"Top Gun: Maverick" is an American cry for help

No one would mistake Top Gun: Maverick for social realism, or even (maybe especially) a lifelike depiction of Naval air combat. But rather than the hyper-masculine, Reagan-era militarism of Tony Scott’s 1986 original, this film’s appeal comes from the mere fact that it’s about normal people, doing things within the plausible boundaries of reality. Cruise’s twinkling, weirdly ageless visage conveys a real-life dynamism otherwise absent from mainstream pop culture in our era of sci-fi and superhero domination.

Aside from a few feints to the realities of drone warfare and a geopolitical landscape described so vaguely it almost becomes comedic, politics are utterly absent from Top Gun: Maverick. But the American public has embraced the film so rabidly that it demands a political explanation: After years of Twitter, Trump, Covid, social upheaval, and an ever-more-bland, oppressive pop-cultural sameness, a large number of Americans are desperate for permission to collectively feel good about our life, country and culture, without any of the attendant political baggage.

Who better to give it to them than Tom Cruise, the ultimate icon of pre-irony, can-do Americanism? To understand why Top Gun: Maverick hit, we need to understand the conditions that created his myth — and why, despite its enduring appeal, it’s nearly impossible for our culture to birth a true successor to it, no matter how much we might thirst for one.