clock menu more-arrow no yes

Top Gun was the biggest, cockiest superhero movie of its time

The movie's take on what makes a hero is what dates it — and what makes it so fascinating.

Maverick (Tom Cruise), kicking ass and embodying 1986 America
Paramount Pictures

Top Gun — released 30 years ago, on May 16, 1986 — is a smirking fantasy of fast-talking macho men, fighter jets, and the women who love them both. It's a walking, talking July Fourth barbecue brought roaring to life. It kicks ass, then swaggers off into the sunset.

Everything about Top Gun's color-by-numbers patriotism was purposeful. In fact, as Tom Shone details in his film history book Blockbuster, the idea for the movie was born when producer Jerry Bruckheimer glanced at California magazine and saw a photograph of a hotshot pilot.

That was it. There was no story beyond "guy looks great in his sweet fighter jet." The accompanying article was about the Navy's training school in Miramar, and Bruckheimer thought it looked something like "Star Wars on Earth"; that piece was called "Top Guns," and lo, an iconic action movie was born.

The film, which was directed by Tony Scott, does have a vague, bare-bones plot, but all of it serves Bruckheimer's initial two-dimensional vision. Tom Cruise plays a brilliant but rebellious pilot, and just in case you don't immediately understand his deal, he literally goes by "Maverick." Everyone at the Top Gun flight school tells him he's too cocky, too reckless, too self-assured. An instructor declares with a solemn head shake that Maverick's "ego writes checks [his] body can't cash."

But the subtext of every attempt to criticize Maverick is "— and it's awesome."

There are some unconvincing plays at romance and rivalries, as Maverick seduces his dubious teacher, Charlie (Kelly McGillis) and trades pointed locker room talk with rival pilot Iceman (Val Kilmer). There's even a spot of heartbreak, when Goose — Maverick's best friend and co-pilot — dies during a botched drill exercise.

Eventually, the pilots get a chance to face off against some actual enemies flying in American airspace, but it's hardly more entertaining than the random loops Maverick and his friends practiced during training. As Walter Goodman wrote in the New York Times's initial Top Gun review: "You can't always be sure exactly what's going on, but it's exciting anyhow."

For the most part, though, Top Gun is just a loving ode to awesome bros being awesome, and woe betide the buzzkill sap who wants to dampen their awesomeness.

Top Gun's brand of patriotism exemplifies its era

Much of Top Gun is contextual, in that it makes perfect sense when viewed through the lens of the 1980s. At the time of its release, smack in the middle of the Cold War and during the frantic years leading up to the Berlin Wall coming down, Top Gun provided 110 slick minutes of Reagan-era American "exceptionalism." It famously drove up interest in Navy enlistments. While the army didn't explicitly use the film as a recruitment tool, it at least camped out in front of screenings, the better to grab those whose adrenaline got pumping just by watching from the sidelines.

Top Gun's villains — America's enemies — are cold, faceless monsters. We know nothing about them except that they must be stopped. The Americans are dripping with righteousness and confidence, sometimes even literally, as Maverick and Iceman smolder and sweat at each other — in the locker room, in the sky, and during their famous detour into beach volleyball.

For some, the significance of Top Gun has taken on quite a new look in the 30 years since the film premiered; once a paragon of patriotism, it now represents the perils of jingoism instead. Just over 10 years ago, Keith Phipps wrote at the A.V. Club that Top Gun is a perfect time capsule for the summer of 1986, with the message that "[e]xceptional people get a free pass, so long as they act in the interests of their own success." Rolling Stone recently called the film "clunky" and "toxic," exemplary of the "macho militarism of the Reagan era."

But if you examine Top Gun within the broader context of how blockbuster films have evolved since its debut, the movie makes perfect sense — and it's not so distant from the present as it might seem.

Top Gun is far from perfect, but it perfectly encapsulates what its era considered to be a superhero

Iceman (Kilmer) and Maverick (Cruise) face off.
Paramount Pictures

If Captain America were made in 1986, Tom Cruise would have played Cap with a sly grin and a wink.

In fact, from the late '80s to the dawn of the new millennium, Tom Cruise was Captain America. His movies — from Top Gun to Risky Business to Jerry Maguire — always embodied some aspect of the American dream, whether that meant beating up the bad guys or finding your bliss through enormous piles of cash. He played aggressive characters who could crack a joke at a moment's notice. He was confident, and good-looking in an obvious way that wouldn't scare your parents if you brought him home. He was cautiously vulnerable, exposing a raw nerve just long enough to prove it's there before he saved the day.

In 2016, though, Captain America is an open-hearted patriot whose rebellion takes a different form than Maverick's. He questions his government with a heavy but determined heart, taking hard moral stances instead of staging flashy acts of defiance.

And so while Scott turned to Cruise to play his aggressively badass version of Captain America, our present-day Cap is played by Chris Evans, a down-to-earth Boston boy whose anxiety about fame prevents him from throwing himself into the Hollywood meat grinder that made Cruise a superstar. In a wonderful piece for BuzzFeed, Bim Adewunmi recently described Evans as the perfect Captain America for 2016, writing, "In an age when vulnerability is met not with derision but understanding, now is the perfect moment for a star like Chris Evans to become the canvas we need to project our desires onto."

This isn't to say that Top Gun's brand of braggadocio isn't still desired today; a long-gestating sequel is reportedly creeping closer than ever to production. Zack Snyder's rock 'em, sock 'em version of Batman v Superman buried its leads' solemn introspection beneath piles of rubble and ego. Also — and not insignificantly — famously combative Donald Trump is the Republican nominee for president.

But it's telling that the star of one of today's biggest film franchises is Captain America, a sweet, reluctant hero made only more heroic by his hesitance to blow things up without careful consideration. Thirty years ago, Cap might have flown past an enemy just to flip him off, because what's the point in saving the world if you can't prove how much they suck and you rule?