[This story contains spoilers for Top Gun: Maverick.]
Joseph Kosinski’s Top Gun: Maverick continues to break record after record, much like its titular character. The Top Gun sequel has now passed Avengers: Infinity War to become the sixth biggest domestic film of all time, and it currently ranks twelfth on the all-time worldwide box office list. It’s a staggering achievement, to say the least, for a sequel to Tony Scott’s 36-year-old film, especially since it doesn’t fit the profile of most record breakers today.
Naturally, when much of the population unites over a piece of pop culture like Maverick, fan theories are bound to emerge, and the leader of the pack revolved around the film’s opening sequence featuring the Darkstar hypersonic plane. The theory put forth the idea that Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) died after he eclipsed Mach 10 speed, making the rest of the movie a death dream. When asked if he’d like to shoot down this interpretation, Kosinski refused to do so.
“Movies are meant to be interpreted in a variety of ways, and I love it when people read different meanings into it. So I love hearing that theory, and certainly, there’s a mythic kind of element to the story that I think lends itself to that sort of interpretation, based on who Maverick is and what he represents and the fact that he’s kind of going through this rite of passage at a different phase of his life,” Kosinski tells The Hollywood Reporter during a recent press day for the film’s imminent digital release.
The director is also reminiscing about showing Val Kilmer the now-beloved Iceman-Maverick reunion scene for the first time.
“So that was one scene I wanted [Val Kilmer] to see, and obviously, we were all a little nervous showing it to him just because we really wanted him to like it. But his response was beautiful. He was so happy and so moved by it that it made us all feel really good and that maybe we had gotten it right,” Kosinski recalls.
In a recent conversation with THR, Kosinski also addresses whether there’s foreshadowing in the “Great Balls of Fire” scene.
Congratulations on miracle number one and miracle number $1.4 billion.
(Laughs.) Thank you very much. I appreciate that.
Despite living in a time with rampant distrust and disagreement, the one thing everyone has agreed on recently is the virtue of Top Gun: Maverick. So why do you think Maverick became that rare exception?
Well, we made the film to be enjoyed on the big screen, in the best theater you can find, and we finally were at a time where people felt comfortable going back to the theater to rediscover that experience that we all missed for a couple years. So I think that had a lot to do with it. The story also resonated with people. They got to see Tom come back to the role of Maverick after 35 years, and that was a real thrill for people. So we just wanted to make an old-school movie. We shot it in an old-school way with real high-tech gear, and I think people really felt all the effort that went into shooting a practical movie. The feedback I kept getting from people was that they were gripping the edge of their seat while watching this. So it’s one of those things where you really appreciate the power of practical filmmaking as you’re being told a story.
The bar scene serves many purposes, and I believe that one of them is to establish straight away that Rooster (Miles Teller) is a better leader than Hangman (Glen Powell). When we meet Hangman, he’s competing with his best friend, Coyote (Greg Tarzan Davis), at darts and pool, and he’s trash talking the other pilots. When Rooster arrives, he’s greeted warmly by everyone but Hangman, and then he unites the bar through “Great Ball of Fire.” And the pilots singing directly around Rooster — Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), Bob (Lewis Pullman), Payback (Jay Ellis) and Fanboy (Danny Ramirez) — were all the pilots chosen for the mission. They were the only pilots you showed during Rooster’s performance of the song. Hangman, Coyote and the other patches were not shown at all. So were you actually foreshadowing the final team during “Great Balls of Fire”?
I think you’re definitely onto something there. Maverick needed to choose a wingman for that final mission, someone that he could count on, someone that would come back for him, as Rooster does in the third act. He goes back for Maverick despite everything and everyone telling him not to. So that’s what Maverick was looking for in that final mission. Hangman is an incredible pilot, but he still had a few lessons to learn over the course of this film. And of course, he comes through in the end as well, in a spectacular way. Hangman had some growing up to do, a little maturing to do as a pilot, and he comes through at the end of the movie, having gone through that arc and learning his lesson. So I think it shows that Maverick chose the right guy for the final mission, and in some ways, Rooster inherited a lot of those qualities from his father. And Maverick saw that in him.
I’m sure you’ve heard the popular theory that Maverick died in the opening Darkstar sequence, making the rest of the movie a death dream. Would you like to throw cold water on this interpretation?
(Laughs.) No, movies are meant to be interpreted in a variety of ways, and I love it when people read different meanings into it. So I love hearing that theory, and certainly, there’s a mythic kind of element to the story that I think lends itself to that sort of interpretation, based on who Maverick is and what he represents and the fact that he’s kind of going through this rite of passage at a different phase of his life. So I like that theory. Movies are things that are meant to be interpreted in your own way and based on how you see the world and the experiences that you’ve had. So I will not throw cold water on that. It’s a really cool interpretation of the story.
Val Kilmer’s scene will be celebrated for generations to come. It’s just magical. Do you remember the first time you showed the finished scene to Tom and Val?
Obviously, Tom was involved throughout the editorial process in kind of shaping that scene and building that scene. So there was never really a moment of showing him the final. He was kind of there as it evolved, and he was obviously a key part of it. But I do remember showing it to Val for the first time. That’s a very distinct memory because he came in to watch parts of the film. So that was one scene I wanted him to see, and obviously, we were all a little nervous showing it to him just because we really wanted him to like it. But his response was beautiful. He was so happy and so moved by it that it made us all feel really good and that maybe we had gotten it right.
Similar to Stinger (James Tolkan) in the original film, Ed Harris’ character, Hammer, rips into Maverick before sending him back to TOPGUN. So just out of curiosity, did you ever consider a bookend to show Hammer’s response to Maverick’s latest exploits, much like Stinger at the end of the first one?
You know, we never considered that. You’re the first person to bring that up. But it was a dream to be able to get to work with Ed Harris and have him play that role at the beginning of the film. When it came to trying to find an actor who could dress down Maverick, having the guy who played John Glenn in The Right Stuff was kind of a dream, and thank God he said yes. He just came in and absolutely crushed that role in the way that we all hoped he would. So I think he served his purpose in the film and helped move Maverick’s arc along. I don’t think we ever thought it was necessary to bring him back at the end.
I can’t remember the last time a movie made $1.4 billion and didn’t get a follow-up movie. So has Paramount already sent a convoy of Brink’s trucks to your house? Do lavish gifts show up on the hour, in hopes that you’ll come up with another idea?
(Laughs.) No, I think if another movie were to happen, it would happen very much in the same way that this one did, which is coming up with a story for Maverick that absolutely has to be told. We’re all enjoying the release of this movie because it was such a long journey. It was five years for me and 35 years for Jerry [Bruckheimer] and Tom. So we’re all just enjoying the response that this film’s gotten. And maybe down the road, if we come up with a story that feels like it absolutely has to happen, then maybe it will, but right now, I think we’re all just enjoying the relief of getting this one out the door.
Well, Joe, congratulations once again on such a historic feat. The CinemaCon screening was easily the best day I’ve had since March 2020, so thank you for making that possible.
I really appreciate that. I was there that day, too, and it was certainly a day I’ll never forget.
Top Gun: Maverick is in theaters now and on digital Aug. 23rd. This interview was edited for length and clarity.