Thirty-six years later, there’s a new Top Gun coming out. In Top Gun: Maverick, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell is back, but the country he serves is utterly unrecognizable.
Just like in the original Top Gun, Tom Cruise plays a hotshot fighter pilot, even though at 59 years of age Cruise is just one month away from reaching the U.S. military’s mandatory retirement age. In fact, Cruise is older than President Bush was when he landed on that carrier to tell everyone “Mission Accomplished.”
Still, Tom Cruise remains the world’s most consistently bankable movie star, and Maverick is going to make a boatload of money. If it becomes the 50th film ever to crack $1 billion worldwide, it would even cover 1/400th of the cost of the monstrously over-budget F-35 program! Critics are overwhelmingly positive about the film, and unlike with Captain Marvel, the last few Star Wars films, or the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot, there are no signs that critics are propping up a crummy film for sounding the right ideological notes. They even brought back Maverick’s Taiwan jacket.
— Taiwan News (@TaiwanNews886) May 25, 2022
Although before gloating too much about sticking it to the Chinese, let’s remember to count our blessings.
For all the people whining about top gun not having Taiwan flag to appeal to chinese box office:
The Chinese box office is the only reason we haven’t had a transsexual James Bond. https://t.co/SRF83svIb8
— Darren J. Beattie ? (@DarrenJBeattie) August 15, 2020
We have yet to see the movie, so we won’t weigh in on its aesthetic merits. But those merits are beside the point for this article. Even if Top Gun: Maverick is an excellent film, the film’s very existence is a jarring reminder of how much America has declined in the thirty-six years since the original came out.
Let us explain:
Top Gun is an advertisement for a U.S. military that no longer exists.
Applications to the Naval Academy soared after Top Gun’s release, as they should have. The entire film presents American fighter pilots as knights of the 20th century, a military elite who through God-given talent and relentless training have become “the best fighter pilots in the world”, and by extension the most lethal soldiers in existence.
This wasn’t just cinematic bluster. Through the end of the Cold War, U.S. military leaders set rigorous, even ruthless standards for prospective pilots for the sole purpose of making sure the U.S. had the world’s best-trained force. After all, we had to be ready for a direct aerial showdown with the Soviet Union. But once the Cold War ended, standards started to slip, and by now they are in free fall.
In the 1980s, one quarter of flight school students washed out, even though the admission process sitself was already grueling. In the 90s, the graduation rate rose to 90 percent, and by the 2010s the flight school graduation rate reached 96 percent. While technology ought to be making flying safer, and it is for civilian aircraft, U.S. military crashes even in peacetime are now so common that observers describe American aviation as in a “tailspin” (not unlike the one that killed Goose in Top Gun).
In 1991, the U.S. Navy suffered through the Tailhook scandal, when several dozen Navy and Marine Corps aviators allegedly groped and assaulted women during a Las Vegas convention as part of wider “fraternity-style hijinks.” For some reason, military geniuses determined that the way to “fix” this problem was to rush women into demanding combat roles. Under political pressure from Congress, the U.S. Navy rammed several women through flight school, despite repeated safety failures and red flags that would have caused male pilots to wash out. The result was tragic but unsurprising. Kara Hultgreen, America’s first woman carrier-based fighter pilot, crashed her plane and died just months after barely qualifying for the role.
That was nearly thirty years ago. At the time, the idea of adopting double standards solely for the sake of diversity was controversial enough to receive hostile coverage from 60 Minutes.
But if the military learned any lesson from that debacle, they are all forgotten today.
What is the top priority for today’s leaders when it comes to pilots? If you guessed “diversity,” then congratulations, you passed the Revolver Special IQ Test For Not Being An Idiot.
From the Air Force Times (emphasis ours):
Air Force leaders have signed off on a new plan to build a more diverse pilot corps by 2030, looking to level the playing field in a profession that remains dominated by white men.
The strategy aims to grow opportunities for women and minority airmen in some of the Air Force’s premier professions, including manned and unmanned aircraft pilots, air battle managers, and combat systems officers.
“Maintaining our strategic advantage … requires the agility of a diverse workforce to tackle challenges from different perspectives,” Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne Bass and acting Air Force Secretary John Roth wrote in the strategy’s foreword.
Women often face more pressure to juggle work and family or to give up one altogether, as well as other cultural and structural barriers that lead them to leave the military. The Air Force has multiple teams looking at minority and women’s issues to build a service that works better for everyone, from less stringent hair regulations for women to reconsidering how cockpits could fit people of more shapes and sizes.
The military’s gushing enthusiasm for Diversity Uber Alles is so over-the-top that it verges on the repulsive (emphasis ours):
“Diversity is a warfighting imperative. Diversity brings us the best talent, the best skill, it gives us the best potential, it gives us the ability to look at the problem from multiple solutions,” Lt. Col. Edemumo Oboho, strategist at Air Education and Training Command told Federal News Network. “It helps us avoid our blind spots. The innovative potential with diversity is huge.”
