The thrilling ending of Top Gun: Maverick definitively proved that Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) still has the right stuff and reaffirmed his status as one of the best fighter pilots the U.S. Navy has ever seen. Director Joseph Kosinski’s sequel took Top Gun to the next level, exceeding the original in nearly every way as a 21st-century action movie blockbuster while still steeping in the nostalgia for the original Top Gun. Through Top Gun: Maverick’s Easter eggs, the sequel paid homage to the original’s heroes like Iceman (Val Kilmer) and Goose (Anthony Edwards), while also introducing new characters like Goose’s son, Rooster (Miles Teller). Top Gun: Maverick‘s ending centered on the mission Maverick trained the TOPGUN graduates for — the destruction of an underground uranium facility in an unnamed hostile country. It was an impossible mission that involved flying low through a valley at high velocities, precision targeting, and a death-defying climb to avoid both colliding with a mountain and blacking out. Surviving that then leads to a dogfight against the enemy’s technologically superior 5th-generation fighter planes.
The Top Gun: Maverick ending also saw the death of Iceman, Admiral Tom Kazansky, after which Maverick lost his protection and was removed as Top Gun’s instructor by Cyclone (Jon Hamm) — but Maverick had other plans. Maverick stole a plane and perfectly executed the simulation, proving to the trainees that their daunting mission could be accomplished because “it’s not the plane; it’s the pilot.” Maverick then led the mission himself, which resulted in Rooster’s lifelong animosity with his late father’s partner finally being resolved. Maverick leading an impossible mission was also likely influenced by his Mission: Impossible director, Christopher McQuarrie, sharing co-screenwriter credit on Top Gun: Maverick. Here’s a full breakdown of how Top Gun: Maverick ended, how the stories of the major characters were resolved, what’s known about the next sequel, Top Gun 3, and how it all connects to the future of what is now one of the biggest movie franchises in history.
Maverick was assigned to lead the mission to destroy the underground uranium facility. He chose Phoenix (Monica Barbaro) and Bob (Lewis Pullman) to be “Dagger 1” with him while “Dagger 2” was Payback (Jay Ellis) and Fanboy (Danny Ramirez), with Rooster as his wingman. Hangman (Glen Powell), who wasn’t picked, was dejected and was on standby on the aircraft carrier flight deck. They had 2 minutes and 30 seconds to fly low through the canyons, beneath the enemy surface-to-air missiles, and reach the target. Similar to how the Death Star was destroyed in Star Wars: A New Hope, Maverick reached the 3-meter target and blasted it on target to create the opening. Dagger 2 picked up speed and made it to the target. In spite of their laser malfunctioning, Rooster sight-checked the target and successfully hit it, destroying the underground uranium facility. All of the pilots’ training paid off and they achieved the steep 9.5-g climb without colliding with the mountain. Then the dogfight began when the enemy launched SAMs and scrambled fifth-generation fighters to intercept Maverick’s squadron.
Every Navy F-18 had flares they used to divert enemy missiles but Rooster ran out when he was being targeted by an enemy plane. Maverick used his own plane to shield Rooster and was shot down. Pheonix/Bob and Payback/Fanboy made it back to the aircraft carrier but Cyclone refused to scramble Hangman to rescue Maverick. He assumed that Maverick Mitchell died and didn’t want to risk more pilots’ lives. But Rooster didn’t return home and he, instead, rescued Maverick from an enemy assault helicopter. Rooster was then shot down but he also survived, and Maverick reunited with him. The duo made their way to the enemy airfield that the Navy’s Tomahawk missiles destroyed and found an old surplus F-14 Tomcat similar to what Maverick flew in the original Top Gun. Maverick and Rooster got the F-14 airborne but were intercepted by two fifth-generation enemy planes.
Resigned to fight their way home, Maverick surprised the enemy by swooping behind one of the planes and opening fire, shooting it down. The second enemy gave chase but Maverick flew very low knowing the terrain would confuse the enemy’s targeting computer. Maverick then used his classic Top Gun maneuver to invert his F-14 and shoot down the enemy plane – but the cast of Top Gun: Maverick still weren’t home free. Maverick was out of weapons while a new enemy fighter closed in on them from the front. Fearing they wouldn’t survive, Maverick urged Goose to eject but the old plane’s canopy wouldn’t open. At the last second, the enemy fighter was destroyed by Hangman, who was scrambled to rescue his friends after Goose’s transponder signal was detected by the aircraft carrier.
