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Debate This Statement: Maverick Was Really the Bad Guy in Top Gun

F-14 Tomcat History
Image: Creative Commons.

Editor’s Note: 1945 is all over the new Top Gun: Maverick blockbuster with extensive coverage looking at how the F-14 could truly take on the Su-57 (article here) and how the new movie relates to Star Wars (article here): “Top Gun: Maverick” is finally flying into theaters after literally decades of fans like me shouting for it from the rooftops of base housing and barracks buildings all around the force. But one detail in the latest (and final) trailer caught some fans by surprise: a photo of Val Kilmer’s Tom ‘Iceman’ Kazansky very clearly shows him as an admiral, while Maverick is still in the cockpit some 36 years after the conclusion of the first film.

That detail was confirmed by John Hamm’s Admiral Cyclone in the trailer as well. And despite Maverick’s apparently legendary status as the only pilot in service with enough dogfighting experience to lead the next generation of aviators at the Navy Fighter Weapons School (the real name of the “Top Gun” program), Cyclone doesn’t seem to think Mav’s all that special at all.

“You are here at the request of Admiral Kazansky, aka Iceman,” Cyclone tells Maverick. “He seems to think that you have something left to offer the Navy. What that is, I can’t imagine.”

It’s no secret that Pete “Maverick” Mitchell was supposed to be the hero of the first film (though one might contend the F-14 Tomcat was the real hero). The movie follows his journey from near-combat, to training at the Navy Fighter Weapons School, and then back into combat again. For most casual viewers riding along in Maverick’s cockpit, experiencing his hardships, tragedies, and victories alongside him is enough to make you genuinely root for the guy.

After all, he seems to be the best pilot the Navy has… at least when he’s not suffering from debilitating panic attacks in the cockpit, harassing civilian employees in the lady’s bathroom, or violating training regulations to feed his ego, anyway.

“Top Gun” was a movie without a real bad guy

1986’s “Top Gun” had no clear antagonist throughout the entirety of the movie. The dreaded MiG-28s that Maverick and his fellow aviators square off with at the beginning and end of the film hardly count—not only do their pilots have no names or characters to develop, but the movie never even explicitly states what country they came from. The MiG-28, of course, isn’t a real aircraft (the studio used Northrop F-5s for the role), but because it was a MiG and the movie takes place in the ’80s… everyone just sort of assumed they came from the Soviet Union.

Now, in screenwriting, the antagonist of a film is supposed to be the “main obstacle to the hero’s quest,” often motivated by a goal that’s in direct conflict with the hero’s. The antagonist creates the stakes and drives the plot forward, often forcing our hero out of his or her comfort zone and into a transformational journey.

In “Top Gun,” the MiG-28s play a role in Maverick’s journey, but by the time he reaches Navy Fighter Weapons School, they no longer pose any kind of threat. Instead, the plot is driven forward by conflict with this guy.

Iceman only seems like the villain if you’re a crappy pilot

Iceman is clearly depicted in the movie as aggressive, arrogant, and cocky–but that’s not exactly a stark contrast to Maverick, who is also aggressive, arrogant, and cocky throughout the majority of the film.

A great deal of the conflict between Iceman and Maverick can be attributed to their own competitive impulses, but there’s another factor driving a wedge between these two: Maverick’s complete disregard for safety regulations.

Whether we’re talking about Maverick buzzing the tower even after being told the “pattern is full” (which means there are a number of other aircraft already orbiting or on approach that surely had to change course to avoid hitting him), or Maverick choosing to pursue Jester below the “hard deck” in order to secure a kill in a training flight, Maverick just doesn’t care about the rules. He is, after all, a Maverick.

But here’s the thing about rules when it comes to training to fight to the death at supersonic speeds: they tend to keep you alive. Every time Maverick violates the rules, he puts his and others’ lives in jeopardy, and that sort of makes him an a**hole. Iceman even calls him on it exactly as I would if I were one of the poor souls expected to fly alongside him.

