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In ‘Top Gun: Maverick,’ Tom Cruise Outgrows His Iconic Character

The indestructible actor returns to the role that helped make him a superstar, only to discover that he’s now far more compelling than the test pilot he portrayed

There are a couple moments in Top Gun: Maverick that, subtly, I think are among the best things about this sequel. They don’t involve aerial dogfights, they’re not callbacks to the original film, they’re not scored to “Danger Zone.” The new movie is chiefly concerned with Maverick, Tom Cruise’s no-longer-young test pilot, who’s trying to forge a bond with Rooster (Miles Teller), the sensitive son of Goose, Maverick’s best bud whose death was our hero’s emotional low point in the 1986 blockbuster. Understandably, Rooster hates Maverick — there are other reasons, too, it’s a long story — but Maverick has been assigned to run TOPGUN, where he’ll train the kid and his fellow best-of-the-best fighter pilots, and he wants to repair the fissure between them. Problem is, Rooster isn’t interested in reconciliation — and whenever he gets in Maverick’s face to let him know that, the camera does nothing to hide the fact that Teller is about five inches taller than Cruise. 

In those moments, Maverick is cut down to size. He may think he’s God’s gift to the skies, but on the ground, where life is far more challenging for him, he’s just a guy whose dead friend’s son literally and figuratively looks down on him. 

I bring this up not to make fun of Cruise’s height — really, who cares? — but to point out the longtime superstar has sometimes tried to insist on screen that he’s more towering than he actually is. (Fans of the original Jack Reacher novels had a fit about this.) But in Top Gun: Maverick, which opens May 27th, Cruise lets Teller’s tallness tell us something about Maverick. Sure, Maverick saved the day back in 1986 and, yes, he’s still probably the best fighter pilot on the planet. But he isn’t perfect — and maybe the world can move on without him. During those scenes with Teller, I wondered if Cruise was trying to tell us something. Deep down, I wondered if he knew he’d outgrown one of his most iconic characters.

Not that Cruise would ever admit such a thing. It’s been more than 35 years since the original, and yet he brings the same megawatt smile and need-for-speed attitude that defined Maverick in Top Gun. But that turns out to be part of the problem with this sequel. I don’t think Cruise or the filmmakers have entirely figured out what a grownup Maverick would be like. And that keeps the movie from soaring.

We’ve gotten used to Cruise risking his life to do increasingly harrowing action scenes in Mission: Impossible movies, which is one reason why I love him. You can criticize his connections to Scientology, you can mock his massive ego, but I find his commitment to producing ridiculously entertaining event movies exhilarating. Cruise turns 60 in July, but he refuses to submit to the inevitable deterioration of the human body. He will not slow down. He’s seemingly just going to run forever and ever.

Father Time remains undefeated, of course, and what has made the recent installments of Mission: Impossible so thrilling is our recognition that their elaborate set pieces must be harder on Cruise as he gets older — and that his character Ethan Hunt recognizes that, too. There’s a sense of mortality baked into the franchise that’s rarely commented upon but awfully poignant. Hunt has aged over the course of the sequels, and we’ve watched rapt, wondering how long he (and Cruise) can keep it up.

By comparison, what was always so captivating about Maverick is that he was the eternal kid, the swaggering youngster who thought death could never touch him. Top Gun was his coming-of-age, allowing him to throw off the burden of his family legacy while processing Goose’s tragic demise. Like many 1980s Hollywood blockbusters, Top Gun argued that the only way to slay your demons was to win the big game or triumph over America’s nameless enemy nation — it was an immature, overly macho worldview, which was apt for such an immature, overly macho character like Maverick.

Consequently, it’s potentially intriguing that Top Gun: Maverick provides us with a chance to see whatever became of that kid. How does a guy like that navigate his 50s? Could he even be a test pilot anymore? The movie, whose screenplay is credited to three writers and whose story is credited to two others, answers that by having Maverick remain a captain, constantly turning down promotions that would force him to give up flying. It’s mentioned that, by this stage of his career, he could be a highly-decorated officer, maybe even a senator, but Maverick is happy where he is. In some ways, he wants to be Peter Pan, another eternally young man who loved taking to the sky.

But as easily as Cruise gets reacquainted with Maverick’s devil-may-care attitude, Top Gun: Maverick in a repeat of the first film — it’s hardly the only way in which this sequel feels like déjà vu — is all about the character having to do a little growing up. Unfortunately, what Cruise discovers is that, while a young hotshot in need of maturity can be interesting to play, a middle-aged dude who still doesn’t have his shit together isn’t as compelling. Cruise brings his amped-up gusto to every role, but Maverick’s basic callowness doesn’t give him much room to maneuver in the sequel. He’s the same guy, just older. 

To be sure, there’s something deeply sad about a man like that — and for those who find Cruise’s shtick exhausting, you might argue that Maverick is the embodiment of the actor’s shallow need to prove he hasn’t lost a step. But beyond being uncharitable, that assessment just isn’t accurate: Find Cruise the right material (the Mission: Impossible films, Edge of Tomorrow, the underrated American Made), and he can still deliver gripping performances within the confines of big-budget spectacle. At the same time, those recent roles also allowed him to play older characters who feel legitimately adult. In Top Gun: Maverick, though, Cruise chafes against Maverick’s dull, unexamined interior life while trying to convince us that he’s actually a person of great dramatic complexity.

As is often the case with these way-after-the-fact sequels, Top Gun: Maverick essentially repeats the plot of the first film, but puts its protagonist in a new role. Last time, Maverick was the student — this time, he’s the instructor, and now he’s got to deal with all the cocky upstarts who think he’s just some old fogey. Last time, he and Goose (played by Anthony Edwards) were the central friendship — this time, Maverick must make things right with Goose’s boy, who rocks the same mustache as his dear departed dad. Certain shots from the 1986 film are copied, as well as certain story beats, which in these types of sequels is meant to suggest the cyclical nature of life itself. But Maverick hasn’t changed — whether for good or ill — and so there’s a certain blankness to the character. If Top Gun was primo young Tom Cruise — the strutting stud with the high-voltage charisma — it also suggested the ceiling for that sort of grinning golden child. 

Maverick hasn’t evolved, but Cruise did after Top Gun, stretching himself in dramas like Born on the Fourth of July and Eyes Wide Shut, taking risks by playing outrageously comic characters in Magnolia, Tropic Thunder and Rock of Ages. Restless and ambitious, Cruise wants to keep topping himself, and in Top Gun: Maverick, there are the occasional signs of the more layered performer he is today. The character’s tentative love story involving an old girlfriend, a barkeep named Penny (Jennifer Connelly), gives Cruise a chance to show off his vulnerable, romantic side more capably than he has at any point since Jerry Maguire. And when Maverick eventually takes the controls of a fighter jet — especially at the end of the movie — it’s like nothing has changed. But that’s part of my issue with Top Gun: Maverick: Nothing has changed because no one figured out what to do with Maverick or imagined what life’s slings and arrows had done to a Peter Pan like that. 

The truth of the matter is, Maverick is the type who maybe peaked when he was young. Of all of the indelible characters Cruise has played, Maverick is among the most striking but also among the most one-dimensional. You can’t grow old with Maverick because there’s nowhere for him to go, except continually pushing his plane beyond its breaking point. That’s not tragic or fascinating or inspiring — it’s just boring, and Cruise is so far beyond that now. 

Some will watch Top Gun: Maverick wanting to relive Cruise’s early heyday, but I had the exact opposite reaction: The new movie illustrates how much Maverick needs him, and not vice versa.