The man-child at Mach 2

 
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Vadimmmus—Getty Images

Top Gun: Maverick is approaching a cinema near you at super-sonic speeds (even if these speeds have been slowed by COVID-19). While the film was originally scheduled for a November release, the Delta variant caused some unfortunate delays—slowballing the release of what promises to be a high-octane adventure. Thankfully, the film is unlikely to be delayed once more. With a release date of May 22nd, 2022, Paramount Pictures and director Joseph Kosinski are ready and waiting to provide the long awaited sequel and the return of the titular Top Gun, Maverick. But beyond the return of the fast plans and spectacular stunts Maverick is also poised to bring back affirmations of a personality type that used to be considered a problem. Thirty years on, the hero of the original film returns with fewer chips on his shoulder. The question is, will this older top gun inspire his masculine audience to take up adult responsibility, or simply feel more justified in pursuing their personal “need for speed”?

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Top Gun Mverick Media Pack

It’s impossible to consider the return of Maverick without taking a moment to reflect on the original Top Gun. As an artistic enterprise, it garnered Academy, Golden Globe, Golden Screen and Grammy awards for its soundtrack—who could forget Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone”? As a commercial venture, it robbed the box office, repaying a production budget of $US15 million with $US356 million in ticket sales. But it will probably be best remembered for its cultural contributions. Top Gun convinced a generation that fighter pilots could fly canopy-to-canopy, upside down. It cemented mirrored Aviator sunglasses and patched leather jackets as fashion statements. And oh, so many of its lines have become quips we trade to this day:

“Your ego is writing cheques your body can’t cash.”

The original Top Gun was a bitter-sweet coming of age story. Wildly uncontrollable fighter pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (played by Tom Cruise) attends the “Top Gun” Naval Fighter Weapons School with his radar intercept officer Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards) and rival turned wingman Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer). Maverick wows everyone, survives the death of Goose and ends the film a wiser man. The sequel, Maverick, picks up the story more than 30 years later. Mitchell (still played by the almost ageless Cruise) has built a career out of pushing the envelope as a test and fighter pilot. However, the world is changing. Fifth generation fighter planes and drone technology are making the era of dogfighting a thing of the past. At least, that is how Maverick’s commanders (played by Jon Hamm, Ed Harris and Charles Parnell) see it in the new film:

Rear Admiral: “The end is inevitable, Maverick. Your kind is headed for extinction.”

Maverick: “Maybe so, sir. But not today.”

Maverick returns to the Navy’s Fighter Weapons School to pass on what he knows to a new generation of top guns. There, he confronts a range of sub-plots including international tensions and the arrival of Maverick’s late friend’s son-turned-pilot, Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller). But the title reminds us that this is a story with one man at its centre.

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Top Gun Mverick Media Pack

The reckless Maverick who would “only be happy going Mach 2 with his hair on fire” has become a calm, self-assured legend. He still ticks off his superiors, but that’s no concern. He is, every inch, the man who knows who he is. And somehow this maturity is married with a refusal to progress:

Rear Admiral: “Thirty plus years of service. Combat medals. Citations. Only man to shoot down three enemy planes in the last forty years. Yet, you can’t get a promotion, you won’t retire and despite your best efforts, you refuse to die. You should be at least a two-star admiral by now. Yet, here you are, captain. Why is that?”

Maverick: “It’s one of life’s mysteries, sir.”

Or is it? Maverick’s approach to life looks disturbingly like a jet-powered version of the “Peter Pan Syndrome”. The concept takes its name from the J M Barrie character who lived in “Neverland”—where a child could remain a boy forever. It was popularised through the work of psychoanalyst Dr Dan Kiley. He treated troubled teens who experienced problems accepting adult responsibilities, a condition that could continue well into adulthood. “Peter Pan Syndrome” is not a formal medical condition but it has been used by sociologists like Michael Kimmel to describe the world of immaturity that surrounds many men today:

“[Guyland] is both a stage of life, [an] undefined time span between adolescence and adulthood that can often stretch for a decade or more, and . . . a bunch of places where guys gather to be guys with each other, unhassled by the demands of parents, girlfriends, job, kids and the other nuisances of adult life. In this topsy-turvy, Peter-Pan mindset, young men shirk the responsibilities of adulthood and remain fixated on the trappings of boyhood, while the boys they still are struggle heroically to prove that they are real men despite all evidence to the contrary.”

