Tom Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick

"Top Gun: Maverick" comes 36 years after "Top Gun." Two years of that delay were COVID-related. The real story, though, is that a sequel was ready to go until 1991, but the Navy had a massive sexual harassment crisis, the Tailhook Scandal. Suddenly, the womanizing and hard-drinking of the original "Top Gun" was cast in a different light.

As a result, "Top Gun: Maverick" doesn’t feature any scenes of Tom Cruise and crew standing around in towels and tighty-whities. However, other classic moments are called back. "Great Balls of Fire" gets played on piano. There are shirtless boys flexing in the sand. The music and title sequence are largely the same. Mostly, though, the overlap is that the story’s conflicts come from character types borrowed from the original. There’s an Iceman type. There’s an updated version of Maverick’s original commanding officer Stinger. And, of course, Maverick hasn’t changed one bit.

That’s not to say nothing is new. Tony Scott, the original director for "Top Gun," wanted to shoot the actors actually taking flight, but when the cast started losing their lunch, that plan was scrapped. For "Top Gun: Maverick," Cruise personally designed a training program to prep his cast for the g-forces. The Pentagon wouldn’t let Cruise touch the controls, but he’s actually up there in an F-18 reacting in real-time. The result is a spectacular sequel that is a mix of new characters and old favorites who bring this mission home.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN’s National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

7. Rear Admiral Chester ‘Hammer’ Cain

Ed Harris as Hammer in Top Gun: Maverick

Ed Harris makes a solid early cameo in "Top Gun: Maverick" as a foil for our hero. His bald head, gravitas, and sheer disdain for Maverick bring to mind the character’s first commanding officer, Stinger (James Tolkan). In the original "Top Gun," the cigar-chomping Stinger laments, "I ought to bust your butt, but I can’t." Stinger is heated about Maverick’s antics but when his best pilot, Cougar, melts down and turns in his wing, he’s forced to send Maverick and Goose to Top Gun.

Harris’ Rear Admiral Chester "Hammer" Cain has even less love for Maverick, especially his go-it-alone style. Hammer doesn’t like pilots, period. Known by the nom de plume of "Drone Ranger," he wants to remove the human element entirely from the Navy’s aviation arsenal. As he explains to Maverick: "Pilots need to eat, sleep … They disobey orders."

Given that’s exactly Maverick’s brand, he and Hammer are destined to clash. Of course, when Harris’ character shuts down Maverick’s test-pilot program, Maverick once again disobeys a direct order in a death-defying flight that serves as the film’s first big action set-piece. Harris’ piercing blue eyes seethe at this contravention of his commands and he grounds Maverick for good. Maverick gets resurrected with some political help for his next assignment, but once again, an antagonizing member of the military brass ends up — in a roundabout way — sending Maverick to Top Gun.

6. Penny Benjamin

Jennifer Connelly as Penny Benjamin in Top Gun Maverick

The only big flaw in "Top Gun: Maverick" is the flat romance between Maverick and an old flame, Penny Benjamin, played by Jennifer Connelly. When Maverick gets reassigned to the Top Gun school as the new instructor for a deadly new mission, he and Penny get a second chance in the danger zone, too.

This character was actually referenced in the original. Maverick has that infamous "history of high-speed passes over five air control towers and one admiral’s daughter." Goose turns to Maverick to confirm the mystery woman’s identity: "Penny Benjamin?" Fast forward 36 years and we learn the two might have more history than just one night. Maverick walks into the bar where Penny works and she gives him a hard time, but apparently, the two parted on good terms. She seems to get that Maverick was wed to the edge, and faithful, too, but maybe he’s finally ready to put the landing gear down?

Penny is now a single mom with a teenage daughter. The sparks don’t seem to fly, but soon she and Maverick are going all inverted and parallel anyway. The last time Cruise had chemistry with a leading lady might have been in "Eyes Wide Shut" in 1999. Romance just isn’t something this Tom-cat prioritizes as a producer. That said, Maverick eventually proposes to Penny in a beautifully shot and wordless montage that really lands.

5. Lt. Jake ‘Hangman’ Seresin

Glen Powell as Hangman in Top Gun Maverick

Glen Powell isn’t a huge name yet, but that could change after his turn as the hatable Jake ‘Hangman’ Seresin in "Top Gun: Maverick." He oozes smarminess and macho overconfidence, stealing scene after scene as the heel nemesis to both Maverick and Goose’s son, Rooster (Miles Teller). "Top Gun: Maverick" borrows lots of plot points from "Top Gun" and it’s the same with this character.

Hangman is the updated version of Val Kilmer’s Iceman, but with one key difference: Whereas Iceman got his nickname for doing everything by the book, "cool as ice," Hangman got the moniker for being a bad wingman and leaving his friends hanging. So, not only is Jake a cocky jerk, but he might also be the kind of pilot who will get Maverick and Rooster killed. Of course, that’s not how it goes down. While he doesn’t redeem himself in any scene below the hard deck, he does come through when it counts in the spectacular final combat sequence.

Powell as a performer obviously took this project incredibly seriously. "Top Gun: Maverick" is in so many ways a remake, so there’s gotta be a gratuitous shirtless volleyball scene (though this time it’s beach football, but same difference). Of all the oiled-up boys flexing for the camera, Powell appears near classic-physique contest ready and that level of shredded does not happen by accident. This script called for an arrogant alpha and Powell absolutely trained like one.

