Danger Zone

The Pain and Glory of Top Gun Nostalgia

Thirty-six years later, we haven’t lost that loving feeling. But why?

Nobody should drive while listening to “Danger Zone,” the 1986 Kenny Loggins hit from Top Gun. If you’re behind the wheel and the song comes on, your foot is pretty much required to press the gas, and you’re also somehow suddenly wearing aviators even if you’ve never owned aviators in your life. The power of Top Gun is that loving it isn’t even about watching it. And that’s true of the new film, Top Gun: Maverick, too. Until it’s not.

Thinking about the original Top Gun is weirdly more important than seeing the movie. This makes the release of Top Gun: Maverick, a strange moment for nostalgia. Deep down, we know our love of the flick about fighter pilots has less to do with the movie and more with our feelings about the movie, so should we embrace the sequel or fear it will, as the saying goes, ruin our childhoods?

The existence of the new Top Gun is a little like if somebody told you David Hasselhoff was making a big-screen sequel to Knight Rider. You’d be like, “Oh hell yeah, love that car and leather jacket and theme song. Bring it on!” But then, you’d actually watch an episode of Knight Rider and realize it’s way more fun to think about how rad it was than to devote your time to the experience of watching it. In fairness to the Tony Scott masterpiece — the original 1986 Top Gun — is much better than a random episode of Knight Rider, but the emotional relationship an entire generation has with this movie is similar. We haven’t dissected Top Gun like Ghostbusters or Star Wars. We’ve mostly just pumped our fists at the memory of thinking it was the most awesome thing ever. It’s the ThunderCats of live-action ‘80s cinema nostalgia; the hazy memory is oddly better than the real thing.

Most parents who have young kids right now were probably like five-years-old when Top Gun hit theaters. This means it is very much not a movie you actually saw in 1986 but rather heard about from your cool older cousin or younger uncle. By the time you saw it on VHS, you loved it without knowing why. To paraphrase LCD Soundsystem, Top Gun nostalgia, for a lot of us is borrowed nostalgia.

The first Top Gun is something we think of as timeless because it’s somehow always been an old badass ‘80s movie. Even at the time, it was retro on purpose. The soundtrack kind of proves this to be true: With apologies to Berlin, Cheap Trick, and Gloria Estefan, outside of “Danger Zone,” there’s not a single song there that is remotely cool now. Do you know what song isn’t on the actual soundtrack record? That’s right, it’s the Righteous Brothers' “You’ve Lost that Lovin Feeling” which, in the movie, is famously sung by Goose (Anthony Edwards) and Maverick (Tom Cruise) in a bar while they are (arguably) harassing Charlie (Kelly McGillis).

The track is from 1965, which is a little like Marty McFly singing “Johnny B. Goode,” in Back to the Future. Eighties movies were never really about the ‘80s, but instead, weird nostalgia for a made-up era that didn’t yet exist. Which, is arguable, the era we think about now.

In the new film, Top Gun: Maverick, Tom Cruise’s love interest from the first film, Charlie does not appear, while Tom Cruise, of course, looks basically exactly as he did 36 years ago. McGillis has had a few things to say about that fact publicly, noting that she wasn’t asked to appear in the movie, at all. “I look age-appropriate for what my age is, and that is not what that whole scene is about,” she said. Meg Ryan, who played Goose’s wife Carole, is not in the new movie either. Essentially, Maverick drives home the idea that these movies pretty much are what the other Kenny Loggins Top Gun song says they’re about: playing with the boys. While Monica Barbaro is introduced as a new young, female pilot, the story of Maverick isn’t about growing older and moving on. It’s essentially about what you think it’s about: trying to hold onto the glory days for just a little bit longer.

And it’s here where Maverick differs a bit from the first Top Gun. Like many Hollywood blockbusters, it’s a bit literal. The plot is about the plot but perhaps doesn’t suggest a deeper story. Paradoxically though, Maverick is probably more fun to watch than Top Gun, because the action is freaking amazing, and unlike its progenitor, it’s actually more focused on showing you cool scenes of people flying planes really fast through the danger zone. Basically, because the dogfighting scenes in Maverick are so badass, the Top Gun franchise has finally become, what we always thought it was.

In 1986, Top Gun was about guys hanging out, getting ready to fly planes, talking about flying planes, or thinking about flying planes. Now, those fantasies have been crammed into a new movie, about an old pilot. Twenty years from now, both of these Top Guns will blend into one, creating a dream-like world we can wander into while indulging supersonic fantasies. The danger zone doesn’t exist. The danger zone isn’t real. The danger zone isn't about the danger zone. And that’s how we like it.

Top Gun: Maverick is out in wide release in theaters on May 27, 2022. It’s playing in limited release now.