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Pete Mitchell and Luke Skywalker

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By Mass Communications Specialist 3rd Class Kristopher Wilson – U.S. Department of Defense, DefenseLINK Multimedia Gallery – http://www.defenselink.mil/multimedia/ (photo id 070406-N-5345W-215), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1942749

It is absolutely ridiculous that Top Gun: Maverick is as good as it is; there’s no reason to expect that such a film will actually be watchable, but somehow it’s not only a good deal better than the original, but is a genuinely good movie that’s worth watching on its own strengths. I have a spoiler-y semi-review at 1945:

In an instance of life imitating art, a retired 63-year-old Russian general flying as a mercenary died earlier this week when his Su-25 “Frogfoot” was shot down over Ukraine. By the end of Top Gun: Maverick it is clear that Pete Mitchell no longer has a role as an aviator in the US Navy. If Cruise wanted to make another sequel, he could surely do worse than putting himself in the cockpit of a MiG-29 and flying against the Russians in the skies over Ukraine.

I’d also like to pause for a moment and think about what long-distance-sequels can offer. We’re in an age of long-distance sequels, with Sly Stallone still playing a character that he helped create in 1976 , but Maverick is about as long distance as we get, a stand alone sequel 35 years after the first film with no franchise to support, and as such it’s an interesting window on how we think about the fictional careers of our film heroes, and especially of how they can come to disappoint themselves and us when the camera is no longer around. Someone in this thread brought up the character of Jim Phelps, first created in 1967 and reprised by Peter Graves in the 1988 revamp of the TV show, then taken over by Jon Voight for the 1996 movie. For those who don’t remember, Phelps betrays and murders his entire Mission: Impossible team in the first few moments of the film, which I loved but apparently some folks found to be a betrayal of the character. FWIW I’ve always thought that the betrayal would have hit much harder and been more satisfying if Graves (who was only 70 and was still active) had played Phelps in the movie, but the producer (of which Tom Cruise was one) decided to go in a different direction. Also, it should have been clear to anyone who has seen Stalag 17 that Phelps had the soul and teutonic good looks of a traitor.

As it happens, the distance between Top Gun and Top Gun: Maverick is 36 years, while the distance between Return of the Jedi and the Last Jedi is 34 years. In both films those numbers are fully realized; Hammill and Cruise each play characters with the weight of three and a half decades on their shoulders. It is perhaps worth mentioning that the mission in Top Gun: Maverick is modeled on nothing so much as Luke Skywalker trench run against the Death Star in A New Hope. I find it awfully interesting that Pete “Maverick” Mitchell and Luke “Red Five” Skywalker each returned to the screen thirty-five years after the completion of their triumphant 80s arcs. I would not have guessed that the former would have been much more favorably received than the latter, and I think it’s worth investigating why.

For my part the Luke Skywalker arc was by far the best part of the sequel trilogy, but I can understand why even some non-toxic elements of Star Wars fandom were troubled by the complete, colossal failure of Luke Skywalker’s life project. For let there be no doubt that Luke failed; he failed to re-establish the Jedi Order or a plausible replacement, he failed to protect the New Republic, and he failed to detect Sheev Palpatine’s altogether unfortunate plot to restore himself as Galactic Emperor. Luke even failed on the basic human level of managing his family; his sister and his best friend become estranged because Luke not only fails to train his nephew, their son, but actively abets that nephew’s metamorphosis into a raging, murderous, fascistic asshole. Nice work, Luke. Apparently I’m one of the few to quite like the Luke Skywalker scenes in Boba Fett and the Mandalorian, but this is in part because they’re undergirded with an appreciation that if Baby Yoda hangs out too long with Luke Skywalker he will either turn evil or be murdered by Skywalker’s nephew. Even though I rather appreciate this dramatic arc, I absolutely get why failure of Shakespearean magnitude was more than many fans of this light entertainment were quite willing to deal with. The decision on the part of fandom to go full toxic and blame it all on Woke Undergraduates and their Banh Mi is something else entirely, of course.

Compared to this Pete Mitchell’s failures are far more prosaic. He failed as a Top Gun instructor, his relationship with Charlie failed, he failed as a surrogate father to the son of the friend who died in his arms, and his career has not developed in the way that he had wanted. Hero of the Free World at age 24, he is widely disliked and generally disrespected by his peers at age 59.

There are ordinary failures. Not to put too fine a point on it, but these are the kinds of failures I get to deal with every day. And Pete Mitchell is by many other conventional metrics not a failure; he is a career United States Navy aviator who made it to the rank of Captain, gets to fly sweet supersonic stealth test airplanes, and presumably sleeps with beautiful women on top of the large pile of money and fringe benefits that are associated with a thirty-five year military career with no dependents and no apparent expenses beyond motorcycle repair and leather jacket maintenance.

But just because they are ordinary failures and just because they are offset by successes doesn’t mean that they lack sting. Mitchell is regarded by his peers as someone who failed to live up to his promise, and it’s clear that he feels some of that, even if he refuses to bear all of it. Maverick and Luke are both resentful, but in different ways; Maverick feels that he has been treated unjustly (even as he acknowledges that much of the fault lies with his self and not his stars), while Luke is resentful because he believes (mostly correctly) that he is the only one who can really grasp the magnitude of his failure. It’s perhaps also worth mentioning that while Maverick’s failure can be described in classic literary terms (his greatest strength also constitutes his tragic flaw), Luke fails because the Force decided to put the fate of the galaxy in the hands of an uneducated farmboy from a distant province and he was absolutely, positively not up to the task.

And that, perhaps, explains the difference in reception. Maverick’s arc of success and failure falls into an intelligible literary trope, while Luke’s arc does not. Luke, in the end, is simply overmatched by his circumstances, and while that’s a terribly realistic story to tell it’s not one that makes it easy to tease out an optimistic or redemptive narrative. However much I may have enjoyed it, folks to not come to Star Wars to watch the underdog get squashed, and the Last Jedi made clear that the underdog had very much gotten squashed. Maverick was self-destructive but never really an underdog, and as such we can take pleasure in his journey, which reduces the stakes just enough to let us enjoy the final phase of his journey.

I have no further deep thoughts to this, other than to say that IP driven cash grabs nearly 40 years on can still include story arcs, craftsmanship, and even a degree of serious engagement with what it means to have a life which touches upon the lives of others.

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