The strategy focuses on three objectives: Attracting talent from diverse backgrounds, developing and retaining aircrews by harnessing diversity and optimizing diversity through data.
“We call this the holistic approach to solving rated diversity,” Oboho said. “The three goals that we start with are the overarching umbrella for race, diversity and inclusion. We want to make sure we attract and recruit the best talent within that propensity from those diverse backgrounds.”
Turns out Goose was the lucky one. He died before seeing the American armed forces reduced to this.
When Top Gun came out, the highest priority was military readiness, and America trained and recruited the best accordingly. Today’s military, in contrast, is a tool of domestic politics that doesn’t even exist to win wars anymore.
In the world of Top Gun: Maverick, America puts diversity first, and gets the military it deserves.
Top Gun celebrated masculinity and excellence, two things America now abhors.
Top Gun was not necessarily a particularly deep film, but to the extent that it had an underlying message, it was about excellence. Cruise’s Maverick, as presented in the original film, serves an archetype that American boys yearned to be for generations, throughout America’s golden age.
Maverick is a hotshot bad boy, a superstar pilot whose insufferable arrogance is only exceeded by his meteoric talents. Maverick has world-class instincts and reflexes, but his hotheadedness and unpredictability make him a bad wingman, and he often can’t tell the difference between courage and mere recklessness as he overcompensates for not having a father. His character arc consists of him learning to moderate his impulsiveness with teamwork and thereby become a world-class pilot… and because this is a 1980s summer blockbuster, he gets the girl along the way.
One of the original Top Gun’s legacies is the popularization of “wingman” as a slang term for a male friend helping pick up women at bars or other social venues. Regardless of ongoing rumors about Tom Cruise’s personal predilections, Top Gun celebrated the exploits of conventional, marshal masculinity.
Today’s America, meanwhile, badly wants both excellence and masculinity far, far away from the armed forces. When U.S. top defense brass aren’t busy losing in Afghanistan or allowing ships to run into each other, they release reports denouncing “toxic” masculine culture in the service. Twentieth Century Americans may have wanted the best and the brightest leading their armies. Today’s Army War College prefers to publish papers about “systemic bias” and the merits of “cognitive diversity” in military organizations.
But a new Top Gun starring Tom Cruise in 2022 isn’t jarring just because of how America’s military has declined. The new film also serves as an illustration of a decline in American cinema too… or perhaps, rather, a lack of change. Thirty-six years have passed, yet there is nothing really surprising or strange at all that Tom Cruise is still coming out to fly a carrier-based fighter jet. Why should we be shocked? Stunningly spry at fifty-nine, Cruise is still carrying the Mission: Impossible franchise 26 years on (two more films are on the way; the last will be released when Cruise is 62). And Cruise is far from the exception. America has no young, transcendent film stars.
Across the board, America’s most bankable stars are a bizarrely ancient bunch. Bruce Willis recently starred in a Death Wish remake at 64. Arnold Schwarzenegger turned 70 in 2017, but that didn’t stop him from starring in a new Terminator film two years later with 62-year-old co-star Linda Hamilton. Also, in 2019, Sylvester Stallone starred in Rambo: Last Blood at 73.
The star of that trailer is as old as Ronald Reagan was at the start of his second term as president.
Just about the only young bankable action movie star is Jason Statham, and guess what? He’s 54!
Why are aging stars still such a constant in theaters? America’s heroic 1980s film stars are still huge draws overseas. Or, put another way, America, its films, and its heroic stars captivated the entire world thirty years ago, and still cast a spell over them today. Modern mass-produced superhero films may gross at the box office, but specific film stars don’t have the global appeal they once did.
One reason may even be biological. Testosterone levels in America have been tanking for decades. Young men have lost one-fifth to one-quarter of their grip strength since the 1980s. As America steadily becomes less manly, it has become unable to elevate new authentic masculine icons, instead trotting out the same stars from four decades ago.
Then, there’s the film itself.
The original Top Gun was the top-grossing film of 1986. It wasn’t a sequel. It wasn’t a computer-animated children’s film or based on a series of young-adult novels. There was no intention of making a mass-produced franchise out of it, which is why it didn’t receive an immediate sequel.
That used to be the norm for American cinema. Of the top 10 highest-grossing films in the U.S. in 1986, seven were original films. But in 2022, all ten of the betting favorites for highest-grossing film of the year are parts of franchises. There are four just from Marvel’s never-ending avalanche of content for consoomers like David French to consoom.
I took pride in the fact that I'd seen every superhero made in the last 25 years. Then I realized I hadn't seen Dark Phoenix.
Watched it last night. Liked it. The record is intact. I've never seen a truly bad superhero movie. They're all good. A few are great.
— David French (@DavidAFrench) April 26, 2020
For today’s film industry landscape, making a sequel to a thirty-six-year-old movie counts as relatively inspired. In 1986, America was so stupendous that a film that was essentially an infomercial for America could be the world’s favorite film. But in 2022, America seems incapable of producing anything new and captivating at all.