Into the Danger Zone: TOP GUN As a Deconstruction of Toxic Masculinity
Updated: Jun 7
I haven't had a chance to see TOP GUN: MAVERICK yet (Tuesday, I think). But inspired by my excitement for it, I want to share some thoughts on the original TOP GUN, which was written by Jim Cash and Jack Epps, Jr. and directed by Tony Scott.
For one, TOP GUN's script is tight and nearly perfectly constructed. For another, it’s beautifully shot and edited. And another, it’s a hell of a thrill ride. But I think what makes the film truly great is something not discussed enough.
For most of my time working in film and television, I have heard fellow filmmakers refer to TOP GUN as a hyper-masculine film. Even toxically so. But the thing is, it’s not. Ironically, it’s a vociferous deconstruction of the very hyper-masculine culture people sometimes mistake it for. Consider Tom Cruise's hotshot pilot Maverick, who is not TOP GUN's hero when we meet him. He’s our protagonist, but he’s a villain from the POV of his peers.
Maverick is a tragic villain, sure, sad back story and all, but the reason he’s so unpopular is because he is a threat to the good guys in the story. The other pilots, led by Val Kilmer's Iceman, are afraid of him. He’ll get them killed. They keep him at arm’s length, never embracing or trusting him, because he believes he can go it alone, the rules somehow don’t apply to him, that his exceptionalism will also excuse him.
Maverick’s arc, which hits its low point when Goose (Anthony Edwards) is killed, is to redeem himself. The bad guy must become the good guy if he is to become a true hero for the ages. He is supported in this journey by a legion of men who only want to see him succeed, including his mentor.
As for the toxic masculinity the film deconstructs, consider that, for all the bravado the pilots seem to radiate, they spend almost no time on screen actually competing with each other despite the (fictional) “Top Gun” competition at the center of the film.
These pilots also waste only a couple of comments on anything that one could call “locker room talk” or offensive. Locker rooms in TOP GUN are instead used to offer emotional support and confront recklessness that endangers the group. You're meant to believe every other pilot in TOP GUN is noble.
Many also toss around the term “homoerotic” to describe TOP GUN, inevitably citing the infamous volleyball scene. Narratives about the military have historically radiated this so-called homoeroticism, given the intimate relationships men develop with each other in war.
But is this homoeroticism or actually men, straight and queer, developing deep, meaningful relationships with each other that we, as a wider culture, cannot accept as emotionally healthy and free of the very toxic masculinity we spend so much time denouncing today?
In the case of TOP GUN, while it certain feels homoerotic – as much because of the content as how we’ve been engineered to perceive male intimacy, as I just described – I think that "homoeroticism" is actually the result of a director shooting a film for the female gaze. Rewatch those locker room scenes. Rewatch the volleyball scenes. And ask yourself if these half-naked, ripped men glistening like Greek gods are there for the entertainment of the straight men in the audience…or women’s (and gay men’s)?
Well, not Anthony Edwards apparently...
Of course, attraction and eroticism confuses gender lines, including for straight people. This analysis is not meant to dismiss the complexities of sexual orientation and how anyone enjoys other human beings. TOP GUN isn’t a "movie for MACHO men", is my point.
TOP GUN is a film made to confront toxic masculinity, which both men and women have reacted to over the decades. It’s also meant to provide a lot of eye candy, which both men and women have enjoyed. Unfortunately, I think the sugar has too often distracted from the substance.