Apparently conservatives are thrilled by Top Gun: Maverick and eager to gloat at the box-office shortcomings of Pixar’s Lightyear.
At the surface there’s something laughable about adults aggressively pitting an adult-action movie, against a family-cartoon: especially when the reason for the negative comparison is not at all compelling. The accusation that gets levelled at films like Lightyear is that they use “forced diversity.”
While I would agree that there’s something forced about having an openly-lesbian, black commanding officer, in an action movie that pretends it was made in the 1990s (Lightyear is supposedly the favorite movie of Toy Story character Andy Davis), it is not something worth complaining about either. Representation is good, even if Hollywood can’t figure out how to do it in a way that doesn’t feel phoney and self-congratulatory.
Yet as much as I would like to think I’m above the fray of culture-warring over two blockbusters about pilots, I think there’s something to be learned from the comparison. While the films themselves are not particularly political projects, the values they do embody make them decent proxies for conservatism and (modern) liberalism.
Top Gun: Maverick
Tom Cruise doesn’t look like a stereotypical sixty year-old.He doesn’t act like one either. He stars in action blockbusters and does his own stunts. Yet despite Cruise’s personal attempts to evade Father Time, Top Gun: Maverick nonetheless seeks to remind us that decades have passed since the first Top Gun movie, and that Tom Cruise’s world has aged rapidly around him.
The film opens with Cruise’s character, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, test-flying a plane. Compared to the aircrafts of the first Top Gun film, this aircraft looks like a starship. As Maverick takes it on a daring flight through a purple sky, the aesthetics of Top Gun: Maverick and Lightyear become one.
Maverick emerges from this test-flight triumphant. He can’t quite believe it, but all these years later he’s still at the top of his game.
But despite his successes, Maverick receives almost no respects from his commanding officers. The movie sets up Maverick as the subject of a compelling, cyclical tragedy.
Maverick spent the first Top Gun movie persuading his fellow soldiers, such as Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer) that he is not a trouble-maker, but a hyper-talented, big-hearted pilot whose free-thinking is always for the greater good. The tragedy of Top Gun: Maverick is that none of that progress from the first movie mattered. Sure, a now dying Iceman trusts him, but it seems with every new commanding officer he meets, Maverick has to start from square one, and prove his value all over again.
The opening scenes of Top Gun: Maverick have a lot of potential. They could be the set up for subtle critiques of military-culture; implying that the military is so rigid that it cannot even give due credit to one of its most devoted servants. I also read Maverick’s story as a metaphor for being neuro-non-normative. Maverick doesn’t see himself as a maverick at all: he is soft-spoken, tries to follow orders and is kind to all around him. Yet his commanding officers treat him as if he is rude, rebellious and egotistical. The world Maverick perceives is entirely inconsistent with the world as seen by his commanding officers.
The opening scenes also hint at an even more radical critique of militarism. They imply that pilots like Maverick are about to become obsolete, as (pilotless) drones do more of the military’s work. Top Gun: Maverick could have been a modern retelling the legend of John Henry vs the Steam Train. It could have made an argument that being able to kill enemies from the safe distance of a drone’s control screen takes the immorality of war to an unacceptable level.
But Top Gun: Maverick didn’t go there. Instead it simply follows Maverick as he learns to be a teacher and re-earns the trust of “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of his former squadron mate, “Goose” Bradshaw.
Despite the claims that Top Gun: Maverick represents an antidote to Disney’s “forced diversity,” the film actually depicts a military unit that is less white and male than the one from the original Top Gun. In a way, one might argue Maverick’s diversity is far more tokenistic than Lightyear’s. Despite choosing to depict Black and Mestizo soldiers, the film doesn’t give any of these characters a chance to suggest that perhaps their military careers started as a pathway out of poverty. Nor do any of these characters suggest any ambivalence about killing on behalf of a government that keeps people in third-world countries from asserting their right of self-determination. In short, the Top Gun universe addressed its surface-level diversity problem without thinking about the bigger ideological question of why military-action movies are so white and male oriented.
Now granted, proponents of Top Gun: Maverick would say, its just supposed to be a fun movie about planes: not everything has to be scrutinized for political-moral purity! And for the most part I would agree. The original Top Gun did a good job of avoiding real world political references, and making its mission purely about flying planes rather than directly targeting an enemy.
The sequel, by contrast, pushes a tad more towards real-world militarism. There are a few (albeit brief and sanitized) depictions of dogfights with enemy soldiers, and the mission itself is about disabling the nuclear proliferation of a mysterious country (an interesting choice in an era where Donald Trump pulled the US out of the Iran-Nuclear deal, favoring sabre-rattling over diplomacy). Sure, Top Gun: Maverick was not hardline, American-military propaganda, but the filmmakers did not seem to have issues about going in that direction when given the chance.
Near the end of Top Gun: Maverick, one of the Top Gun program’s star recruits, Lt. Natasha “Phoenix” Trace, exclaims that Maverick had now shot down five planes, earning the title of “Ace.” So once again, Maverick proved his doubters wrong: he triumphed for a military that refused to believe in him. But given that the movie opened with such a compelling portrait of Maverick’s humanity, it was unfortunate that it had to end with an “accolade” that reminds us of the military’s inherently anti-humanistic nature.
