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Nobody expected much from the Top Gun sequel, so its phenomenal global success came as a complete surprise. According to Nicholas Barber, it was an emotional experience and a true one-of-a-kind.

If you look at the top grossing films per year since 2012, you’ll notice two different Avengers sequels, as well as Captain America: Civil War, which is an Avengers sequel in all but name. A Spider-Man sequel, a Transformers sequel, a couple of Star Wars sequels, and a cartoon will also be released.

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No offence to any of them, but it’s clear that science fiction and fantasy blockbusters with superhuman characters and lots of flashy digital imagery are now the biggest global hits in cinema. However, not in 2022. Top Gun: Maverick, a Tom Cruise film that featured real people in real planes, was this year’s international box-office champion, grossing nearly £1.25 billion ($1.5 billion) worldwide. This is approximately £400 million more than the runner-up, Jurassic World: Dominion.

Nobody saw it coming. Top Gun may have topped the global box office in 1986, but when Rolling Stone magazine compiled its 100 greatest films of the 1980s in March, and Time Out compiled its 50 greatest in May, it was absent from both lists. Many critics now regard it as a relic: a gleaming time capsule commemorating Reagan-era US military might, showcasing a rising star in his early twenties, and showcasing the ad-industry stylings of its director, Tony Scott, who died in 2012. Why bring back the franchise in the twenty-first century, in a different geopolitical world, with a new director and a star in his late fifties? Scott’s successor, Joseph Kosinski, also directed Tron: Legacy, a belated sequel, in 2010. It performed admirably, as did some other films in the genre, ranging from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) to Ghostbusters: Afterlife. However, none of these were the best films of the year.

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To make matters worse, Top Gun: Maverick was delayed and then delayed again. Filming took place between 2018 and 2019, with a July 2019 release date set. However, additional shooting and the Covid-19 pandemic pushed that date back until the new Top Gun appeared to be almost as dated as the 1986 version. Miles Teller, for example, was no longer the hot property in 2022 that he had been when he auditioned years before.

It’s unusual for Cruise to have a compelling love story in a film, but Top Gun: Maverick provides him with two.

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When Top Gun: Maverick finally opened in May 2022, expectations weren’t exactly sky high – but that may have worked in its favor. Viewers expected a nostalgic guilty pleasure. They got one of the best Hollywood films in years, with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 96% from critics and 99% from audiences.

Top Gun: Maverick, written by Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, and Cruise’s regular Mission: Impossible collaborator, Christopher McQuarrie, accomplishes an almost impossible mission. It continues a story that began in 1986, but it also works as a stand-alone. It keeps the original’s structure and setting by having a group of cocky pilots training (and playing beach games) at a US Navy jet-fighter school, but it improves on it in every way. The plotting, acting, dialogue, and head-spinning aerial sequences are all polished until they gleam. And, of course, the film’s exemplary skill and efficiency are embodied by its leading man, who returns to the cockpit as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, performing more of his own stunts than ever before.

The poignancy of time passing

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Crucially, Cruise isn’t just flaunting his teeth, hair, and daredevil piloting in Top Gun: Maverick. He also gives the best dramatic performance of his 40-year career in the second half, owing to the fact that he is growing old gracefully – or, more accurately, growing middle-aged gracefully. He was portrayed as a rascally, rebellious youngster in 2017’s The Mummy, but in Top Gun: Maverick, he finally accepts that he is over 40 – perhaps even over 50 – and this acceptance adds poignancy to Pete’s second-chance romance with his bar-owning ex (Jennifer Connelly). It’s unusual for Cruise to have two involving love stories in a single film, but Top Gun: Maverick provides him with both. Val Kilmer’s character, “Iceman,” as well as the actor himself, had been treated for throat cancer, so his friendship with Pete is far more touching than anything in the original film.

If other Top Gun sequels and reboots had already been made, none of this emotional weight would have been present. Top Gun: Maverick was more than just a nifty fighter pilot with a killer smile, thanks to the 36-year gap. It was about growing old and dying, about memories and regrets, about holding on and letting go. It was about the passage of time, not just for Pete or for us, but also for cinema.

The main theme of Cruise’s onstage interview at the Cannes Film Festival in May was his tireless labour over every detail that might make his films more entertaining. He explained that his constant questions were: “How do we achieve these effects on the audience? Is our behaviour communicating?” The other theme was his insistence that his films be shown in theatres. “I make big-screen movies,” he declared. When asked if he’d let a screening platform have one of his films first, he chuckled, “It’s not going to happen – ever.”

There have been articles speculating on what Hollywood could learn from the film’s phenomenal success, but the answer is: nothing.

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Contrast Cruise’s attitude with that of his namesake, Tom Hanks, who may be his only serious competition for the title of “Last Hollywood Movie Star.” In the last two years, Hanks has appeared in three films that have gone straight to streaming: Greyhound, Finch, and Pinocchio. And how many of us are discussing them right now? Cruise and his team, on the other hand, were wise to hold their nerve and wait until they were certain that cinemas were not only open again, but would remain open indefinitely. Audiences were finally ready to return to their local multiplex in May 2022, and Top Gun: Maverick was waiting for them.

It broke box-office records in its first weekend in the United States. It then had the smallest drop ever recorded on its second weekend for a film that opened over $100 million, stayed in the top five for ten weeks, and then returned to the top spot in its fifteenth week; now, it is being re-released in US cinemas for two more weeks this weekend, to capitalise on the continued appetite for seeing it in the big screen. Month after month, it has been possible to see Top Gun: Maverick in theatres, see it again, and encourage others to do the same. That doesn’t happen when a movie makes a quick trip to the multiplex before disappearing into your laptop.

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