Updated: Aug 4, 2022
You’re me. It’s June 10, you’re asking your bestie how Top Gun: Maverick could possibly be so good when it’s the literal definition of military propaganda, and in a moment of defeat, you scream-text at the top of your lungs:
“DEEP DOWN EVERY AMERICAN LIKES PLANES AND TASTEFUL HOMOEROTICISM I GUESS”
And you wish you’re wrong, but you’re not.
But it’s not like that conjecture is coming from nowhere. From a purely subjective place, the movie is great. There has to be crack cocaine in that script, because I’ve seen Maverick like, [checks Letterboxd] five times in theaters now. Most of my conversations and references throughout June and July were about Top Gun or Maverick, and how much I thoroughly enjoyed the latter. It’s addicting to watch Tom Cruise and all those young pilots get in planes and pull the real G’s, to watch them all interact with each other at the Hard Deck and in the air, to not just watch but experience that electric, harrowing dogfight in the final act. I remember leaving the theater after my first watch and instantly messaging all my friends “heyyy are you interested in seeing the new Top Gun because I’m dying to watch it again already,” because I felt so good watching it.
Even when you look at Maverick from the “objective” side of things – as in, how the studio decides whether a movie is “good” or not – it’s doing pretty damn well. Maverick is currently the highest-grossing movie of 2022, passing a billion dollars at the box office in just over a month. On Rotten Tomatoes, it has a 97% on the Tomatometer matched by an equally-impressive 99% audience score. It’s hard to find a movie nowadays so universally loved and praised across the board, especially a sequel with a lot of history and nostalgia behind it. I’ve even made a handy-dandy Venn diagram to explain how Top Gun appeals not just to the dads (it’s oft-called a dad movie) but also to the girls and the gays, powerful online spheres of influence in their own right who are no doubt the reason Maverick is doing so well.
And that’s probably because, critical and financial success aside, Top Gun and Maverick are just so… homoerotic. It’s interesting that you can find so much playful and obvious homoeroticism in a series where the target demographic is pro-military, hyperpatriotic, and conservative-leaning older men who’d be against any kind of “queer wokeism” in their movies — especially ones as engrained in pop culture nostalgia as Top Gun. Like sure, Maverick has romances with Charlie (Kelly McGillis) in Top Gun and Penny (Jennifer Connely) in Maverick, but male-male dynamics still drive the narrative of both films.
And the thing is, Top Gun has always been seen as blatantly homoerotic because of that. It earned that reputation from its release back in 1986, and it was well-known for being all but soft-core by the time Quentin Tarantino made that iconic speech about its “subversive” narrative in Sleep With Me. Tarantino’s character monologues about Iceman and Slider trying to pull Mav to “the gay side” — and away from the heterosexual promise of Charlie — throughout Top Gun, and honestly? He had a point. From the whole Maverick-Iceman rivalry, to all those sexually charged locker-room conversations that could have easily taken place in a hallway, to the sweaty, half-naked volleyball competition, there’s absolutely no denying that even if these are 100% certified heterosexual men, there’s still something a little [limps my wrist] fruity going on.
Because really, what was the purpose of that shirtless volleyball scene? Why were our TOPGUN hopefuls covered in baby oil and giving each other low-fives that looked an awful lot like ass-slaps? The male posturing and peacocking in that scene alone is enough to make Top Gun memorable. And given that the technology in 1986 was nowhere near where it was in 2018 (when they were filming Maverick), those aerial fight sequences were not the reason why audiences ate up the first Top Gun. It was watching Val Kilmer and Tom Cruise dance around each other and play volleyball in the San Diego sun, while Kenny Loggins’ “Playing With the Boys” plays over the scene.
To be totally honest, I just can’t buy the heterosexual romances of Top Gun when Mav’s relationship with Iceman (Val Kilmer) is so palpable. Everything about their rivalry — with the constant one-uppings and challenges, getting in each other’s faces, even mock-biting each other — is dripping with homoeroticism. It also helps that Mav’s whole arc in Top Gun is about learning to fly in a team, something Ice constantly criticizes him for not doing, and that the film ends with him saving Ice’s life. When they finally embrace on the carrier after their perilous mission, proclaiming that they can be each other’s wingmen “any time,” it’s like a declaration of love. It’s more romantic and swoon-worthy than Charlie’s declaration of love to Mav earlier in the film and Top Gun’s actual ending, where Charlie shows up at the bar to surprise Mav, seemingly giving up her coveted D.C. job to be with a man she only just met.
And of course, that only continues in Maverick. The little texts between Mav and Ice read everything like “exes who ended things on good terms.” It makes me clap my hand over my heart and positively squeal every time I see or think about it.
But hell, I’d be lying if I said that Maverick’s dynamic with his RIO, Goose (Anthony Edwards), isn’t the perfect ship fodder just as it exists, too! In the pilot-RIO dynamic, they need to have each other’s back and work in total sync in order to survive and hit the target, they need to constantly communicate and be open… it’s almost too perfect for encouraging emotional intimacy. Goose also makes what could easily be read as a gay joke towards Mav at the O-Bar, saying that he has to have “carnal knowledge, of a lady this time, on the premises” in order to win their bet — as opposed to a man, the audience is supposed to guess. Not to mention that Mav is still saying “talk to me, Goose” when he flies in Maverick, thirty-plus years after his best friend’s death.
