Top Gun: Maverick does not shy away from allusions to Top Gun. It literally starts in the exact same way as the original: shots of a Navy aircraft carrier deck operating as “Danger Zone” plays. There are frequent flashbacks to the original movie. As Goose’s son Rooster, Miles Teller spends two hours doing what is essentially a direct impression of Anthony Edwards. Jennifer Connelly’s character is the “admiral’s daughter” briefly referenced in the original as a past fling of Tom Cruise’s Maverick. Mav even spends some time behind the controls of an F-14—the plane he flew in the original movie, long made obsolete by faster, more destructive planes.
But all of these allusions are much more subtle than Maverick’s homage to Top Gun’s iconic volleyball scene. In the 1986 film, Maverick and Goose take a quick break from the stresses of Top Gun training to face off against their bitter rivals Iceman and Slider in a stunningly intense and stunningly shirtless game of beach volleyball. Everybody gets unbelievably sweaty, to the point where you grow concerned about their exocrine glands. (Although it makes sense for Maverick, who is wearing jeans on the beach.) The gallons of sweat, combined with some sort of oil, allows their muscles to glisten in the San Diego sun as Kenny Loggins sings about “bodies working overtime” when you go “man against man.” It’s 90 seconds of objectifying the male body, sneakily dropped into a two-hour celebration of the United States military.
When a Top Gun sequel was announced, fans clamored for many things—but the one in highest demand was obvious: more shirtless, dude-on-dude action. And don’t fear, Top Gun: Maverick answered the call. Maverick, who is assigned to train pilots for a secret attack against a conspicuously unnamed foreign enemy, takes his students to the beach at sunset for a game of what he calls “Dogfight Football.” It’s a variant on football in which “you play offense and defense at the same time.” The rules are never explained. The rules may not exist. The rules do not matter. What matters is that everybody is jacked and alarmingly sweaty. (The scene hasn’t been uploaded to YouTube yet, but you can see large swaths of it in the music video for its accompanying song, “I’m Not Worried” by OneRepublic.)
It’s not clear who wins the game of dogfight football—when questioned, Maverick says the teams stopped keeping score early on, adding some credence to the idea that the sport is a completely lawless excuse to get everyone’s tops off. But who wins the battle between Top Gun’s iconic volleyball scene and its spiritual successor? Let’s take a look at each scene, break them down into categories, and award bottles of coconut oil to the scene that prevails in each.
“Dogfight Football” seems to make no sense. Playing offense and defense simultaneously eliminates many of the key concepts of football. How can there be first downs when both teams are trying to move the ball in opposite directions? If I had to guess, I’d say the combination of playing offense and defense at the same time means that a touchdown is scored by both teams on almost every play, and you get a point if you can score while stopping your opponent from scoring. But I’m probably thinking too hard about this.
According to USA Today, the game was choreographed with assistance from longtime NFL backup quarterback Matt Moore, who was out of the league when the movie started filming in 2018 (but later won a Super Bowl as a third-stringer with the Chiefs in 2020). I assume he was mainly there to teach actors how to throw a football without looking bad on camera, which can be a problem sometimes. However, I also feel like there was far too much passing for Navy football. Run the triple option, Maverick!
On the other end of the spectrum, the volleyball featured in the original Top Gun is much more straightforward—just a standard two-on-two beach volleyball game. And while the Maverick scene sought out NFL assistance, the Top Gun volleyball scene has been criticized by professional beach volleyball players and notably features a moment that asks viewers to totally suspend disbelief: At several points in the game, Tom Cruise elevates and slams down massive spikes. Tom Cruise is 5-foot-7. And I’ll repeat: Maverick is wearing jeans.
The Maverick football game is much tougher to understand than the Top Gun volleyball game, but I find it more believable than the original. I can see Tom Cruise using his need for speed to run past his younger students, but I absolutely do not buy him skying for spikes. The first round of coconut oil goes to Maverick.
The Maverick beach football game is played on an actual beach—specifically the one in front of the bar owned by Jennifer Connelly’s character. The sun is low, there are mountains in the background, and the waves are crashing. It’s much prettier than the volleyball court in Top Gun, which is surrounded by bleachers and looks strangely dirty.
But the volleyball scene had something the Maverick game didn’t: an audience. Dozens of people were sitting on metal bleachers in the scalding San Diego sun watching four naval aviators play shirtless beach volleyball. Who are they? Are they fellow Top Gun students curious to see whether the rivalry between Mav and Iceman extends to the court? Are they in the Navy at all? Are they just passionate supporters of amateur beach volleyball? You’d think that maybe they were waiting to play—but they seem totally fine with Mav and Iceman playing multiple games. Meanwhile, nobody cared who won dogfight football—the only spectators are Connelly and Jon Hamm, who shows up to question the entire concept of Dogfight Football. The oil goes to the original.
I’m going to speak some hard truths: While the Top Gun volleyball scene may have reached iconic status through the decades, it’s only 75 percent shirtless. Goose keeps his top on. Anthony Edwards could’ve gone straight into the DadBod Hall of Fame, but nope. He had to keep the sleeveless tee.
