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‘Masters of the Air’ Is Soaring Through the Pop Culture Plane-aissance

‘Top Gun: Maverick,’ ‘Hijack,’ and now a World War II air force drama—TV and film’s plane-aissance is proving that watching stuff set on airplanes is as satisfying for us as it is dangerous for the characters aboard

Apple TV+/Paramount Pictures/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I’m a longtime fan of entertainment that caters to the dads of the world, so it brings me no pleasure to report that fathers everywhere let themselves down over the holidays. On Christmas Day, Michael Mann’s Ferrari raced into theaters. This should’ve been catnip for Dad Cinema lovers: a biopic about legendary automaker Enzo Ferrari, featuring impressive replicas of ’50s-era sports cars ferociously zipping through picturesque Italian roads, as directed by the living legend responsible for Heat. Alas, Ferrari has quickly run out of gas at the box office: As of this writing, the film has grossed roughly one-third of its $95 million production budget. Dads, I’m not mad; I’m just disappointed.

While racing movies don’t have the best track record (no pun intended) when it comes to ticket sales, this is Ferrari we’re talking about: an iconic brand that just so happened to be featured in Ford v Ferrari, a recent Dad Cinema masterpiece that scored a Best Picture nomination in 2020. Frankly, there’s no excuse for our nation’s dads to leave Ferrari hanging out to dry. Who needs to spend holiday time with their loved ones when Adam Driver in old-man prosthetics is explaining how two objects cannot occupy the same point in space at the same moment in time? It’s not too late to tell your family you’re going out for a pack of cigarettes and then head to the nearest theater; if anyone asks, you had car trouble. All kidding aside, the good news is that Ferrari’s lackluster performance is more of an aberration. Over the past two years, Dad Entertainment (Dadertainment?) has been thriving at the multiplex and on television, and the best of the bunch have one thing in common: They’ve taken to the skies.

Dad Entertainment can take many forms, but consider these the four basic food groups that belong in any father’s pop culture diet: dudes driving cars, dudes aboard a ship, dudes on a submarine, and dudes flying planes. All of these subgenres are responsible for worthy entries in the Dad Cinema canon—the Mad Max franchise, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, The Hunt for Red October—but 2022 might’ve blessed us with the greatest plane movie of them all: Top Gun: Maverick. Maverick is as note-perfect as a legacy sequel can get, showing reverence for the original film (and its director, the late Tony Scott) without being overly reliant on nostalgia. Most importantly, Maverick let Tom Cruise do what he does best: risk his life for the public’s entertainment by getting into the cockpit of an actual fighter jet. Maverick was showered with praise upon release, ending up with six Oscar nominations, but its finest non-aerial achievement was becoming the highest-grossing movie of 2022—no small feat at a time when superheroes were still ruling Hollywood.

Maverick’s success alone would be enough to elevate a niche subgenre of Dad Entertainment, but the film has also marked the beginning of what’s been a true pop culture plane-aissance. In November 2022, moviegoers were treated to Devotion, a biopic centered on Navy pilots during the Korean War, starring Maverick’s very own Glen Powell. (Setting aside that both films share an actor, Devotion is serviceably fun in a “We have Top Gun at home” sort of way.) Then, in January 2023, the latest in a long line of Gerard Butler–led, middlebrow action thrillers arrived in the form of Plane, which is nothing if not a master class in branding. Plane follows a commercial airline pilot, Brodie Torrance (Butler), who makes an emergency landing on an island in the Philippines that is overrun with militiamen before our guy causes a different kind of turbulence. Plane feels like it was unearthed from a cheesy ’90s action movie time capsule, which is a compliment of the highest order: A sequel is on the way, and it’s called, I shit you not, Ship. (I’m already demanding a third film to close out the trilogy: Sub.)

More recently, though, the plane-aissance has made its way to television. One of the breakout series from the summer of 2023 was Apple TV+’s Hijack, or, as I like to call it, Duty-Free 24. Every episode of the season depicts one hour aboard a hijacked plane heading to London, as professional business negotiator Sam Nelson (Idris Elba) tries to uncover what the terrorists are after and how he can save himself and his fellow passengers. While Hijack frequently strains credulity, it’s hard to deny its popcorn appeal, especially when Elba’s character is verbally toying with an armed hijacker wearing a Uniqlo hoodie. Besides, Hijack manages to stick the landing—in every sense of the term. But if Hijack is akin to empty-calorie entertainment, the latest addition to the ongoing plane-aissance is damn near a Michelin-starred meal. Folks, strap yourselves in for Masters of the Air.

