‘Top Gun: Maverick’ and what makes a good legacy sequel

If you had told me at the beginning of the year that one of the best movies of 2022 would be a sequel to Top Gun, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. I like the original Top Gun well enough in a cheesy, product of the 80s kind of way, but it’s certainly not one of the masterpieces of cinema history. But Top Gun: Maverick is objectively a great movie.

The latest in the current trend of legacy sequels, Top Gun: Maverick may have finally cracked the code. It’s a thrill ride from beginning to end with the perfect balance of callbacks to the original while introducing new characters and stories.

If you’re not familiar, legacy sequels are movies that are set and released a decade or more after an original film or franchise. In many ways, a legacy sequel is a soft reboot, giving you connection to what came before while setting up new heroes. Think Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Jurassic World, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Creed, or Blade Runner 2049. They’re built on a strong foundation of nostalgia but with the opportunity to take these stories to new places and fill out the worlds our favorite characters inhabit.

Another major element of legacy sequels is the return of beloved characters and actors from the original work. Tom Cruise returns in Top Gun: Maverick, Sylvester Stallone returns as Rocky in Creed, Sam Neill, Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum return in Jurassic World: Dominion, Jamie Lee Curtis returns in Halloween, and Harrison Ford returns in The Force Awakens, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Blade Runner 2049 (Ford really is the franchise king, isn’t he?). These returning characters often act as mentors to the new faces – one of which is often the child of an original character – that are brought in to lead the franchise.  

So what do we really want from a legacy sequel? Ultimately, we want a good story that brings us back to a world we love. The biggest hurdle legacy sequels have is a proof of concept – what has happened to these characters or this universe in the past 10, 20, or 30 years that makes this a story worth telling? Or what new perspective can you bring to this franchise? Outside of that, it needs its own story to tell. It can’t feel like a retread of the original movie or get bogged down by callbacks to references from the past. A legacy sequel should be able to stand next to the original, not in the original’s shadow.

Credit: Paramount/Skydance

In Maverick, the legacy aspect of the story centers around Rooster, Goose’s son, who is now a Top Gun graduate as well. We learn there is a tense history between Rooster and Maverick, not only because of Goose’s death, but because of events that happened between films. For me, that’s an interesting proof of concept and a story worth telling. How does Maverick reconcile his lingering guilt over Goose’s death with his mission directive and strained relationship with Rooster? These questions hang heavy over an otherwise simple story: develop a team capable of completing a seemingly impossible mission (lol).

But then look at something like Space Jam: A New Legacy. While having “legacy” in its title, it completely fails at being a legacy sequel. The Looney Tunes are the only character that return from the original movie, but it’s almost as if the Space Jam never happened. There’s no nostalgia, callbacks or continuation of that story. A New Legacy is more interested in being a 2-hour commercial for Warner Bros.’ IP catalogue than a true legacy sequel to Space Jam.  

Legacy sequels must also compliment the tone of the original story and feel like they take place in the same universe. Maverick does this perfectly. The opening of the movie is nearly identical to the original, dropping us right back into the vibe from the 80s. It’s a world where the sun is somehow always at golden hour and adults play sports on the beach in jeans. And the rest of the movie matches Top Gun’s overly machismo tone while natural updating areas that may not have aged as well.

Now take Ghostbusters: Afterlife. This legacy sequel has such a stark tonal shift from the first two Ghostbusters movies that it doesn’t feel like it exists in the same world. Afterlife takes itself so seriously, putting too much weight on the mythology of the series and not leaning into the comedic tone of the original. The original characters are spoken about like they’re godlike figures, not just four average guys. And the original cast’s appearance in the movie is nothing more than a glorified cameo with a gratuitous CGI resurrection of Harold Ramis that offers nothing to the story.

Legacy sequels are made in the first place because audiences have such a love and connection to the original stories. That’s why legacy sequels have to walk such a fine line between references to, recreations of, or remakes of iconic moments or storylines. Maverick certainly has its fair share of callbacks to the original Top Gun, from the way Maverick gets to Top Gun, the surprise instructor, the tension between two top pilots, the beach sports scene and even “Great Balls of Fire.” But the way Maverick uses these callbacks puts them in a new light and uses them to tell its own story.

Other legacy sequels have leaned too hard on recreating moments or plot points from the previous movie. Coming 2 America reuses many of the same jokes from the first movie. Jurassic World has the same general structure as Jurassic Park but increases the tension by including thousands of tourists. And the final act of Star Wars: The Force Awakens is eerily close to a copy-and-paste of the Death Star attack in A New Hope, complete with trench run. These references and recreations alone don’t make a legacy sequel bad, but it’s such a fine line to tread between honoring the past and moving the story forward in a natural, exciting way.

Legacy sequels are here to stay, at least for a while, it seems. Good legacy sequels stand confidently next to their original, letting us check in with beloved characters and introducing us to new favorites. Often they’ll make us appreciate the original movies in a new way. Top Gun: Maverick certainly does this and sets a new bar for legacy sequels. Tom Cruise is doing his part to save movie theaters and you should too by going to see Top Gun: Maverick!

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