Movies

Top Gun: Maverick’s Tearjerking Val Kilmer Scene Has a Deeper Subtext

Maverick should listen closely to what Iceman is saying. So should Tom Cruise.

A photo sits framed in an honored place against a wooden wall, in it Val Kilmer as Iceman, his tips still frosted but his face aged. He's in a highly decorated Navy uniform. In front, the silhouette of a figure—presumably Tom Cruise, as Maverick—looks on.
Paramount Pictures

Top Gun: Maverick is cagey about who the unnamed “enemy” its fighter pilots are training to attack might be, but perhaps that’s because, as Tom Cruise’s character explains to his hotshot pupils, “Our greatest enemy is time.” Delayed by the pandemic to land in the year of Cruise’s 60th birthday, the movie often plays like a purposeful metacommentary on its lead’s enduring star power, as affirmed by its record-breaking opening-weekend box office. Warned that he’s “headed for extinction,” that “the future is coming, and you’re not in it,” Maverick is the rare Cruise vehicle to acknowledge his advancing age—he’s been playing characters in their mid-30s for most of the past two decades, with the occasional foray into clones and immortal spirits—but it does so only in order to point out that no matter how old he may be, he’s still got it. Even in the inevitable reprise of the first movie’s iconic volleyball scene, Cruise gives shirtless hunks half his age a run for their money, although the new film’s equivalent set piece seems content to ogle them from a safe distance. (I wondered if Cruise might be the first star with a contractual clause that prevents the movie showing too much of the other actors’ bodies.)

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In the movies as in life, Cruise seems as close to immortal as it gets. Shoot him out of the sky, drop him in the middle of a frozen forest, and he’ll emerge without so much as a scratch on his evenly tanned face. But someone’s got to establish that mortality exists in Maverick’s world, and since losing any of the pilots he’s trained would dim Maverick’s star, that role falls to Mav’s old comrade Iceman. Now Admiral Kazansky, Mav’s rule-following brother in arms has predictably ascended the military’s ranks, now commanding the pilots he once combated in the air. He’s the one who’s brought Maverick back into the fold, over the objections of career military men who think he’s too much of a loose cannon, and he’s the one to whom Maverick turns for advice, at a low point for the character that also turns out to be the movie’s most poignant scene.

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Kilmer’s appearance in Maverick had been public for some time, but I went in wondering how the movie would handle the fact that treatment for throat cancer has left Kilmer unable to speak above a rasp. An awkward cutaway to a framed photo of Iceman in admiral’s garb early on felt like a poor omen, especially to anyone who remembers how oddly The Snowman cut around Kilmer’s health issues in 2017. But the movie lays that to rest when Maverick finally ends up in Iceman’s office, his regal commander’s posture lightened by his first spoken line: “How’s my wingman?”—a callback, as virtually no one seeing Maverick needs reminding, to Kilmer’s last line in the original Top Gun.

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For most of the rest of the scene, Iceman’s dialogue is typed on a computer screen, laconically responding to Maverick’s outpouring of uncertainty about how to ready his pilots for the mission. With three weeks to go, the clock is ticking—there’s that enemy again—and he’s butting heads with Miles Teller’s Rooster, who holds Maverick responsible for the death of his father, Maverick’s former wingman, Goose. Maverick frets that it’s impossible, but Iceman steadies him with a few words typed on his computer screen: There’s still time.

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[Read: What Unnamed “Rogue State” Is the Enemy of Top Gun: Maverick? A Slate Investigation.]

For Maverick, of course, there is. The arc of the movie essentially involves Cruise’s character realizing that he’s not as old as he thinks he is, that he still has something to contribute, not only as a teacher but as a pilot, and that he’ll still have time to sleep with Jennifer Connelly while he’s at it. (The only thing missing from the aging movie star’s vanity checklist is a line where she marvels at his medically unassisted sexual endurance.) This is a movie star who not too long ago was strapping himself to the outside of a plane, so of course he can still fly one. We, who have come to the movie theater to see Cruise in action despite all of his personal weirdness because he’s the last of his kind, already know this. But while 1980s Tom Cruise inherently knew he was the best, 2020s Tom Cruise needs to be reminded of it. When Maverick begs Iceman to let him fly the mission himself, it’s not because he has the best chance of success—although he is the only one who’s been able to fly the virtual training course without virtually crashing—it’s because he’d rather be the one to go down in flames. But Iceman sets him straight, abandoning his keyboard to whisper an affirmation of his singular importance: “The Navy needs Maverick. The kid needs Maverick. …. That’s why you’re still here.”

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The scene underline’s Maverick’s undiminished capabilities, but it’s defined by Iceman’s mortality, and by Kilmer’s dignity and wit. Even when he’s doing no more than pointing to a screen, he’s simultaneously vulnerable and commanding, and when he pulls Maverick back in for one final exchange, the laughter that erupts between them feels so spontaneous that you half-expect Cruise to break character and ask for another take. Kilmer, who is working on regaining his voice with the aid of AI, says he plans to continue acting, so the Maverick scene might not be the career valedictory it seems. But an actor could hardly ask for a better sendoff, or a more tender exploration of his limits. Cruise has been resisting that reckoning for decades, but as he moves into his seventh decade and starts to look beyond the Mission: Impossible movies, he might do well to take another piece of Iceman’s advice: It’s time to let go.

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