I know that in terms of fandom and reputation, people always talk about Iceman/Maverick, but Goose/Maverick is pretty damn perfect, too, and so are Mav’s relationships with other pilots. Even when looking strictly at the franchise’s platonic bonds, they’re presented in a much richer and deeper manner than the actual romances in the series. Cutting the heterosexual romances out of the films entirely has little to no bearing on the actual plot, and even trying to argue in favor of them as the “emotional” story comes up short compared to Mav’s relationship with Goose and mentorship of Goose’s son, Rooster (Miles Teller). Quite frankly, if you’re watching Top Gun or Maverick for the romance, you’re missing the point: the male-male dynamics, romantic or platonic, are what make those movies what they are.
It was actually rewatching Top Gun and Maverick with my mother (back-to-back, in the same day, while she made goo-goo eyes at Tom Cruise) that made me realize how much Top Gun needs these male-male bonds to form the center of their respective stories. In an impassioned rant, she went on and on about how the ending of Maverick was “ruined” by Penny showing up at the end and taking the focus away from Maverick and Rooster’s father-son relationship. She went on a similar one at the end of Top Gun when Charlie showed up and made the end of the movie about their (objectively bland, there for the sake of being there) romance instead of allowing Maverick to work in a team with Iceman, or grieve his beloved friend Goose. So even when you’re not trying to “make” Top Gun gay, or approach it from a queer lens, the heterosexual romances stick out like a sore thumb compared to how deep the friendships between men go.
I can’t help but feel that if either Iceman or Maverick were written as women, more people would recognize that their dynamic mirrors the ones in so many enemies-to-lovers romantic comedies like 10 Things I Hate About You or Princess Diaries 2: A Royal Engagement. How does Top Gun change if Maverick is a hotshot female pilot, doing whatever she can to place first, because she knows she’ll never be taken seriously as an aviator by the other boys if she doesn’t show some guts? (Mav’s infamous daddy issues would have absolutely taken more precedence in the film if the character was written as a woman too, no doubt as the reason why she’s so mouthy and reckless.) How does it change when Ice is a dead-serious ice queen who flies “ice cold, no mistakes” because she knows that if she doesn’t, she’s just another example to the Navy of why women shouldn’t fly? If either of the major male characters were written as women, Top Gun would be unequivocally accepted as a romance.
And honestly, the same could be said about Maverick. Though it’s not nearly as homoerotic as its predecessor, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its fair share of juicy moments. In the grand tradition of nostalgia projects wanting to parallel the success and story of the original, new hotshot pilots Rooster and Hangman (Glen Powell) are the new Mav and Ice. From their first scene together at the Hard Deck, you can instantly tell that they have some serious history and a rivalry that gets underneath each other’s skin. Hangman flies and acts like a young Maverick: full of cocky smiles and always looking to piss Rooster off. They even have a similar reconciliation at the end of the film when Hangman comes to rescue Mav and Rooster from getting shot down in the final act. They later embrace back on the aircraft carrier — just like Mav and Ice — and their misunderstandings are seemingly healed.
Of course, imagining Top Gun as a heterosexual romance between a male and female aviator feels strange, not only because women weren’t allowed to train as fighter pilots until 1993, or because a woman didn’t graduate from the real-life TOPGUN until 2004. Maverick actually has female aviators — two, in fact — but the militaristic aspect of the series still makes the story so dependent on male-male dynamics that Phoenix (Monica Barbaro, the more prominent of the two) is depicted as “one of the boys.” She’s not a love interest for Rooster or Hangman, or any of the boys, and maybe in that there’s some subtle lesbian-coding that the film wants us to see but doesn’t say out loud. But the point stands: the male-male bonds are what have always driven the series.
The more I think about the homoeroticism in Top Gun, the more undeniable it becomes that the films wouldn’t be the same without it. If the studio was trying to appeal to a female audience with male sexiness, they accidentally created a pretty damn tasteful male romance in the process. Like, so many action movies invoke the homoerotic that it’s basically a trope by now. There’s the reunion of childhood friends turned literal super soldiers Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, where Steve insists that he can rescue Bucky from his Winter Soldier conditioning — even going so far to break up the Avengers over it in Captain America: Civil War. There’s the similar shirtlessness and sweatiness of men in an elite fighting squadron with 300, to the point that SNL lampooned it when star Gerard Butler came to host. And digging wayyy back into the action genre turns up the original enemies-to-lovers military rivals: the Roman general Coriolanus and Volscian leader Aufidius from William Shakespeare’s oft-overlooked tragedy Coriolanus, who spend most of their scenes together wrestling or telling each other they’ve been “down together” in their dreams — whatever that means — and give off some major Ice/Mav vibes.
…After a brief review of my other examples, maybe there’s something about men in highly-specialized branches of the military that just makes those bonds appear homoerotic to audiences.
Top Gun might be the most prominent of homoerotic action movies, but it’s certainly not the only one. Honestly, I’m just glad that Joseph Kosinski didn’t try to scrub that legacy away in Maverick, and instead kept Mav’s relationships with Ice and Goose as a prominent part in his arc. He also gave the girls and gays everything they’d ever want with the Rooster-Hangman dynamic. When it seems like so many big studio movies are cutting out any reference to queerness, Maverick unapologetically leaned into the (admittedly unintentionally) homoerotic roots Top Gun laid down.
But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you’re a girl, a gay, or a dad: Top Gun’s homoeroticism isn’t going away.