Why ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ succeeded where ‘Jurassic World: Dominion’ and ‘Ghostbusters: Afterlife’ failed
Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” plays over shots of planes taking off and landing on a Navy airship tarmac. Blocky white font rests over a sunny, gas-hazed, ocean background. Everything happening is deeply reminiscent of Tony Scott’s Top Gun. This opening sequence, though, belongs to Joseph Kosinski’s Top Gun: Maverick, much-delayed and much-anticipated sequel to the 1986 smash-hit. This won’t be the only time that Kosinski borrows from (or directly copies) Scott’s film. But, the film’s 97% Rotten Tomatoes score, coveted A+ Cinemascore rating and strong box office holds suggest that Top Gun: Maverick is its own beast.
Top Gun: Maverick could not have arrived at a more pivotal time for blockbusters–even if the studio delayed it five times amidst the Coronavirus pandemic. The film is one of many modern blockbusters to fall under the umbrella of a “legacy sequel,” a late franchise sequel whose story combines a new set of characters with characters from the series’ original film. Throughout the past year, legacy sequels in the Scream, Jurassic Park, and Ghostbusters franchises have all crashed into cinemas. A simple thing separates Maverick from these other films, though. It is actually good.
This fact may appear shocking, especially given the middling reception to the original Top Gun. With Maverick, though, Kosinski and his team avoid the pitfalls plaguing legacy sequels in three distinct ways.
First, Maverick successfully balances characters from the original film with new characters. This primarily results from the film’s premise, which follows Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell (Tom Cruise) as he returns to Top Gun to train a new generation of fighter pilots for a top-secret mission. This is a striking reversal from the typical legacy sequel formula, which usually involves the new characters shepherding the old characters into the story when they need help or assistance in their mission. Cruise’s central role in the film also stops Maverick from even feeling like a legacy sequel at all, since the nature of his mission feels like the logical step for someone of his character’s age, rank and personality.
Additionally, the new characters in Maverick never feel like accessories to the story. Kosinski smartly introduces the supporting cast in an extended sequence that takes place at a bar, instantly capturing their differing personalities, odd senses of humor and innate camaraderie. The fact that the new characters are fully formed makes it easy for viewers to connect with them, ready to see how their rivalries and friendships bloom as they fight for coveted spots on the mission’s team.
As simple as this feat sounds, making both old and new characters feel essential to the film’s story is something legacy sequels struggle to successfully pull off. Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World: Dominion, the most recent legacy sequel to hit theaters, based its entire marketing campaign on the fact that it was re-uniting actors Sam Neill, Laura Dern, and Jeff Goldblum–the main trio of the original 1993 film. But Dominion reduces these characters to minimal, incredibly drab plotlines that do nothing to advance the film’s story in a meaningful or captivating way. In the end, it leaves the viewer to wonder why their presence is even there, painfully unmasking that their inclusion is purely for financial gain.
Dominion’s problems don’t stop there, either. The franchise’s newer characters–mainly main characters Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and Clare Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard)–have no personality. There’s nothing that makes one want to root for them as they get involved in dull missions and repetitive dinosaur battles. This makes the film seem even more of a pointless exercise, milking a piece of intellectual property until nothing remarkable or tangible remains. As Maverick successfully showcases, films are character stories first and foremost. It is baffling to see almost every other legacy sequel so clearly uninterested in its own characters.
Second, Maverick crafts interesting action sequences that advance both the film’s story and individual character arcs. The film is shot with little CGI, relying on practical effects instead, and (given that this is a Tom Cruise-led film, after all) cast members actually trained and flew in real fighter jets. This gives the film a heightened sense of authenticity, making the viewing experience much more interesting than just watching CGI monsters battle it out over a darkly lit, practically imperceivable background.
The film’s constant flight sequences are also deeply imperative in sowing conflict between characters–specifically between Maverick and Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), whose complicated past is rooted in the original film’s plot. Because most of the film’s sequences are action sequences, the inclusion of these conflicts adds an additional layer of chemistry to the ensemble, showing how the characters are more than just caricatures. When tensions rise, especially during the film’s finale, the action sequences leave your jaw dropped. The characters’ chemistry, though, makes you care.
Jason Reitman’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife, released last November, is a masterclass in how not to shoot action sequences. The film’s heavy reliance on drab-looking CGI, while necessary for creating ghosts, is so visually disinteresting to the point of nausea. Furthermore, the film’s new half-fledged characters’ and shoved-in legacy figures’ awkward dynamic makes it nearly impossible to root for, or care about, the people on-screen as they battle their enemies. Sure, every movie cannot have practical effects, but in the end, it’s not actually the practical effects that make the sequences. It’s the fact that Kosinski put effort into making the viewing experience memorable.
Finally, the biggest reason that makes Maverick such a successful legacy sequel: it’s just fun. From the beginning, it is clear Kosinski doesn’t see nostalgia solely as capital. While the director pays direct homage to the original Top Gun in ways that will keep fans of the 1986 film happy, he also makes the straightforward narrative accessible for everyone. The film’s script doesn’t see its overwhelming cheesiness as a threat but, instead, as something to celebrate.
And for the most part, it works. Hearing Harold Faltermeyer’s classic instrumental track instantly begin playing when Maverick learns that he’s been called back to Top Gun is a more joyous experience than anything that occurs in Dominion or Afterlife. Ok The film’s finale–essentially a buddy comedy with the highest stakes of all time–is more captivating than practically every other film released this year.
There’s an unrealistic expectation that legacy sequels must take themselves seriously, perhaps to seem like more of a film and less of a financial venture. But, based on which films in the genre have been successful and which haven’t, it should be the other way around. What is the point of bringing cast members from the franchise-igniting film back if they don’t even get to have a good time? Deep down, legacy sequels may always feel like cash grabs, simple ways for Hollywood to continue recycling old ideas. But as Maverick shows, there is a way to make these sequels not just watchable, but unforgettable: by giving them a clear and uncompromisable identity. Let’s hope other studios follow suit.