Lady Gaga ballad, with a dash of shirtless men in between, isn’t not a queer experience.
MS: In a lot of ways, Maverick is more like the kind of inspirational sports movies we used to get. It also actually had a romance, and even though it’s basically as sexless as Marvel, people certainly miss romance. Just look at the “what happened to the rom-com” discourse. It’s pressing a lot of buttons that haven’t been pushed in a while, especially on this scale.
[This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.]