“Maverick, it’s not your flying, it’s your attitude. The enemy’s dangerous, but right now you’re worse. Dangerous and foolish. You may not like who’s flying with you, but whose side are you on?” Iceman said.

Iceman’s competitive nature played a role in Goose’s death, but Maverick is still at fault

There’s a great ScreenRant article by Ana Dumaraog called, “Top Gun: Goose’s Death Isn’t Maverick’s Fault, It’s Iceman’s” that’s well worth reading if you’ve made it this far into this article… but in my opinion, Ana Dumaraog misses the mark when she placed the blame for Goose’s death on Iceman’s shoulders.

If it’s been a while since you saw the first “Top Gun,” you should know that Goose died during a training flight wherein Maverick and Iceman were flying on the same team against an instructor, LCDR Rick “Jester” Heatherly. Despite flying each other’s wings, these two pilots were also both in contention for the top spot in their respective school. So when both pilots found themselves in position to take a kill shot against Jester, neither was willing to back off to let the other pilot take it.

To be fair here, Iceman swung in ahead of Maverick and, despite spending a while trying to secure a lock, was unable to do so. When he finally gave up and broke off contact to let Mav take the shot, Maverick was too close behind him. Maverick and Goose flew right through Iceman’s jetwash and went into a flat spin—a real and often fatal flaw of the Tomcat. When Maverick and Goose ejected, Goose hit the cockpit canopy on his way out, killing him.

In her analysis, Dumaraog contends that it was a combination of Iceman’s stubbornness and selfishness that created the circumstances that caused Goose’s death, and to be honest, she’s not wrong. Iceman should have backed off and given Maverick the shot… but from where I’m sitting, that’s not the same as Maverick being free of blame.

This was a training exercise—not combat. The only thing on the line here was a name on a plaque and the massive egos filling both cockpits. Iceman should have backed off, but let’s be realistic here… Maverick should have too. His failure to do so, more so than Iceman’s flying, resulted in Goose’s death.

A responsible and mature Naval aviator would have looked at the situation he was in, recognized how incredibly dangerous it was, and backed off. Sure, that might have given Iceman the opportunity to score a kill and graduate at the top of his class, but at least they all would have graduated… instead, Goose’s fictional kids had to grow up without their dad (one of whom is played in “Top Gun: Maverick” by Miles Teller). Both pilots should have backed off, and Goose’s death was also a bit of a freak accident—but Maverick deserves to carry some of the blame (and to be fair, he seems to).

The real villain of “Top Gun” was Maverick’s arrogance

By the end of the movie, Maverick and Iceman have kissed and made up, they win a dogfight against a group of MiG-28s and somehow don’t start a new world war in the process, and we’re all left feeling like Maverick has experienced some genuine character growth.

He’s not the arrogant and self-absorbed hothead we see buzzing the tower with Goose at the beginning of the movie. No, now he’s a slightly less arrogant and self-absorbed hothead with a different Radar Intercept Officer, a new girlfriend, and a newly acquired status as a dogfighting hero. I’m sure that won’t go to his head.

All’s well that ends well, I guess.

Regardless of whether or not Maverick really was the hero of the first “Top Gun,” I’m pretty excited about seeing the new movie. And while Val Kilmer may not have been able to appear in it as Iceman himself, I’m pleased to see that the character got promoted ahead of Maverick. The Navy of their universe may work differently than the Navy in ours, but they still get some things right.

Alex Hollings is a writer, dad, and Marine veteran who specializes in foreign policy and defense technology analysis. He holds a master’s degree in Communications from Southern New Hampshire University, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Corporate and Organizational Communications from Framingham State University. This first appeared in Sandboxx News. 

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Sandboxx News is a digital and print military media outlet focused on the lives, experiences, and challenges facing today’s service members and America’s defense apparatus. Built on the simple premise that service members and their supporters need a reliable news outlet free of partisan politics and sensationalism, Sandboxx News delivers stories from around the world and insights into the U.S. Military’s past, present, and future– delivered through the lens of real veterans, service members, military spouses, and professional journalists.