Top Gun 2 Is an Ode to a Struggling Empire

The first Top Gun was a highly effective recruitment tool for the war machine. This year’s sequel is less confident in its propaganda – and shows that the US imperial project is aware its popularity is waning.

Maverick’s antagonist, is not so much the faceless defenders of the uranium plant than it is the drone technology itself. (Paramount)

Strap yourself in: Top Gun is back in cinemas. The much-delayed but highly-anticipated sequel Top Gun: Maverick has come at a strange time for the American military, with the fallout from its withdrawal from Afghanistan still uncertain, and the Russia-Ukraine war continuing to produce large-scale violence to the concern of the international community. What’s more, the ‘war on terror’, in its various stages, has accompanied a period of rapidly advancing military technology that has bled across the US’ global imperial project as well as into the fabric of its domestic society. It’s little surprise, then, that Top Gun: Maverick sometimes seems to find itself backed into a corner.

Replete with exhilarating action shots, aerial cinematography, and a balmy montage of beach football, Top Gun: Maverick is infused with nostalgia for the high-octane dogfights, sweeping skies, and Kenny Loggins belters that romanced viewers back in the ’80s. The film opens with an ageing Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell (Tom Cruise), still a captain after over thirty years, testing new models of aircraft for the military in the Mojave Desert, California. When he hears his programme is to be shut down due to the planes’ inability to keep up with advancing unmanned weapons technology, he proves the test model’s worth by taking it to Mach 10—saving the programme, for now, but also crashing the plane.

As a result, he is sent by an irate Admiral Cain (Ed Harris) back to Fighter Weapons School, or ‘Top Gun’, to teach the newest crop of the best fighter pilots in the country. Cain is insistent that Maverick’s kind are hurtling towards obsolescence, but he gives the fighter pilots one last shot at greatness: Top Gun are tasked with destroying a uranium plant in an undisclosed country (likely Iran), a highly dangerous mission that requires flying planes fast and low enough to avoid enemy detection. Only Maverick is up to the job—of leading the mission, bringing his troops home safe, and crucially, of saving Top Gun.

Maverick’s antagonist, then, is not so much the faceless defenders of the uranium plant than it is the drone technology itself. In the world of the film, where Maverick is still grieving his friend Goose and is desperate not to sacrifice any more pilots’ lives, this antagonism is somewhat confusing. Among their advocates, the appeal of drones is for so-called ‘clean’ warfare, a mode of inflicting maximum violence at no risk to American life. This quandary forces the film to perform some spectacular logical gymnastics: if Maverick is so traumatised by Goose’s death and so determined to bring all his boys back alive, why not sign them all up to the so-called ‘Chair Force’ and eliminate any risk whatsoever?

Drones are, admittedly, boring to watch. Top Gun from a glorified office cubicle won’t set hearts racing.  But if we ask ourselves why this is, we see how drones remove the danger, heroism, and indeed the balance of power from the war narratives which are embedded in our collective imagination. While they ensure the safety of the American soldier, drones pose a threat to the mythology that forms the foundation of the American military’s cultural identity.

Top Gun is an important film franchise to pay attention to, of course, due to its tight interdependence with the US military. Famously, the Pentagon gave permission for the use of real military equipment in the 1986 original at a low cost to the filmmakers. In return, the screenplay was heavily vetted to conform to a carefully crafted image of the US military.

And it worked. Top Gun, which was designed to remasculinise the military in the wake of defeats in Vietnam, supposedly helped trigger a five hundred percent rise in registrations for the US Navy during the Reaganite Cold War. With the sequel having received equally extensive support from the Department of Defense, it remains to be seen whether recruitment rates will match those seen in 1986, or how successful the new Top Gun will be in selling a tale of strength, bravado, and rugged individualism in sleeker, technologised times.

Like a large majority of American war representation, Top Gun appeals to a mythology of the frontier, founded on a legacy of settler colonialism and manifest destiny, to forge a clear-cut narrative of heroes and villains. Rooted in the works of Frederick Jackson Turner and Theodore Roosevelt, and re-popularised by the later work of Richard Slotkin, the ‘myth of the frontier’, as Slotkin calls it, denotes an expansionist myth of a meeting between civilisation and savagery which informs American culture and identity.