Maverick, Goose, and Hangman returned to the aircraft carrier to a heroes’ welcome (with the Navy using a net to catch Maverick’s F-14, which lost its front landing gear), but not before Maverick performed his trademark illegal fly-by of the flight deck to purposely rattle Cyclone. Hangman and Rooster’s rivalry ended just as Iceman and Maverick’s did at the end of Top Gun, and Maverick and Rooster reconciled, at last. Maverick also becomes the first pilot to shoot down five enemy planes, counting the three Russian MiG fighters he took out in Top Gun.
Maverick’s arc in Top Gun: Maverick was to show that he still had a place in the Navy – even though Pete himself wasn’t always sure. While his Top Gun peers like Iceman became Admirals, Maverick remained a Captain and an outlier from the Navy for 35 years. After the end of the first Top Gun, Maverick returned to Miramar to become a flight instructor but he only lasted two months. Maverick spent the next three decades “p*issing off” one Admiral after another, and Captain Pete Mitchell being a literal maverick made it impossible for the Navy to promote him in spite of his decorations and achievements. When Top Gun: Maverick begins, Maverick is a test pilot for the Darkstar program and he became “the fastest man alive” by proving he could break Mach 10. Maverick achieved a record Mach 10.3 before his plane exploded. Instead of being hailed as a hero, Admiral Cain (Ed Harris) wanted to throw him out of the Navy.
At the start of Top Gun: Maverick, Admiral Cain told Maverick that his plan is to eventually replace pilots with drones. While that plan could still come to fruition, Maverick’s work with the Top Gun trainees proved the irreplaceable value of pilots who can make decisions on the fly and are guided by instinct. Maverick taught the TOPGUN trainees to think outside the box and to push themselves and their hardware beyond their limits. However, Maverick’s success in the climactic mission to destroy the uranium facility didn’t net him a promotion, which he doesn’t want anyway. Maverick “belongs” in a cockpit, and he’s still a brilliant pilot despite being decades older than his trainees and compared to his former peers, who are now all grounded flag officers. Maverick proved he still has something unique to offer the Navy but the Navy still doubts his value and probably always will in spite of his achievements.
Rooster’s animosity with Maverick stemmed from the fact that his father, Goose, died in 1986 on Maverick’s watch, but there was also a second reason. Maverick pulled Rooster’s application to the Naval Academy, which cost the younger pilot four years of his career. What Rooster didn’t know is that Maverick did it because his mother, Carole Bradshaw (Meg Ryan), who is now dead, didn’t want Rooster to become a pilot like his dad. Maverick honored Carole’s wishes and took the full blame from Rooster so that he wouldn’t also blame his mother. This is something Maverick confessed to Penny but not to Rooster.
Of course, the spirit of Goose hangs over Maverick and Rooster in Top Gun: Maverick. In moments of uncertainty, they both say, “Talk to me Goose/dad” and evoke the dearly departed, mustachioed pilot. Rooster even plays “Great Balls of Fire” on the piano like his dad did when Rooster was still very young. After Maverick and Rooster survived the ordeal of being shot down and piloted their stolen F-14 back home, Rooster finally saw what his father saw in Maverick and his flying ability. Maverick tried to be an ersatz father figure to Rooster when he was growing up, but by the end of Top Gun: Maverick, Bradley and Pete are more like peers the way Maverick and Goose were. Rooster even decided to help restore Maverick’s vintage P-51 Mustang in his hangar where he’s surrounded by sweet memories of his father.
Top Gun: Maverick honoring Iceman and Val Kilmer was one of the best parts of the film. In Top Gun, Tom “Iceman” Kazansky won the Top Gun trophy and was first in his class in 1986 (Maverick was second). Iceman parlayed that success into a distinguished Navy career where he became a four-star Admiral and Commander of the United States Pacific Fleet. Yet Admiral “Iceman” Kazansky never forgot how Maverick saved his life at the end of Top Gun, after which Iceman and Maverick remained close friends. Iceman became Maverick’s guardian angel who protected Maverick and restored his standing every time the Navy wanted Captain Mitchell court marshaled or expelled. It was Iceman who had Maverick assigned back to Top Gun as an instructor for the trainees because he has believed since the end of Top Gun 1986 that, “The Navy needs Maverick.”