4. Lt. Bradley ‘Rooster’ Bradshaw

Miles Teller as Rooster in Top Gun: Maverick

The ghost of Goose haunts "Top Gun: Maverick." Some of it works; some of it feels a little expository, and frankly, 36 years since the death of Maverick’s co-pilot, the other characters have moved on. That even includes Goose’s own son, Rooster, played by Miles Teller. Rooster doesn’t really blame Maverick for the death of his father. He’s got another beef. Maverick held him back from the Naval academy and it cost him five years of career progress. We learn Maverick did this at the request of Rooster’s mother, though we also find out Meg Ryan’s character is dead. Regardless, Maverick feels all noble about this secret pact to protect Rooster from his father’s fate and won’t explain how it all really went down.

The script really did need an excuse for Rooster to be this age in the film. He was already a toddler when we saw him last in "Top Gun," and now 36 years later, he’d be almost 40, and definitely eying retirement, not a stint at the Top Gun flight school. Miles Teller was only about 32 during the production, so they fudged that a little. Even though this new conflict was partly invented to explain the time discrepancy, it actually works as a device to pit Rooster against Maverick and give them a nice arc. Teller is excellent as always, if maybe slightly underused, but when Rooster and Maverick finally put the past aside, it is spectacular.

3. Captain Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell

Tom Cruise as Maverick in Top Gun: Maverick

Did you know Maverick from "Top Gun" even had a first name? Pete just doesn’t seem right, but maybe that’s why these flyboys all go by those cool call signs. In the nearly four decades since we’ve flown with Maverick, Tom Cruise has been off saving the world in a myriad of other ways, but this character has definitely stayed stuck in place. All of his contemporaries have been promoted (or frankly, are dead) but Maverick remains a mere Captain. He’s still riding that same motorcycle around with no helmet, and working as a test pilot, pushing the limits of an experimental aircraft.

When his test pilot mission is scrapped by another high-ranking member of the military brass in a nice cameo by Ed Harris, Maverick really returns to his roots and is sent back to Top Gun to be a flight instructor. Maverick is an iconic character, but he’s also now almost uncomfortably ageless, which especially sticks out in his face-to-face with Iceman. Val Kilmer previously had throat cancer and he bears the scars. His hair is gray and he doesn’t look much like himself from 1986. Cruise, on the other hand, still rocks jet black locks, pearly white teeth, and a slim frame. Physically, we obviously need Maverick to be healthy. He’s not surviving Mach 10.4 otherwise. However, Cruise’s vampiric Hollywood endurance does mean that Maverick also looks a bit like a man spinning in the jet wash of space-time.

2. Admiral Beau ‘Cyclone’ Simpson

Jon Hamm as Cyclone in Top Gun: Maverick

Jon Hamm has made an incredible career of playing hardasses, and there’s a reason for that. I spent a day shooting this video with him in 2015 just as "Mad Men" was coming to a close, and he’s a total man’s man. For one, Hamm is a lot bigger than he seems on-screen. I’m almost 6’1" and his huge frame made me feel scrawny. There’s a scene in "Mad Men" where Don Draper hops on a scale, and despite his lean physique, the nurse looks at the number and says, "My you’re a big one, aren’t you?"

Hamm is hilarious and gave us a great interview, but early morning in the makeup chair the set photographer had some trendy house music blaring. That’s common in photoshoots. Hamm groggily piped up, "Can you turn that off!?" It was way too early for a rave. I wanted to thank him, but was also thrilled to see Draper suddenly materialize for a fantastic "get off my lawn" moment.

Hamm here plays Admiral Simpson, commander of the dangerous combat mission into enemy territory. Really, though, his role is to make Maverick sweat. He’s basically like the chief of police in every buddy cop movie whose entire job is to chew out the rogue detective. It might be a stock character with a predictable outcome, but Hamm is so effectively gruff, that it genuinely feels like he might ground our hero for good before the final dogfight even gets going.

1. Admiral Tom ‘Iceman’ Kazansky

Val Kilmer as Iceman in Top Gun: Maverick

Val Kilmer gives the most moving and perhaps necessarily restrained performance of his career in "Top Gun: Maverick," reviving his iconic role as Tom ‘Iceman’ Kazansky. Kilmer revealed in 2017 that he had been diagnosed with throat cancer and endured a tracheotomy that left him barely able to speak. He has the look of a man who fought for his life, and it gives his excellent turn an air of grave dignity. Iceman here is a dying man also at great pains to actually speak. He doesn’t have much time left and in his reunion with Maverick, he has to type out his thoughts on the monitor of his home computer.

Maverick and Iceman have remained friends these 36 years since the original film, and we glean Tom might be Pete’s only actual friend. Admiral Iceman encourages Maverick to train Goose’s son for a new mission from which he’s not likely to return — despite what that would mean. The two men warmly embrace before they part. It is here that "Top Gun: Maverick" could have gone soft. Instead, the film stays true to who these men really are as Iceman inserts one final taunt: "Who is the better pilot, you or me?" Maverick smiles. He loves his friend but isn’t backing down. "This is a nice moment, let’s not ruin it."