The case for ‘Top Gun: Maverick’

Industry insiders and fans alike have been wowed by the sleek blockbuster, and it’s just been nominated for best picture.


“Top Gun: Maverick” stars Tom Cruise as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell. (Illustration by Max Van Hosen)

Holden Lay, Staff Writer

In 2009, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences changed the manner for how the best picture Oscar was selected. Hot off the heels of excellent back-to-back winners “The Departed” and “No Country for Old Men,” the AMPAS shifted from simple majority-rules-based voting — which remains the methodology for deciding nearly all other categories at the awards — to a ranked choice system. What this means is that prospective voters for best picture must now rank all of the nominees in order of preference, rather than choosing only their favorite of each year.

In practice, a ranked choice best picture race rewards what one could call the least divisive film of the pack. In other words, the best thing to be in this year’s best picture race is not a film that one or even many parts of the voting body feel artistically passionate toward, but rather, to be the film the people agree on most.

Enter the uniquely positioned “Top Gun: Maverick.” Coming more than 35 years after the endearing ’80s classic, “Maverick” positioned itself early on as a candidate for 2022’s behemoth release. One of the first large-scale productions to resume and successfully continue during the early days of the pandemic, hype for the film had been building for what felt like forever in no small part due to the film’s firebrand star, power producer and beaming spokesman Tom Cruise. Fiercely advocating for the film and everyone who worked on it, he made promises all across the press circuit, proclaiming that the film would satisfy fans of the original, thrill audiences and save movie theaters in the process. 

The hype didn’t stop when the film came out. “Maverick” played in wide release for months on end, easily becoming the highest grossing domestic release of 2022 — only recently surpassed worldwide by “Avatar: The Way of Water” as it continues to relentlessly sweep the international market. Aside from valid criticisms of its jingoistic military-industrial complex sympathies, the film seemed to still be loved by many audiences. 

What makes “Maverick” stand out from other blockbusters is that it’s found as much love among critics and the industry as it has with everyday moviegoers. Cruise’s months spent publicly cheerleading the film certainly helped revive interest, but the real secret to its success on this front is more than just simple nostalgia. The difference between “Maverick” and other films of its kind is that it is undeniably great cinema. 

Cruise is the last of a dying breed — one of the few names left who can all but guarantee a box office smash hit just by slapping his name on the poster. But here, he hardly rests on his laurels. He gives a vivacious performance, backed by an airtight script and a carefully tuned approach from director Joseph Kosinski. A supporting cast of young actors like Miles Teller, Jon Hamm, Monica Barbaro and Glen Powell, as well as appearances from the beloved Val Kilmer and Jennifer Connely, pushes the film’s starpower to the stratosphere. Expertly edited, the film’s over-two-hour runtime flies by. The painstakingly executed and unbelievable practical effects and aerial cinematography instantly endeared “Maverick” audiences. 

To back it all up, Cruise’s claims of bringing audiences back to theaters more than came true. In a time when other pandemic-era blockbusters such as “Dune” stuck to industry trends and secured deals for near-simultaneous releases on streaming, Cruise demanded a generous exclusivity period reserved for theatrical display. This meant that if people wanted to see “Maverick,” they had to do it on the big screen, a rarity for consumers coming out of an uncertain COVID-19 lockdown and amid a bad performance period for cinemas. Audiences crammed into packed houses across the country for the first time in almost two years. Hitting theaters on Memorial Day weekend of last year, it amassed a pandemic record of around $160 million in ticket sales.

In the context of the best picture race, what’s important about Cruise’s self-professed mission to save theaters is the glowing industry response. Look no further than a video that has been making the rounds online, in which blockbuster king Steven Spielberg approaches Cruise on the red carpet of the Oscar nominee luncheon, where he is heard saying, “You saved Hollywood’s ass and you might have saved theatrical distribution Seriously, ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ might have saved the entire theatrical industry.”

“Top Gun: Maverick” is the film that ranked choice voting has been waiting for. Unstoppable on the audience appeal, technical and creative fronts, it is a more than formidable opponent for frontrunners “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and “The Banshees of Inisherin.” While many pundits are claiming that the often conservative faction of AMPAS voters are going to be spooked by the raunchy humor of the other two films, “Maverick” is a largely inoffensive and safe choice. It is hard to imagine any statistically significant portion of voters placing it at the bottom of their list in a year full of riskier films like “Elvis,” “Avatar: The Way of Water” and “Tár” are in the running. This year’s consensus pick might actually be one nearly everyone can agree on, rather than a film most of us will hardly remember only a few years later.

Contact Holden Lay at [email protected].