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‘Top Gun: Maverick’ Needed Iceman. And Val Kilmer Needed Tom Cruise.

Kilmer’s inclusion in the blockbuster sequel shows that the franchise’s primary rivals are affected by something much stronger than g-forces these days: time.

Paramount/Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Spoiler warning

With all its roaring rumbles, booming blasts, and wild whooshes, Top Gun: Maverick is a movie with the volume turned up so high you can feel it. And yet it is perhaps the film’s lowest-decibel scene that comes in particularly loud and clear. There is no volleyball game or dogfighting involved when two old Naval contemporaries—a decorated admiral nicknamed Iceman and a maverick called Maverick—get together at a Southern California manse about a third of the way through the new blockbuster sequel. There is also scant trace of the iconic top-dog cockiness that first distinguished both pilots, played by Val Kilmer and Tom Cruise, respectively, in the original 1986 Top Gun film.

Instead, this scene begins with a hushed conversation between Maverick and Iceman’s wife, in which she prepares him to see her husband who’s suffering from an unnamed condition. “Even speaking is painful,” she says. “It’s come back?” Maverick asks, helplessly. She responds, “There’s nothing else we can do.”

Soon after, Maverick enters Iceman’s office and asks, “How’s my wingman?” with a forced sunniness that only illuminates his fear. The three words hang in the air, ringing with decades of shared history, but Iceman, who is wearing a thick scarf and typing his words into a computer, isn’t there for pleasantries or nostalgia. His intent quickly flashes up on the monitor: I WANT TO TALK ABOUT WORK.

Iceman has an objective, and that is convincing one of the Navy’s biggest rogues (and a man for whom he has repeatedly and recently professionally vouched) to grow up and become a teacher, a leader, of women and men. Of course, it isn’t quite so simple: Maverick is being asked to prepare these young guns for what could very well be a deadly mission. What’s more, one of them is Miles Teller’s stubborn Rooster, the son of Maverick’s late, great flight partner Goose and a guy whose Naval career Maverick previously attempted to sabotage in hopes of keeping his dead friend’s kid out of harm’s way.

“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 types silently: IT’S TIME TO LET GO.

This is extremely blanket advice, in much the same way that “Christ, what an asshole!” works as a universal caption for every New Yorker cartoon, or that psychics convince you they’re legit by saying things like: “I’m sensing that you are currently trying to make a decision in your life.” Most people out there have things they need to let go of—grudges, preconceived notions, old loves, new vices, that one concert T-shirt. Yet in the film, it is the very advice Maverick sorely needs. He may be a pilot still capable of withstanding crushing forces of gravity at unfathomable speeds, but it is getting more and more difficult for him to out-motorcycle the jetwash of his past. Iceman may not be able to talk out loud the way he once used to, but he also knows he’s one of the only voices that Maverick truly hears.

This quiet interaction—and the clear emotion displayed by two men who previously communicated with one another mostly via scoffs and sneers—enhances both the individual stories of the two characters and hints at a long, rich connection between them. But the scene also underscores that Top Gun: Maverick’s two OG characters represent something else now, something bigger and more powerful than themselves: They are agents of time, that ultimate g-force.

In summer 2013, Val Kilmer went on Larry King Live to talk about a variety of topics—his son’s first kiss, being Betty White’s sole hater, and working alongside Cruise on Top Gun. “I didn’t like him,” Kilmer said. “But it was fun not to like him.” That tension made things fun for audiences, too: Kilmer channeled those IRL feelings into his idiosyncratic teeth-snapping performance as Iceman, while Cruise reciprocated that dislike with toothy relish. Together they produced one of the great rivalries in movie history: stubborn, sweaty, and silly all at once.

In the original Top Gun, Iceman and Maverick spend 110 minutes rolling their eyes, lowering their aviators, and sizing one another up from across a humid locker room, bathing in the narcissism of small differences. The men glisten and glower and smirk; they palm volleyballs in a threatening manner; and they call each other out, with or without punctuating chomps. They are competitors and colleagues. They jockey for position and prestige until the very end. When they do come to an eventual climactic détente, with Iceman finally hollering, “You’re still dangerous … but you can be my wingman anytime,” Maverick’s first word in response is a merry “bullshit.” Old habits, like elite fighter pilots, are hard to break.

In the decades following the release of Top Gun, Maverick and Iceman became shorthand for alpha-male headbutting, and also for grudging respect. In Hot Shots!, the satirical 1991 parody based loosely around Top Gun, a pair of Maverick- and Iceman-esque characters constantly bicker and even stick out their tongues; when they are forced to shake hands, they do so with such swagger and machismo that their appendages begin smoking. In 1994, Quentin Tarantino made a cameo in the indie film Sleep With Me that featured a hectic monologue in which he theorizes about Top Gun’s famous homoerotic undertones. “They’re all hugging and kissing and happy with each other,” his character rambles, “and Ice comes up to Maverick, and he says, ‘Man, you can ride my tail anytime!’” (Narrator: This is not what Ice says.) In 2000’s Meet the Parents, Greg Focker had to endure the indignity of his girlfriend and her ex calling one another Maverick and Iceman during a pool volleyball game; and in a 2006 ad for Bud Light, a different interpretation of the wingman was hailed for “taking one for the team/so your buddy can live the dream.”

In Top Gun: Maverick, however, things are a little bit different. Both Maverick and Iceman have graduated to being the adults in the room—though one has done so in a more by-the-book manner than the other. And they are juxtaposed against a whole new generation: Rooster is Goose’s child, while Hangman, a new character played by Glen Powell, feels like an evolutionary amalgam of both Iceman (the blond hair; the antagonism) and Maverick (the need for speed).

