There was huge anticipation from fans of the original Top Gun for its follow-up, Top Gun: Maverick. No one, though, not even Tom Cruise himself could have expected how this movie soared in its box office performance. Top Gun: Maverick racked up astounding global box office stats. $683 million came from the domestic box office, making it the sixth-biggest film in US box office history. Incredibly, Top Gun: Maverick was still going strong in theaters nearly three months after its release. Then the digital release arrived, giving fans the chance to keep watching the film more at home. Considering this wild success, let’s take a look at the film’s emotional core, the friendship between Maverick and Iceman.
1986’s Top Gun is remembered for many things, from the intense action of the flying sequences, the romance, and the music, to the friendship between Maverick (Tom Cruise) and Goose (Anthony Edwards). The most impactful part of the film that drives the narrative, however, leaving a lasting impression on fans and examined again in this year’s sequel is the relationship between Maverick and Iceman (Val Kilmer), who some would argue is the film’s real hero.
On the surface, the original Top Gun played out like so many other 80s films about the good guy and the bully who butt heads. In the end, though, these two are brought together and become friends. Maverick and Iceman are both students at the U.S. Navy’s Fighter Weapons School in the Top Gun program, where aviators compete to see who is the best in the class. Maverick is our protagonist, a superb pilot, but whose carefree, danger-seeking attitude rubs some the wrong way. One of those constantly irritated by his style is Iceman, a fellow pilot whose arrogance and conceited nature clashes with Maverick’s fun, cool demeanor. Iceman takes everything a little too seriously, while Maverick doesn’t take things seriously enough.
Right away, the audience notices that what one lacks, the other has. Maverick and Iceman can’t see this though, as they’re so caught up in the competition and winning. We can also see that their relationship isn’t so black and white. Maverick and his big smile might seem to make him the good guy, with Iceman being the egotistical jerk, but it’s more complicated than that. Maverick is reckless and Iceman isn’t wrong in believing so and telling him when others won’t, even if his delivery makes him come across as a heel. No matter how it’s said, it’s what Maverick needs to hear. Top Gun’s push against expectations, to have the hero be wrong and the supposed villain be right, only adds to the dynamic between Maverick and Iceman.
The clash between Maverick and Iceman reaches its crescendo when tragedy strikes and forces them together. We all know the scene. It’s one of the most heartbreaking moments in film history when Goose is killed in an inflight accident. Both Maverick and Iceman are at least partially to blame. Even if they didn’t mean to, their rivalry and push for perfection helped to cause the accident. Goose’s passing creates an unbreakable bond between them, even if neither wants it. They share something that no one else will ever be able to understand. There was already an unspoken respect when they were enemies. Maverick and Iceman were so invested in beating each other because they knew how great the other one was. Now that respect is etched in something much bigger than the competition.
That respect and forced bond are tested in the film’s climax, where, in a scene that begins to unfold similar to how Goose dies, Maverick comes through, working together with Iceman. When we get our sappy, “You can be my wingman anytime” finale, it means more because of who is saying it. These aren’t two close friends. These are two men who are opposites in almost every way, who were forced together by their profession. It’s a relationship built on time and circumstances, rather than a natural bond. A relationship that blooms in chaos is always more impactful than one whose roots grow parallel.
When a sequel to Top Gun was announced, many thought that, due to Val Kilmer’s health issues, his character of Iceman was doubtful to appear. Perhaps the plot would see him killed off in the years prior to the film, maybe we’d get a glimpse of Maverick looking at a photo of his old friend, but no more. That couldn’t have worked. Despite the real-life circumstances, there is no Maverick without an Iceman. The fast jets and thrilling chase scenes are fun, but it’s Maverick and Iceman’s multi-layered friendship that is the soul of the first film. Without it in a sequel, you’re left with a script without a heartbeat.
Indeed, Val Kilmer wasn’t in the initial plans for the sequel, but Kilmer and Cruise knew that both needed to be included for it to work. In his 2020 memoir, I’ll Be Your Huckleberry, Kilmer wrote about how he fought to be included in the new film. “As the Temptations sang in the heyday of Motown soul, ‘ain’t too proud to beg.’… The producers went for it. Cruise went for it. Cruise couldn’t have been cooler… Tom and I took up where we left off. The reunion felt great.”
In an interview with Entertainment Tonight, Tom Cruise said of Kilmer, “I really rallied hard for him to make the movie. The kind of talent that he has, and you see that scene, it’s very special, it’s just very special.”
Producer Jerry Bruckheimer backed up these claims, telling PEOPLE that Cruise said, “‘We have to have Val, we have to have him back. We have to have him in the film.’ And he was the driving force. We all wanted him, but Tom was really adamant that if he’s going to make another Top Gun, Val had to be in it.”
With Val Kilmer on board, The sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, digs deeper into Maverick and Iceman’s relationship. While Maverick has avoided promotion, happy to just continue flying but still stuck in the past, Iceman has moved up the Navy’s ranks, becoming an admiral. Iceman may be a by-the-book type of man, but he still cares about Maverick and offers him a new spot when he gets himself in trouble. Would that be the case if tragedy and war hadn’t brought them together? Would Iceman care what happened to Maverick? Probably not.
When we see why Iceman has brought Maverick back to Top Gun, to teach Goose’s son, Rooster, and from that, to hopefully learn to forgive himself, it speaks to the power of their friendship, built by respect and time. Iceman looks out for Maverick because Maverick once looked out for him. It leads to the most emotional scene of the film when Maverick meets a dying Iceman in his office. The filmmakers found a powerful way to film around Val Kilmer’s cancer and inability to speak. Maverick and Iceman don’t need words. A look can say it all. There are times, with Iceman sitting at his desk, quietly looking at Maverick, that it almost feels like he is a therapist, being silent as he lets his patient figure it out.
Iceman wants Maverick to make peace with Rooster. “If I send him on this mission he might never come home,” Maverick explains. “If I don’t send him he’ll never forgive me. Either way, I could lose him forever.” Iceman understands this. He was there when Goose died. He has had to carry that in his own way too, but he rose above it and lived his life. He wants the same for Maverick. He types out, “IT’S TIME TO LET GO” on his computer, the cursor blinking as if repeating the sentence to Maverick over and over again.
It’s the crucial point in the film that finally pushes Maverick past his guilt and forces him to evolve. Iceman is the only one who could get that out of him. He is the only person Maverick respects enough to listen to, the advice heightened by a dying Iceman letting go of life. If he can let go of being alive, then how can Maverick not let go of the past?
The Top Gun films, above anything, are about relationships. It knows, as the best action films do, that all of the fight scenes and explosions in the world don’t mean anything without characters to care about. Watching friends move through life together and romances begin is a part of that, but nothing is more powerful than a film that gives us two people who are opposites but develop a deep bond not based on love or preexisting feelings, but through the circumstances that the films put them in. That’s the basis of drama. When you can pull it off, it’s movie magic.