Prior to seeing Lightyear I came across an interview with Tom Hanks. He expressed disappointment, that Tim Allen was not invited to reprise his role as Buzz in this new Lightyear movie. While I was happy that Hanks stood up for his longtime co-star, I felt like he had missed the point. The Buzz in Toy Story and the Buzz in Lightyear are not the same being. The Buzz that Allen voiced is a toy who is under the delusion that he is a “real” Space Ranger. The Buzz in Lightyear, by contrast, is supposed to be the “real” Buzz, a “real” Space Ranger.
After seeing Lightyear, however, I became a tad more sympathetic to Hanks’s argument. While in theory this version of Buzz (voiced by Chris Evans) was a different character than the one in Toy Story, I’m not sure the screenwriters really appreciated that.
In Toy Story, Buzz is an amusing caricature of a sci-fi hero. He speaks and narrates his adventures like William Shatner’s Captain Kirk, all the while dressed up and ready to kill like Star Wars’s Boba Fett. In the Toy Story universe this makes him a ridiculous figure. He is essentially Don Quixote: thinking he is a mighty knight, all the while being an ordinary man (or in this case, an ordinary toy).
One might think in the context of Lightyear, Buzz’s grandiose mannerisms would seem less absurd: he would be a natural resident of a vintage-sci-fi universe.
Yet right from the get-go, Lightyear makes fun of Buzz’s bravado. His Commanding Officer, Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Adiba), regularly calls him out for his melodrama, and tells him his mission logs (a reference to the iconic narration sequences from Star Trek episodes) are a waste of time.
Commander Hawthorne is the aforementioned black-lesbian, who has drawn of the wrath of Lightyear’s right-wing critics. I can’t say I share in this wrath. Commander Hawthorne’s relationship to Buzz is genuinely touching, and there’s nothing wrong with her ethnicity or sexuality. Nonetheless, one does not have to be a conservative bigot, to question the specific way in which Pixar incorporated diversity into this storyline.
Commander Hawthorne is not the only “diverse” character in Lightyear. As the story proceeds, Buzz gets stuck with a crew of untrained-recruits: Hawthorne’s granddaughter, Izzy (Keke Palmer), the nervous Mo Morrison (Taika Waititi) and Darby Steel, an elderly, woman out on parole (Dale Soules). And much like General Hawthorne, these characters do not share Buzz’s vintage-sci-fi feel. Instead, they talk like ordinary, real-world people, teaching Buzz lessons about how to be a better friend and leader in the process.
Buzz Lightyear’s plot-arc is about the perils of being stuck in the past: of not embracing change. And in our current cultural climate, it hardly seems a coincidence that the character who struggles with being stuck in the past is white-male action hero, Buzz. The women and minority characters, meanwhile, are comparatively down-to-earth, and model to Buzz how he should change his ways. For some this might seem progressive. To me, it actually robs women and minorities of the chance to actually participate in a beloved piece of lore. Imagine finally being included in a space epic, only to be told your role is to be down-to-earth!
Two Frustrating Sides of the Culture War Coin
So in short, Top: Gun Maverick is a story about a white-man who proves he doesn’t have to change, whereas Lightyear is the story of a white-man who accepts that he does. Thus one represents a conservative, and one a liberal position in the current culture war.
As someone who identifies as neither a conservative nor liberal, (but a socialist), I frankly think both positions are unhelpful. Contemporary liberals fetishize certain elements of left-wing politics (ie racial and gender-justice) without thinking in the big picture about where inequalities and injustices ultimately come from. Conservatives, meanwhile. glorify the past and its power-structures, no matter the moral cost.
In my eyes Top Gun: Maverick is a movie that resisted change in a context where change was absolutely needed. The military is a real thing that carries out real violence. We do not need another generation of boys (or women or non-binary people for that matter) aspiring to be fighter-pilot Aces. (Emulate Hayao Miyazaki’s pacifist fighter-pilot, Princess Nausicaa, instead!)
Buzz Lightyear, by contrast, was not a character who needed to change. Was he an old-fashioned, macho-man? Sort of, I guess, but he was also a cartoon character. Campy fights between a sloganeering, spaceman who shots lasers out of his wrists, and his Vader-esque enemy Emperor Zurg, can hardly be seen as a cause of or even inspiration for violence and patriarchy. I’m glad that Disney brought racial, gender and LGBT representation to the Buzz Lightyear universe, but why couldn’t those diverse characters been genuine citizens of a Vintage-SciFi universe, and not mere conveyors of vapid social messaging? Star Trek did this in the 1960s, and did not feel the need to have Uhura tell Kirk that his mission logs were a waste of time.
In short we got one story that championed change when it really didn’t need to, and one story that defied change, slipping valid moral questions under the rug. Do you feel like you don’t have a dog in this fight? Me neither. I enjoyed elements of both Maverick and Lightyear, but from a political perspective, let’s just say I hope Boots Riley makes another movie soon.