Two major film sequels came out this year: Top Gun: Maverick and Jurassic World: Dominion. One scraped up 1.5 stars out of 5 from critics and was described as “aggressively okay” and the other was the Top Gun sequel, which boasts a 5-star rating, $1.4 billion (and growing) box office revenues, and heartfelt fan and audience approval.
Hollywood has countless examples of sequels that just couldn’t live up to the original film; the Jurassic Park franchise is perhaps the best example — none of the five sequels have been able to come close to the beloved original, no matter how many fun moments they offered.
So let’s talk a bit about what makes Top Gun: Maverick so exceptional and what it teaches us about sequels.
[WARNING: Light spoilers ahead for Top Gun: Maverick.]
Need feature script coverage! Our professional readers can help!
The reason sequels, prequels, and spin-offs are so enjoyable is because they exist within a universe with known characters and lore. They are a continuation of a journey that audiences already have an investment and interest in. A great sequel capitalizes on that, stays true to the themes that made previous iterations compelling, and winks at fans in an elegant way.
For example, in the original Top Gun, Goose plays Great Balls of Fire in a local dive bar while he and Maverick sing along and Goose’s young son, Rooster, watches. In the Top Gun sequel, Rooster arrives at Top Gun, heads to the local bar with the rest of his pilot class, and sits down at the piano to perform the same song.
Fans of the original recognize the callback and become emotionally connected to the moment and what it means to Maverick and Rooster, who both still feel the grief of losing Goose.
It’s tempting to overdo callbacks in sequels. In the Star Wars franchise, it’s become a type of running gag for characters to intone a variation of Han Solo’s iconic “I have a bad feeling about this” from A New Hope. If it’s done well — or played with, such as cutting off a character before they can finish the line — it serves as an inside joke. If it’s too heavy-handed, it can elicit a groan from audiences.
Know Your Audience
Top Gun became a cult classic — and military recruiting device — because it featured hotshot pilots at the top of their game who took risks that paid off. It featured high-octane thrills, fraternity-like shenanigans, and a chaser of patriotism to make it go down smooth. The romance (and women, honestly) was there but secondary — it’s a film that hits traditional masculinity and power structures hard.
Top Gun: Maverick was elegantly self-aware, allowing its hero to live up to his own reputation (good and bad) while offering him opportunities for growth. He’s still the best of the best, but he can’t be a lone wolf anymore — not in the skies and not when it comes to his personal relationships.
The team of screenwriters set up a high-stakes task that only Maverick could accomplish and gave him room to lead the next generation of pilots while clinching the emotional stakes by throwing Rooster (and his safety) into the mix. The result is compelling as hell and deeply satisfying.
Know Your Product
From the moment the first notes strike, Top Gun audiences are hooked. The original soundtrack and score are unparalleled and Maverick filmmakers used them selectively. The cinematography is unlike anything that’s ever been made before, featuring cameras up in real military cockpits with the actors and it brings the gripping screenplay to life. Watching the film in theaters feels like being on a ride — there is a lot of tension and phenomenal comedic release. In short: the team of creators knew exactly what they wanted to accomplish and they nailed it.
In comparison to Jurassic World: Dominion, which was described by critics as a film that limped its way to the finish line without enough heart, Top Gun: Maverick set out to make an exciting adventure film that carried personal and emotional stakes. The result had me weeping during the credits and on the car ride home, if I can get vulnerable with you. It hits the heart and delivers on every promise it makes, which is as satisfying as a film can get.
You can have commercial and box office success with an unsatisfying film. These days, producers are really looking for pre-existing IP before greenlighting a project. Fans of a franchise will be curious enough to show up for the next project.
But if you want your audience to love your film, the secret is to make the emotional stakes for the characters undeniable. Tom Cruise’s Maverick has a lot to lose in this film — his own life, sure, but more significantly, the lives of his pilots and, even worse, Rooster’s life (not to mention the global threat of nuclear proliferation). Throughout Maverick, we get to enjoy victories, watch meaningful moments with characters, and ride along on a gripping mission with a satisfying ending.
No wonder ticket-buyers keep running back for more.
Shannon Corbeil is a writer, actor, and filmmaker in Los Angeles with recent appearances on SEAL Team and The Rookie. An Air Force veteran, her articles have been published in Business Insider, We Are The Mighty, and Military.com. She has written and produced hundreds of digital videos with millions of views. You can read more about her on her website or come play on Instagram and Twitter!