Tragically, Iceman died of throat cancer in Top Gun: Maverick, and the film wove in Val Kilmer’s real-life battle with the disease, although the actor is now cancer-free after a six-year fight. Still, cancer ravaged Kilmer’s ability to speak, which is why the moment when Iceman decided to talk to Maverick and ask him, “Which of us is the better pilot?” was so touching. Before Iceman’s last line in Top Gun: Maverick, he texted with Maverick throughout the movie. But when Iceman died, Maverick lost the protection of his biggest and most powerful advocate. Fittingly, Kilmer is the only major character from Top Gun to return for the sequel, and Top Gun: Maverick gave Iceman (and Kilmer) their due as the most important people who remained in Maverick’s life since Top Gun.
Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly) is an old flame of Maverick’s who came back into his life when he returned to Top Gun. Penny and Maverick lost touch over the years after he took her on a date aboard a stolen fighter jet and Mitchell was nearly thrown out of the Navy. Penny seems to uniquely understand Maverick and their mutual attraction is palpable, but given Pete’s track record for being unreliable, she wasn’t sure if she could commit to him and vice versa. Yet Penny also recognized that Captain “Maverick” Mitchell had matured and that he still wanted to give something back to Top Gun because he was far from done as a fighter pilot.
When the triumphant Maverick returned to Penny’s bar, The Hard Deck, after the movie’s climactic mission, Penny was gone because she took her teenage daughter, Amelia (Lyliana Wray), on vacation. It wasn’t explicitly stated, but Penny likely left because she feared Maverick wasn’t going to come back from this mission – the hard reality of being in a relationship with a dedicated soldier. When word got back to her that Maverick is alive and came home, Penny returned and reunited with him. Maverick only had one prior love interest in Top Gun, Charlie (Kelly McGillis), but that was 35 years ago. Maverick and Penny seem more evenly matched and she could finally be The One who gets Pete Mitchell to make a long-term commitment.
Top Gun: Maverick left the door open for Tom Cruise to return as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell. The possibility that Maverick would heroically die at the end of Top Gun: Maverick existed, although once Iceman died, it became unlikely that both of Top Gun‘s remaining icons would get killed off in the sequel. Maverick also showed he is still as skilled and daring in a fighter plane’s cockpit as ever, and he deservedly won the respect and admiration of his trainees. By no means did Maverick end the Top Gun sequel looking like he needed to be put out to pasture. Top Gun: Maverick is already critically-acclaimed and depending on its box office performance, there could certainly be a Top Gun 3. There may also be spinoffs starring Miles Teller’s Rooster and the other Top Gun trainees, with or without Maverick.
One of the main reasons why it took 36 years for a Top Gun sequel to be made was that Tom Cruise wanted to wait until the technology was available to execute his vision for breathtakingly realistic flying sequences with the actors actually flying fighter planes. But now that the technology exists, it may be wiser to deliver a third Top Gun sooner rather than later. Tom Cruise may appear ageless but he is, in fact, nearly 60 and the window for him playing Maverick as Top Gun‘s lead action hero will eventually close. Of course, Cruise is still shooting the next stunts-laden Mission: Impossible films, so those will have to wrap before the movie star can move on to Top Gun 3, if that’s something Tom Cruise even wants to do. But with Top Gun: Maverick already a record-breaking success, now would be the time for Tom Cruise to push the throttle and make Top Gun a trilogy.
The Top Gun: Maverick ending was an old-school, finite, thundering conclusion that gave audiences looking for familiarity from the first movie what they wanted — while using the amazing camera setups to create an energized, fresh, and well-paced conclusion. The Top Gun: Maverick ending works so well because they didn’t try to pull last-minute surprises out of the bag; they set up the stakes, worked toward the mission, and did it. It’s just really well done, and it wraps up the relationships in satisfying ways, honoring Goose and Iceman and giving Maverick a future, but also some well-deserved peace. Indeed, while Top Gun: Maverick rides the ’80s nostalgia trend that has become all too common in contemporary entertainment, it achieves uniqueness ironically by sticking to a 100 percent formula-based narrative and ending, true to the epic spirit of the era. Top Gun: Maverick‘s record-breaking box office success is proof positive that this formula is exactly what today’s audiences need.
Top Gun: Maverick restarted a million-dollar movie franchise into a billion-dollar phenomenon, and a big part of this was because of how the sequel stuck the landing. With the cast including several new faces and Maverick facing new challenges, there’s also plenty of room for Top Gun 3 or any other succeeding sequels. That said, it will be a tall order for Top Gun 3 to somehow match or exceed Top Gun: Maverick‘s Rotten Tomatoes score, its sheer impact on the fan base, and the over $1.4 billion the sequel raked in from theaters.
Next: Top Gun 3 Needs To Leave Maverick Behind (For The Franchise’s Future)