Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness grossed an impressive $185 million domestically in its opening weekend, and while this is great news for Disney, it might not register as a major development for everyone else. If there’s uncertainty in Hollywood about a film’s commercial prospects in a post-pandemic landscape, it doesn’t apply to superhero blockbusters, which have continued their box office dominance thanks to the most loyal moviegoing audience: young men. The willingness of fellas under the age of 30 to show up to multiplexes means that Morbius, a film so unbelievably bad that people should be paid to sit through it, is still the 10th-highest-grossing movie of the year so far.
Ultimately, theater chains care only about how many tickets are sold—and superhero movies are the most reliable way to put butts in seats these days. But this box office resurgence in the age of COVID has largely ignored another essential dude demographic: dads. The beloved genre of Dad Cinema™ has tragically faltered to the extent that one of the latest projects from Ridley Scott, a filmmaker who has made a career out of appealing to middle-aged men, bombed at the box office. (Like a savvy politician, Sir Ridley didn’t dare insult his base, blaming The Last Duel’s underwhelming performance on “millennians” who don’t want to go to the movies.) Even before the pandemic, major studios were favoring superhero movies so much that Dad Cinema was becoming an increasingly dying breed. In a world of Avengers and Jokers, a worthy dad blockbuster like 2019’s Ford v Ferrari proved to be the exception to the rule.
The future of Dad Cinema has essentially reached DEFCON 3. This treasured film category needs a savior, and our nation’s finest fathers need a compelling reason to head to their local theater instead of settling in for Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World on TNT for the thousandth time. Perhaps what they’re craving is a chance to reenter the Danger Zone.
After years of delays brought on by COVID, the long-awaited Top Gun sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, arrives in theaters on Memorial Day weekend. The original film, directed by the great Tony Scott—Ridley’s late brother, another auteur whose projects were made with dads firmly in mind—was a glistening ode to the ’80s. There was Kenny Loggins, enough aviator sunglasses to fill a Brink’s truck, homoerotic beach sports, and of course, kickass fighter jet sequences that precipitated a genuine increase in Naval Academy applications. Who needs substance when a blockbuster has such an abundance of style? Don’t worry, I’ll melodramatically use both my hands to check the time while playing beach volleyball in jeans until you come up with an answer:
The fact that Top Gun was a true byproduct of its era—it’s not the best ’80s movie, but it might be the most ’80s movie—made it a curious candidate for a sequel. But the reason Top Gun is coming back is right there lathered in baby oil. In the decades after Top Gun’s release, Tom Cruise’s profile has grown enough that my guy has his own gravitational pull. At a time when studios believe the best way to sell a blockbuster is with preestablished IP, Cruise endures as one of Hollywood’s last great movie stars. And as he approaches 60(!!), Cruise’s calling card is finding new ways to endanger himself for our entertainment (see: actually jumping out of an airplane in the last Mission: Impossible).
With all the technological advancements since the first movie came out, Maverick could have easily coasted on convincing special effects for its aerial sequences. But that’s not Cruise’s M.O., and if he berates a film crew for not adhering to COVID safety protocols, I can’t imagine what he’d do to a studio executive for suggesting they CGI their way through a life-threatening situation. Instead, what makes Maverick such a tantalizing blockbuster is knowing that Cruise and director Joseph Kosinski are committed to making every fighter jet sequence as authentic as possible—hell, the movie was supposed to come out in 2019 before its release was pushed back to make sure all the complex aerial scenes lived up to the hype. Here’s a visual demonstration of what happens when you tell a dad that he can’t watch the Top Gun sequel yet because Cruise and Co. don’t think it looks badass enough:
There’s a plot to Maverick, not that it matters much. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Cruise) is one of the Navy’s most decorated pilots, but despite having enough experience to earn an advancement in rank or simply retire, he’s still in it for the thrills. Case in point: Maverick opens the film risking life and limb to push an experimental aircraft to hypersonic speeds. Unfortunately, there’s another extremely vague international situation that requires Maverick to train a special group of Top Gun graduates—the best of the best of the best—so they can destroy a uranium enrichment plant in an unspecified foreign country. One of those graduates happens to be Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), who has a rocky relationship with Maverick. (Maybe it has something to do with his dad, Goose, dying during a training exercise in the original Top Gun, which has haunted Maverick ever since.)
The funny thing about Maverick is how it mirrors Cruise’s character arcs in other blockbusters: the notion that he’s part of the old guard, and should be stepping aside for a new generation of adrenaline junkies. (I mean, the dude is almost 60.) But much like when Paramount Pictures tried handing the reins of the Mission: Impossible franchise to Jeremy Renner before Cruise responded by scaling the Burj Khalifa, all the Top Gun graduates can do is tip their cap to a living legend. (As far as real-life parallels, Maverick is basically Chuck Yeager.)
The mission at the heart of the film requires the pilots to fly at an extremely low altitude to avoid radar detection while maintaining a blistering pace—essentially, it’s the Naval equivalent of the Death Star trench run. The pilots repeatedly fail the mission test before Maverick goes full DIY, and the results are breathtaking. Again, Cruise is really sitting in a fighter jet and pulling Gs, and in lieu of dialogue, we hear Maverick grunt with every sharp turn from the aircraft. It’s hard to tell where Maverick’s fictional escapades end and Cruise’s real-life daredevil routine begins—was all the grunting even in the script?—and that’s precisely the point. You can’t separate the two, and that’s the greatest possible endorsement of the film: It’s filled with the kind of high-octane thrills that only Cruise delivers, and he’s supported by a capable group of actors (Teller, Glen Powell, Jay Ellis, Danny Ramirez, Monica Barbaro, Lewis Pullman) who keep up with him—even if it meant vomiting a ton in the cockpit during flight training.
Cruise is among Hollywood’s biggest supporters of the theatrical experience, and Paramount has responded by reportedly giving Maverick an exclusive 120-day window, which is an astonishingly long leash in the current landscape. The news may as well double as a rallying cry for the dads of the world. Maverick is not the type of movie you wait around for until it’s on cable: It’s an adrenaline-pumping event worth getting off the La-Z-Boy to experience. We need to cherish movies like Maverick while we can. Some of Hollywood’s finest action stars—Cruise, Keanu Reeves, Milla Jovovich, Charlize Theron—don’t have much more time to execute death-defying stunts while no heirs apparent wait in the wings. (Meanwhile, international stars like Iko Uwais have been failed by American productions that don’t know how to maximize their talents.) Even Tom Cruise will lose to Father Time eventually, though he won’t go out without a fight.
While the Marvel Cinematic Universe can casually bank on releasing films that generate nine-digit opening weekends, dad blockbusters are few and far between. If we want more terrific entries in the Dad Cinema canon, Maverick needs the full support of its core audience. I’ve tried crunching the numbers, but apparently the U.S. Census Bureau does not have this type of information in its database.
Oh well. I’m going to guess there’s a lot of them. And every single dad—past, present, dudes who are expecting to be dads in the near future—should check out Maverick, if not for the sanctity of ensuring Dad Cinema doesn’t fade away, then for experiencing a blockbuster that surpasses its predecessor in every respect. (Minus the homoeroticism.) The Ken Burns documentary can wait; you have only 120 days to let Top Gun: Maverick take your breath away on the biggest possible screen.
Editor’s note: The writer of this blog is 29 years old and won’t shut up about the nonfiction book he read last summer about NASA’s Apollo 8 mission.