Maverick doesn’t make this mistake. All of the participants in the beach football game are shirtless, except for Monica Barbaro’s character Phoenix, who obviously has to keep her bikini top on. The USA Today article details how the actors knew the date the scene would be filmed and worked out excessively to ensure they’d have their best beach bods for the camera. That sort of preparation clearly paid off. I wasn’t sure it was possible, but the Maverick scene surpasses the original scene in terms of oiliness.
Kids, gather round, and let me tell you about something ridiculous and unwieldy that people from dumb older generations used to do. Nowadays, you can listen to any song you want at any time for free, but back in the day, if you wanted to hear a song, you had to own a physical copy of it or simply hope to hear it on the radio. And so movies would often feature unreleased songs from popular artists so that people watching the movie would think, “I want to hear the songs from this movie again!” and then go to a music store to buy the movie’s “soundtrack”—an album with all the songs from the movie. Often these soundtracks were not great listening experiences, since they featured songs that weren’t good enough to make it on bands’ actual albums and weak filler songs that weren’t in the movie. But these compilation albums of movie-music often outsold actual music-first projects created by musicians. For example: The Top Gun soundtrack, an all-time classic of the genre, sold 9 million copies and topped the Billboard album chart. After going to a theater and getting hot and bothered watching Tom Cruise have sex to “Take My Breath Away,” you simply had to go to a store and spend $19.99 to relive that experience in your car.
But in terms of Top Gun mythology, the quintessential movie soundtrack song is not “Take My Breath Away” or “Danger Zone”—it’s “Playing With the Boys,” the Kenny Loggins song that scores the beach volleyball scene. The movie already had its sex song and plenty of dogfight music, but it needed a song for the scene when Tom Cruise plays with the boys. So somebody called up Loggins and said, “Hey, can you write us a song that captures the vibe of playing with boys?” And Loggins came through with a drum-machine bop that has lyrics like:
It’s a strange combination
Knock knock knockin on wood
Bodies working overtime
It’s man against man
And all that ever matters is, baby, who’s ahead in the game
Maverick, though, isn’t trying to sell 9 million copies of its soundtrack, so there’s no need for a ton of new music in the movie. It opens with “Danger Zone” and implies that dozens of pilots born sometime in the 1990s would lose their minds over a piano rendition of “Great Balls of Fire,” a song that came out in 1957. There is a new Lady Gaga song at the end of the movie, but it’s no “Shallow.” The counterpart to “Playing With the Boys,” meanwhile, is “I Ain’t Worried,” which plays while the football game is going on. There is a whistling solo in it. Kenny Loggins would never.
Not only does this song fail to specifically have lyrics pertaining to boys and/or playing, I would argue that it doesn’t even capture the general vibe of boys playing. The original wins this one in a landslide.
In the original volleyball scene, Maverick and Goose repeatedly break out this celebratory up-high-down-low double-five, occasionally improvising with an additional butt slap:
On the other side of the net, Iceman’s back-seater Slider gets off some of the wildest flexes in sports history. Slider was played by Rick Rossovich, who, if I’m understanding Eastern European patronymic naming traditions properly, is Rick Ross’s son. Different physiques, though:
Maverick, meanwhile, goes more elaborate, with Hangman (Glen Powell) busting out an NFL-style choreographed touchdown celebration, biting the cap off a fake grenade and blowing everybody up:
First of all: grenades? I feel like there’s no opportunity for naval aviators to use grenades. Secondly, Powell said he specifically organized this celebration in hopes of creating an “iconic moment,” which is already a mistake—you don’t manufacture iconic moments, they just happen. The Goose-Mav double-five felt organic, so the coconut oil goes to Top Gun.
The Plot Development
You thought these shirtless sports scenes were gratuitous?! How dare you! The only reason these guys were forced to get half-naked and glisten in the sun is because doing so was critical to the stories told in both movies. In Maverick, the football game is meant to bring everybody together. These pilots have only a few weeks to complete a preposterously complicated mission to defeat their (conspicuously unnamed) enemy. When Cyclone (Hamm) questions Maverick’s decision to skip a day of training to fool around with a football, Maverick points at the field as everybody is celebrating together. “You said I had to create a team, sir,” Maverick says. “There’s your team.”
But I’m not buying it. How did splitting his pilots into two teams unify them? Wouldn’t the inherent nature of competition have actually deepened some of the existing rivalries—and wouldn’t having them play the most complicated game in sports history create new rifts as teammates failed to adjust to a sport with no rules or logic? How did nobody flip out on a teammate for allowing yet another touchdown because they weren’t sure whether they were supposed to play offense or defense?
The Top Gun volleyball scene is much less confusing. It highlights the natural camaraderie between Goose and Maverick and the rivalry between Mav and Iceman. But it also captures Maverick’s attempts to balance his mission and career with his budding romance. He keeps checking his watch during the game before hastily exiting to make sweet 1980s love to Charlie. The original Top Gun scene really made sense as a moment in the movie, even if Maverick’s choice of jeans did not. Like many other parts of Maverick, the dogfight football scene is a blatant attempt to recreate that magic. And while a recreation of the Top Gun volleyball scene checks a lot of boxes and captures more abs than previously thought possible, it can’t beat the original.