Top Gun: Maverick managed to do the seemingly impossible. It handled the cultural legacy of Tony Scott‘s original film with respect. Part of the reason that Top Gun is such a beloved classic is its sincerity. There’s barely an ounce of cynicism in the film, which puts it into stark contrast with most of today’s blockbusters. Would the straight-faced good nature of 1986 feel out-of-touch in 2022? Surprisingly, no. Top Gun: Maverick has a big heart, and isn’t afraid to recontextualize many of the story beats and characters from the first film.
Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers for Top Gun: Maverick.
One of the most surprisingly emotional elements of Top Gun: Maverick was the way that Val Kilmer‘s health struggles were addressed. Kilmer had been diagnosed with throat cancer and underwent chemotherapy and two tracheostomies. He has used an electronic voice box to communicate given the challenges of speaking. Top Gun: Maverick does not avoid this; Kilmer’s character, Iceman, undergoes the same challenges that he was dealing with in real life.
The thoughtful incorporation of Kilmer’s personal life is only part of the way that Top Gun: Maverick honors the legacy of the Iceman character. Among Maverick’s (Tom Cruise) trainees is a sly, charismatic pilot nicknamed “Hangman” (Glen Powell). Hangman essentially fills the same role that Iceman did in the original film; he picks on Rooster (Miles Teller), adding a sense of competition to Maverick’s selection process. Hangman isn’t just a duplicate of Iceman. He exists as a reminder of Iceman’s importance in the original film, and his change of heart deepens the “bully” archetype into a more complex character.
Iceman is essential to Top Gun. Maverick’s overconfidence could easily become obnoxious, but at the Top Gun Naval Academy, everyone is full of themselves. It’s amusing to see these larger-than-life personalities trading trash talk with each other. Iceman proves that he’s a pilot worthy of Maverick; his derisive comments are more personal, and they get under Maverick’s skin. It allows Maverick to be vulnerable, as he’s forced to question if he’s really as good as he thinks he is.
Hangman fulfills a similarly important role in Top Gun: Maverick. Rooster already has reason enough to be nervous. He is living in the shadow of the death of his father, Goose (Anthony Edwards), and holds Maverick personally responsible. Maverick’s arrival is enough to throw Rooster off his game, and Hangman’s insults don’t make things any easier. It’s clear from the training exercises Maverick runs that Hangman isn’t all talk; he clearly got the skills to back up his boastful claims.
Similar to Iceman, Hangman is introduced in the middle of a crowded bar, where he flirts with women and jokes with his fellow trainees. It’s clear that Hangman and Rooster are already rivals, but Hangman’s claim that “only the best” are prepared for their upcoming mission really rubs Rooster the wrong way. Rooster is infuriated when Hangman learns of his father’s death, and uses it to question Rooster’s abilities. Hangman tells his peers that “we’re going into combat on a level no living pilot’s ever seen,” and that going in unprepared would only be a safety hazard. At first, this seems like it’s nothing more than a prideful boast from an egocentric bully.
However, it revealed that for all of his boasting, Hangman has been acting completely sincerely. During the lead up to the final mission, Hangman expresses heartbreak that he’s forced to remain on standby. He shares a brief moment with Rooster before he leaves with Maverick for the assault on the air base. It is more than an empty gesture of good will; Hangman recognizes that Rooster is heading into dangerous territory, and sincerely wishes for him to emerge from the mission alive. His desire to join them is not just out of pride.
These moments are preceded by another reminder of Iceman’s importance. Before making his decision about which pilot to select for the mission, Maverick meets with Iceman to ask for his advice. Iceman assures Maverick that Rooster is prepared for the assault. Maverick follows his old friend’s wisdom, but Iceman tragically dies from his battle with throat cancer before Maverick makes his decision. It raises the stakes of the story; pilots could die at any point, and their loss will be felt. This only reinforces the points that Hangman was already making.
Hangman is genuinely concerned about the safety of his fellow initiates. It’s implied in Top Gun that Iceman comes to this realization after his union with Maverick at the end, but Powell shows that Hangman’s selflessness was there the whole time. Although he clashed with Maverick initially, Hangman embodies his instructor’s spirit by disobeying orders. When Maverick and Rooster are pinned down by a Su-57, Hangman emerges from the sidelines to help them out. It’s an expansion of the role that Iceman played in the original film’s finale.
While Iceman and Maverick acknowledge their mutual respect for each other, Hangman and Rooster reach an understanding after they’ve bonded over their adventure together. Their heartfelt embrace during the final celebration isn’t just a duplication of the iconic hug between Maverick and Iceman. It’s a more emotionally earned moment that deepens the text of the first film.