When Maverick stands in front of his pilot pupils and tells them that “time is your greatest enemy,” he is talking about the particulars of their upcoming mission, but he is also talking about himself. When Iceman tells Maverick that IT’S TIME TO LET GO, he is talking about Rooster, but he is also taking stock of his own fading existence. The irony in that conversation, though, is that if either of its actors had taken Iceman’s advice in real life, the scene—and maybe even the sequel—might not exist.

If the men and women selected for the Top Gun naval unit represent, as the first movie says, “the top 1 percent of all naval aviators,” Cruise and Kilmer are definitely part of the top 1 percent (of the top 1 percent) of all navel-gazing actors. Cruise’s trajectory from smiley heartthrob to Scientology synecdoche to headstrong stuntman is well-documented, while Kilmer, buoyed by Top Gun, was at one point a major enough Hollywood entity to don the Batsuit. “Tom is a comrade I respect and admire,” Kilmer wrote in his 2020 memoir, I’m Your Huckleberry, “though as creatures we hail from galaxies far, far away from one another.”

Not long after that 2013 Larry King interview, as Kilmer was in the midst of touring a one-man show he had written about Mark Twain, he was diagnosed with throat cancer. (His long-ago former girlfriend, Cher, was instrumental in ensuring he got appropriate care.) Multiple surgeries left him able to speak only by plugging a tracheostomy tube in his throat, which he often drapes over with scarves, just as his character does in Top Gun: Maverick. After withdrawing for a time from the public eye, Kilmer emerged with both his 2020 book and an autobiographical 2021 Amazon Prime documentary called Val that included ruminations on his health history and countless hours of his own self-shot archival footage dating back to when he was a kid.

A Juilliard-educated actor-nerd who loved capturing his own home videos, Kilmer frequently busted out his latest and greatest camera equipment while hanging around on set or backstage, to varying degrees of disinterest from his costars. At one point in Val, a baby-faced Kevin Bacon shrinks from the camera and says, “That’s real cool, Val,” in the same tone of voice one might use upon encountering, like, a wearer of Snapchat glasses in the wild. In another scene, Kilmer talks about his complete lack of enthusiasm for the role of Iceman at first. “On the page, there was little to the character,” he says.

But decades later, when Kilmer caught wind of a Top Gun sequel in the works, he had no such reservations, knowing immediately that he wanted in, no matter how. “It didn’t matter that the producers didn’t contact me,” Kilmer writes in I‘m Your Huckleberry. “As the Temptations sang in the heyday of Motown soul, ‘Ain’t too proud to beg.’”

The Top Gun: Maverick sequel was, for many years, Cruise’s passion project, his child, his proof of concept for the thesis that what he can do better and more obsessively than just about anyone is make movies, baby, for the big screen. Cruise, who fell in love with flying during the original Top Gun, insisted on not only being behind the controls of supersonic planes this time around (and on devising the vomitous training regimen for his younger costars himself). He also insisted that there was a place for Kilmer in the project. For all the high-flying physical stunts he knew he could pull, Cruise also knew the importance of being emotionally grounded. “I really rallied hard,” Cruise told Entertainment Tonight about casting Kilmer. “Tom was really adamant that if he’s going to make another Top Gun, Val had to be in it,” producer Jerry Bruckheimer told People. In Maverick, it is Iceman’s character who has pulled strings to keep Maverick employed and engaged. In real life, it was the reverse.

Maybe it’s because there are multiple multiverse movies out there at the moment, but there is something about the reunion between Maverick and Iceman in Top Gun: Maverick that feels satisfyingly inescapable, as if the two men were fated to reconvene in some manner, somewhere and somehow, no matter which combination of zigs and zags and bobs and weaves they pulled off along the way. Maybe in some other dimension Maverick is the dying admiral and Iceman becomes the loose cannon; maybe in another simulation they are civilian neighbors in the suburbs menacing one another over a lawn mower.

In this life, both the real one and the meta one being referenced on the Top Gun: Maverick screen, Iceman and Maverick and Kilmer and Cruise are linked in a way that no one else could ever really understand, and they have a loyalty to one another that doesn’t need to be explained. It’s not the kind of thing that’s easy to let go, even if it might be time to.

But that doesn’t mean they can’t also move on. When Powell, who plays the dart-throwing, toothpick-gnawing, speed-limit-ignoring Hangman, was feeling indecisive about whether to join the cast of Top Gun: Maverick, Cruise shared with him a basic vision of what the movie should be. “I remember Tom giving me some advice, or him kind of thinking out loud to a degree,” Powell said in an interview with Indiewire last week. “He said, ‘Look, the first movie was a coming-of-age story. This is a man-facing-his-age story.’” Facing one’s age is easier to do if you don’t get distracted by all the paths you didn’t take to get there.

Near the end of the scene between Iceman and Maverick, Kilmer’s character stops typing and starts speaking. His words are staccato and gruff. He sounds a little bit like he’s communicating over a radio—and his message is similarly urgent and concise. “The Navy needs Maverick,” Iceman says slowly; it literally pains him to say this to his old rival, which is why he knows it’s so important that he does. “The kid needs Maverick. That’s why I fought for you. That’s why you’re still here.” Likewise, Top Gun: Maverick needed Iceman to properly land, and Cruise needed to fight for Kilmer to make it happen. The two old comrades may have hailed from different galaxies, but they shared a common objective and together accomplished their mission. Really, would you expect anything less?