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Top Gun Maverick: A meta monument to the myth of Tom Cruise, the best action blockbuster since Mission Impossible Fallout

In 2020, audio of Tom Cruise yelling at crew members for violating pandemic protocols on the (then untitled) Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One set was leaked online. In his rant, which rivalled a similar one that Christian Bale had unleashed more than a decade prior while making Terminator Salvation, Cruise threatened to fire people who flouted rules. “We are not shutting this movie down!” he screamed.

His argument was that thousands’ of livelihoods were at stake, and being forced to shut down because of an outbreak on set would be very unfortunate indeed. Two years later, another report claimed that both Cruise and director Christopher McQuarrie ultimately contracted the virus while working on the seventh Mission: Impossible film, which, it is safe to assume, would have halted production.

In his tirade, Cruise claimed that the Mission: Impossible crew was leading by example on how to continue working during the pandemic, and that a safe production would help revive the struggling film industry. “No apologies!” Cruise continued in his rant. “You can tell it to the people that are losing their f**king homes because our industry is shut down. It’s not going to put food on their table or pay for their college education. That’s what I sleep with every night.”

I was reminded of this rather unfortunate incident while watching Top Gun: Maverick, pound for pound the best large-scale action movie since Cruise’s own Mission: Impossible — Fallout. In the first scene of the film—after that glorious credits sequence that unfolds essentially like a shot-for-shot remake of the first film’s opening minutes—Cruise’s Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell shows up on base only to learn that the higher-ups are planning on shutting his test flights down. Hardly a stickler for the rules, Maverick makes a quick decision: he’ll go ahead with the test flight regardless, and prove to the naysayers that instead of the Mach 9 target, the prototype plane has the potential to hit Mach 10. This is a recurring theme in the film, which escalates the stakes every time you feel it has reached a crescendo.

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“You know what’s going to happen to you if you go through with this, right?” Maverick’s buddy asks him as he’s about to take off. And Maverick replies, “I know what’ll happen to everyone else if I don’t.”

This isn’t the first time that the lines between Cruise and his character have been blurred. In many ways, the actor has always played versions of himself on screen. But Maverick, with his burning intensity and disregard for authority, is a particularly obvious stand-in for the famously demanding Cruise. The film, on the other hand, is a meta commentary on his own career.

Now pushing 60, Cruise probably understands that he’s working on borrowed time; all actors, especially action stars, have an expiry date. This is perhaps why the seventh and eighth Mission: Impossible films are being shot back-to-back; by the time Dead Reckoning Part Two comes out, Cruise will be 62 years old. This is it. It’s now or never.

Top Gun: Maverick is probably the first time that Cruise’s advancing age has been factored into the plot of one of his films. It might also be the first Cruise movie that doesn’t actively hide the fact that he’s short. But the movie isn’t merely a opportunity for the star to reflect on his reality; it’s more ambitious than that. Top Gun: Maverick is nothing less than an earnest attempt to unpack his legacy.

“The end is inevitable,” one character taunts Maverick, “Your kind is headed for extinction.” And isn’t that true? How often have we been told that the reign of movie stars is over; no actor has the power to guarantee a blockbuster opening any more. Gone are the days of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, James Stewart and Will Smith. Even in India, it is widely understood that the three Khans—Salman, Shah Rukh and Aamir—are well past their prime. While this might be a slight exaggeration—Cruise can usually be counted on to deliver at the box office, as can Denzel Washington, Leonardo DiCaprio and Sandra Bullock—movie stars in general are facing an extinction-level threat. It’s called Marvel.

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As IP becomes more valuable that actual human talent, more and more audiences are indicating that they will pay to watch films on the big screen only when they’re promised familiar characters; the men and women playing them may wary.

Many stars, and, indeed, musicians, have confronted obsolescence and mortality with their art. Johnny Cash left us with perhaps one of the greatest song covers ever performed—Hurt. Sam Elliott played an ageing Western star in The Hero, which shared many thematic similarities with the Kamal Haasan vehicle Uttama Villain. John Wayne starred as an old gunslinger dying of cancer in The Shootist, his final role, performed while the iconic star himself was dying of the illness.

But the film that Top Gun: Maverick has the most in common with is, oddly enough, Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino. It’s a movie about growing old, yes, but more importantly, it’s a movie about growing.

Cruise has stared death in the face before—he’s leapt out of buildings and hung out of aeroplanes; he’s flown fighter jets and performed skydives—but never quite like this. In Top Gun: Maverick, the actor doesn’t just risk physical death, but also death in the metaphysical sense. Tom Cruise, the person will cease to exist one day; this is inevitable. But what’ll happen to the idea of Tom Cruise once he’s gone?

Just as Edge of Tomorrow was a self-aware romp about his own iconography, Top Gun: Maverick is Cruise’s reminder, mostly to himself, that as long as he’s able to do what he loves, he’ll never be irrelevant. As one character tells Maverick just as he’s about to fly off into a suicide mission, “You’re where you belong, make us proud.”

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