Kimmel, Kiley and others have noted various symptoms that potentially mark out the man-child. Among other things, they show little interest in pursuing promotion opportunities, they are relationally stunted and rely on others to fulfil the basic tasks of living, and they prefer relationships with younger partners so they can prioritise personal desires over others’ needs. As I mentioned, this syndrome is not a clinical diagnosis, but that hasn’t stopped it becoming a popular touchstone for understanding a generation of men who find it hard to grow up.

Top Gun: Maverick’s key character demonstrates many elements of the “Peter Pan” syndrome. However, playing to his audience, Mitchell’s storyline revises the condition on a grand scale and casts its consequences in a more favourable light. Decades have passed and Maverick has never “left home”, but his home is cool: an aircraft carrier. Maverick may rely on the military to do his everyday chores, but his job is undeniably cool: a fighter pilot. Maverick pursues a younger woman (played by Jennifer Connelly, whose 9 year age gap is closer than many of his other love interests) who has the added advantage of being a single mother, meaning she is the more outwardly serious one in the relationship. But that’s cool too because she owns a bar and has no trouble with him riding his motorbike at dangerous speeds. Maverick is persistently, deliberately underemployed, and even non-plussed about his invitation to return to the Top Gun School to teach.

Vice Admiral: “Your reputation precedes you.”

Maverick: “I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting an invitation back.”

Rear Admiral Marcus Williams: “They’re called orders, Maverick.”

But that is also cool, because his intransigence has been reinterpreted as his integrity. He would rather eschew rank and hold on to his seat in the cockpit. No-one can force him to “grow up”.

What Maverick lauds is actually a side-stepping of staid responsibility for the continuing thrill of youthful adventure; the persistence of boyhood in the face of becoming a man. No doubt the film will contain maturing moments, but as the title may imply Maverick will likely remain just that—a wild card. This derailing of the transition from boy to man flies in the face of time-honoured culture—most societies possess a coming-of-age moment, whether it be the ritualistic scarring of African tribesmen or the acquiring of the right to vote in Australia. Steve Biddulph, author of Raising Boys and The New Manhood, describes it as a shift in allegiances: “Boys care about themselves, men care for other people”. This is also the defining line charted by the Bible.

In the Old Testament, the child behaves irresponsibly but it is the role of the adult to shoulder the task of discipline:

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Alexandr_1958—Getty Images

“You shall teach [my laws] diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deuteronomy 6:7).

And the principle continues in the New Testament. The man who marries is to remember that his life is one of sacrifice for the sake of his wife:

“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25).

In fact, the phrase “as Christ loved the church” is meant to point men to the greatest Man of all, whose sacrifice went as far as the grave to ensure those He loved might not perish but have eternal life. Jesus stands as the ultimate call to a manhood characterised by confronting adult issues, fulfilling responsibilities, sacrificing for the sake of others and accepting your God-given role.

Not that you will find much of that in Top Gun: Maverick. There are moments of sacrifice, certainly, but they are heavily camouflaged by a new range of glasses, leather jackets and bravado. A dazzling series of aeronautical manoeuvres capture the audience’s attention for a superficial vision of manhood. Sadly, one that doesn’t see the need to grow up while it can still hold tight to the tails of youthful experience.

Mark Hadley is a media and cultural critic who lives with his family in Sydney. Please note that discussion of a media product in Signs of the Times does not imply an endorsement or recommendation.