Top Gun: Maverick - Film & Story Structure
Looking at key story elements from the 2022 film 'Top Gun: Maverick'
A project this big could have gone one of two ways. It could have either been a slam dunk sequel, compelling enough to stand on its own. Or it could have been a huge flop. A film that relies too heavily on its big name and star actor at the expense of story depth.
Thankfully, the writers got this one very right. They created a thoughtful and engaging film that’s full of character development. The power of a great story ensured Top Gun: Maverick was a success, financially and artistically.
The introduction of contemporary topics, i.e. the relationship between humans and technology, modernizes the themes and style brought forward from the first film terrifically. Monstrous box office figures speak to the fact that the message was aimed straight down the spine of America.
What I also found refreshing about this sequel was that it balanced fan service with great story telling. Often, an installment of a tired franchise will add scenes and dialogue for the sole purpose of showing fans what they want to see or hear, while doing nothing to progress the story. It bogs the story down and makes it feel clumsy. If a scene doesn’t work to progress the story, it’s just embellishment. The writers of Top Gun: Maverick were able to fit these elements into the story seamlessly and tastefully.
The film opens with the classic Top Gun images of jets taking off from a Navy aircraft carrier. (I had to double-check that I was indeed watching Top Gun: Maverick and not Top Gun).
This opening scene sets the tone for the film, letting us know that the original film’s style has been carried over to this film. The audiences expectations have been set.
The inciting incident, the event that hooks the main character into the storyline, happens when Maverick is called up to Top Gun for an unspecified mission.
Act One Plot Point
Top Gun leaders describe the urgent mission and explain that they want Maverick to train their best pilots to prepare them. The dramatic need, to train the pilots to complete the mission, is introduced. Now we enter the second act with the dramatic question in mind: will Maverick and the team succeed?
The midpoint of the film occurs when Maverick meets with Iceman. Two important things happen here.
First, Maverick’s inner dilemma is explained: whether to send Rooster on the mission or not. Whatever he does, he feels he’ll lose Rooster forever. A classic tough decision that serves to raise the tension and makes the audience curious to see how he resolves it. It raises the stakes of the film’s B story (Maverick and Rooster.)
Second, Iceman tells him “the Navy needs Maverick”, meaning their pilots can still learn something from Maverick.
Both work to progress the story, because, after this meeting with Iceman, Maverick begins to train his pilots the way he believes is best to make them believe the mission is possible.
All Is Lost
This plot point occurs near the end of the second act. Here, Maverick reaches his lowest point. Within a few minutes, he almost loses two of his pilots, attends Iceman’s funeral, and then gets pulled from the mission.
Iceman’s passing represents the loss of the one person that believed in him. This, along with the training failures, causes Maverick to lose confidence.
At this point, Maverick is farther away from achieving his goal than ever, which increases the drama and tension (how will he possibly achieve the dramatic need now?)
Act Two Plot Point
Maverick is chosen to lead the team after proving the mission is possible by flying the simulation himself. Now the stage is set for the third act, the final showdown, to begin.
Climax & Resolution
The A Story is resolved when Maverick and the team successfully destroy the uranium enrichment plant.
The B Story between Maverick and Rooster is resolved when they successfully return from enemy territory in an old F-14 Tomcat.
The theme of the film was best presented when, near the beginning, Maverick is told: “Your kind is heading for extinction.” Maverick responds “Maybe so, sir, but not today.” Maverick believes he still has something to teach his young pilots. An extra “something” that will be the difference between the success or failure of the mission. He repeatedly expresses to his team that “it’s not the plane, it’s the pilot.”
Maverick’s belief in the power of a nebulous human element is the main theme of the film.
The B Story of the film is the relationship between Maverick and Rooster. At the beginning, Rooster is angry at Maverick. As both progress through their character arcs, the B story progresses as well. Maverick teaches Rooster to stop overthinking. “Don’t think, just do”, he tells him. Maverick learns that he must stop trying to protect Rooster. At the end, they escape the enemy by working as a team.
Thanks for reading.
The Story Department is where I write about the story structure of films. I focus on identifying key story elements so we can break films down and see how they work.
“Hollywood… Not a place on the map, but a state of mind that exists wherever people dream, wonder, and imagine.” -Michael Eisner at the dedication of Disney’s Hollywood Studios. This idea serves as my catalyst for writing about film and story structure.
Hollywood, as a creative state of mind.
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