TOP GUN: MAVERICK: A Screenwriting MasterClass in How to Introduce Your Protagonist
By the time I got the chance to see TOP GUN: MAVERICK this past week, I’d heard from every direction that it was a great film with a capital G. After its opening sequence, I had no doubt it would be. Let me explain why, which might interest fellow screenwriters and, more broadly, storytellers.
For context, I had one concern when TOP GUN: MAVERICK was announced: If Maverick’s journey in the first film was to go from dangerous self-centered “maverick” his fellow pilots are afraid of to team player who knows how to check his ego for the greater good, where would they take the character in the second film?
I recently discussed Maverick's original arc in a Twitter thread and on my blog. You can read more here: “Into the Danger Zone: TOP GUN As a Deconstruction of Toxic Masculinity”.
TOP GUN: MAVERICK isn’t just a sequel, as no film should ever be. It must re-introduce characters and present new challenges/character arcs. In the case of MAVERICK, it has the added challenge of re-introducing a character after 36 years away from the big screen.
The filmmakers would've no doubt been faced with the following questions about how to start TOP GUN: MAVERICK:
1) Who is Maverick?
2) What did he learn from the first film?
3) Is he still a maverick?
4) What will his character obstacle be 36 years later?
Caution: If you continue reading, there will be SPOILERS.
Question 1: Who is Maverick (Tom Cruise)? He’s a test pilot with the US Navy, a past as a fighter pilot, and, judging by his motorcycle and penchant for riding it sans helmet, a need for dangerous speed. Mission accomplished without dialogue and in an incredibly economical minute or so.
Question 2: What did Maverick learn from the first film? He is immediately faced with a threat to his fellow pilots: they will lose their jobs if he doesn’t selflessly put his life on the line to reach Mach 10 and prevent the US Navy from replacing them with drones.
Question 3) Is Maverick still a maverick? Considering that his decision is to defy orders to protect his fellow pilots – put others first – we can confidently say yes. This demonstrates what he learned from the first film, but also the limits of the lesson.
The limits are demonstrated when Maverick accomplishes his goal, saving his fellow pilots’ futures. Instead of being satisfied with this, he pushes the throttle forward, hits Mach 10.4, and destroys the test plane. Yep, still a Maverick for sure.
Question 4) What will Maverick’s character obstacle be 36 years later? This answer arrives with the film’s inciting incident. He's disciplined by Rear Adm. Cain (Ed Harris), who'd like Maverick to lose his wings. In a twist, Maverick is instead told he's returning to Top Gun to become a teacher.
This is Maverick's obstacle. He’s spent his entire career as a pilot, with no other ambitions. He was previously fired as a teacher for lacking the temperament to educate, in fact. But now, he will be faced with his final challenge: taking what he’s learned and passing it on.
We'll soon discover this role as a teacher will also overlap with his role as the surrogate father of Rooster (Miles Teller), the son of Goose, Maverick’s best friend whose death in the original TOP GUN both still blame Maverick for.
What Maverick lacks as a teacher, he also lacks as a father. This is his chance to fix both.
There you go. Eleven or so very economical minutes into the film, and you know everything you need to know about Maverick. Every moment of action was conceived and executed specifically to dramatize all this backstory and set up Maverick's character arc in TOP GUN: MAVERICK.
Back to me: At this point in TOP GUN: MAVERICK, it was so painfully obvious that the filmmakers were operating at a storytelling level well beyond what most Hollywood films offer these days, I sat back, grinning, utterly confident I'd enjoy every minute of the experience.
And I did enjoy it – loved it is more accurate. I laughed. I cheered. I cried a lot, as did my wife, because we were so caught off-guard by a cinematic experience that manages to be nostalgic, refreshingly new, and brilliantly executed in 2022. TOP GUN: MAVERICK is how sequels, reboots, requels – whatever you call them – should work. The filmmakers make it look so easy here, you're left wondering why it doesn't.
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