This mythologised, unruly edge of civilisation provides ample space for the emergence of frontier heroes—rugged, self-reliant, masculine individuals whose refusal to play by the rules enables them to conquer their environment. Through none-too nuanced nominative characterisation, Top Gun’s Maverick appeals strongly to this identity; a difficult and headstrong character, he tames the skies, beats back the enemy, and in the sequel, goes so far as to defy the orders of his superior officers and undermine the military hierarchy. While some critics have suggested this reveals society’s shifting attitudes to authoritarianism, we can just as easily sense this characterisation’s insistence on Maverick as a cowboy figure for the twenty-first century: a man who acts on behalf of the collective but who is not limited by its laws, rules, or social codes.

In the wake of 9/11, calls for more ‘cowboys’ abounded. Strong, rugged, masculine men were implored to face down the terrorist threat posed by the newest crop of ‘Indians’, embodied by Muslims both in America and abroad. These calls were answered in culture in the likes of The Hurt Locker’s Will James and American Sniper’s Chris Kyle. They entered strange, lawless territories as wily loners, outnumbered by a panoptic, faceless enemy. Downplaying the overwhelming military resources wielded by the United States (in 2009, when The Hurt Locker came out, US military spending was more than that of at least the next fourteen countries’ defence budgets combined), these representations of the war on terror, and especially the war in Iraq, instead put forward an equal fight of heroes and villains from which the difficult hero emerges righteous.

This narrative is unsettled by the rise of drone warfare. While deployed by Bush in the early stages of the war on terror, military drones, or ‘unmanned aerial vehicles’, really gained attention during Obama’s presidency. The Obama administration increased the United States’ campaign of so-called ‘targeted attacks’ in countries across Africa and Asia, including countries with which the US was not officially at war, such as Somalia and Pakistan. Drones, supposedly, enable ‘clean’, ‘surgical’ strikes on terrorist cells, at no cost to the lives of American pilots or to civilians at risk of being swept under by the currents of war.

The reality has proven otherwise. While drones enable the pilot to surveil and strike their targets from thousands of miles away, keeping pilots out of danger, they are operated on an algorithmic basis of tracking and pre-empting patterns of behaviour that feed a ‘terrorist’ profile. It’s unsurprising, then, that civilians are often misidentified. On more than one occasion wedding convoys have been targeted, including in in 2008 in Haska Meyna, Afghanistan, when forty-seven civilians were killed, of which thirty-nine were women and children.

Today, the US is coming under greater scrutiny for its drone campaign and its toll on the lives of those living under the drone’s gaze. A Senate hearing on 8 February this year included a statement from Human Rights Watch detailing the killing of Zemari Ahmadi and his nine family members, including seven children, in an August 2021 drone strike during the evacuation from Afghanistan. Ahmadi, a humanitarian worker, was tracked for days and killed by US drone operators convinced he was a terrorist. The Pentagon admitted this was a ‘mistake’, but nobody has been held accountable.

It’s worth noting that Top Gun: Maverick makes no attempt to scrutinise the manifold ethical problems associated with drone warfare. Instead, ironically, drone technology is cast as the villain precisely because it threatens to rupture the romance of conquest which enables these military programmes to go about unchallenged.

Drones complicate the frontier myth. The technology emasculates the pilot as the agency, power, and freedom typically associated with military masculinity are outsourced to a machine; the ‘cowboy’ is no longer on the frontier but safe at home. This shift in positioning and perspective unsettles the straightforward ‘good vs. bad guy’ narrative, because the removal of the pilot from harm’s way makes explicit the breadth of the United States’ imperial reach and the extent of its military-technological power.

A complex and murky techno-military horizon looms, upon which drones and other smart weapons are sure to rapidly evolve. Rather than interrogate this future, however, Top Gun: Maverick treads water, aware of what awaits the embodied soldier but reluctant to look it in the eyes. The film is satisfied, instead, with a nostalgic ode to the frontier hero of American lore. But for fear of sounding like Admiral Cain, this can surely only be a comfort blanket—and one which is quickly unravelling to reveal the naked structures of an imperialism in flux.