The nine-part Apple TV+ miniseries, whose producers include Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, is a companion piece to Band of Brothers and The Pacific, which focused on soldiers fighting on the front lines of World War II across Europe and the Pacific theater. Masters of the Air is concerned with the exploits of the U.S. Air Force’s 100th Bomb Group, also known as the Bloody Hundredth: airmen who earned that ominous nickname for leading risky daytime bombing raids over Nazi-occupied territories. And just as Band of Brothers once introduced viewers to up-and-coming actors like Damian Lewis, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Tom Hardy, Andrew Scott, and Simon Pegg, Masters of the Air’s ensemble is a who’s who of Hollywood’s next generation: Austin “Elvis” Butler, Barry “Saltburn” Keoghan, Callum “Boy in Boat” Turner, and Ncuti “New Doctor Who” Gatwa. Masters of the Air even has its own nepo baby squadron, courtesy of Raff Law (Jude Law’s son), Nikolai Kinski (Klaus Kinski’s son), and Sawyer Spielberg (do I really have to say?).

Masters of the Air initially homes in on the relationship between Gale “Buck” Cleven (Butler) and John “Bucky” Egan (Turner), hotshot pilots who were best friends even before joining up with the Bloody Hundredth. (Yes, the near-identical nicknames of the characters are confusing as hell.) The confidence and swagger these pilots exude at the start of the series—Bucky is dismayed at being briefly promoted to a desk job—belie just how harrowing these missions are. The members of the Bloody Hundredth piloted B-17 Flying Fortresses: hulking, impressive feats of engineering that could drop a shitload (real military term) of bombs. The downside of the B-17s was that they were practically sitting ducks for enemy fighters without the cover of darkness—imagine an 18-wheeler trying to outrun a bunch of muscle cars. In that respect, the aerial combat depicted in Masters of the Air is not unlike the animal kingdom: Any B-17s that fell out of formation were swiftly preyed upon by the enemy.

A movie like Maverick certainly doesn’t dismiss the dangers of what its pilots were facing—many characters flirted with death in the cockpit—but Masters of the Air takes it to another level. Several unlucky souls get their limbs blown off amid enemy fire; one gunman tries fixing a jammed magazine and gets half the skin from his hand peeled off on account of the subzero temperatures at high altitudes. At every turn, Masters of the Air reminds us that what was asked of these men was pure nightmare fuel, in which surviving every mission felt like a roll of the dice. (The group’s real-life reputation was such that, when one pilot was assigned to the unit, he sobbed while telling a companion, “I haven’t got a chance.”)

While Masters of the Air refuses to shy away from the horrors of war, the series still finds plenty of time for wholesome Dad TV touchstones. The camaraderie between the airmen is genuinely endearing, while approximately 10 percent of the show’s running time is devoted to the minutiae of plane takeoffs and landings: an oddly soothing experience that is the closest thing there is to dad ASMR. There is also an old-school sensibility to Masters of the Air that is most pronounced in the opening title sequence, during which sweeping orchestral music plays over clips from the series and Butler is bathed in light like a movie star from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Don’t ask me how many times I’ve saluted the credits in my living room (nine; one for each episode).

If there’s an issue with Masters of the Air, it’s that it takes the “dudes rock” ethos a little too far in moments when the series could’ve spread its narrative wings. There are few—if any—female characters to write home about, which is a shame because the series did cast some real talents on the margins: Cold War’s Joanna Kulig, in particular, is completely wasted as Bucky’s one-night stand during a weekend getaway in London. (Look no further than Penélope Cruz’s electric, Oscar-worthy performance in Ferrari to see how a compelling supporting player can elevate a good piece of Dad Entertainment into a great one.)

Despite those drawbacks, Masters of the Air more than delivers what you’d expect from its title. Aerial combat has never looked so absorbing on the small screen—Apple reportedly spent north of $200 million to produce the series, and it makes every cent of it count. Between the blockbuster thrills of Maverick and Masters of the Air, it’s hard to imagine that the plane-aissance will soar any higher, especially when there aren’t any successors on the immediate horizon. (Plane’s sequel will be set on a boat; Elba is open to making more Hijack as long as it doesn’t involve, uh, hijacking, which might complicate matters.) So if Masters of the Air spells the end of a monumental period for planes in pop culture, it’s been one hell of a ride—a glut of entertainment that will keep the dads of the world sated for years to come. And if the plane-aissance has taught me anything, it’s that we should always clap when the plane lands.