Who was "The Enemy" in 'Top Gun: Maverick'?
And other questions about the 'Top Gun' sequel
Are kids still into fighter jets? When I was in elementary school in the early 1990s, “the names and capabilities of American fighter jets” was a body of knowledge as important and respected as “how to beat the X-Men arcade game” and “the specific food dyes that will shrink your balls.” As far we were concerned, the most important branch of the U.S. government was the Blue Angels. Based on my own, admittedly limited, interactions with present day pre-adolescents, I don’t think this is the case anymore. Kids these days are into, what, Marvel movies? Soundcloud rap? Critical race theory? Whatever happened to the F-14 Tomcat and the F-15 Eagle? The Pentagon, it seems, has reassessed its agitprop and recruitment priorities, and its Hollywood office is no longer focused on impressing the awesome power of American air superiority on the collective eight-year-old imagination.
I would bet that someone with a better understanding of the evolution of American fighting doctrine and military priorities over the past 36 years could explain why the fighter jet has lost its prominent place in the elementary-school mindshare, and which deep-state psyops have replaced it. Here at Read Max, a newsletter with no particular knowledge about anything, we can only be thankful for Tom Cruise, who has returned to remind us of a basic truth that it sometimes seems our culture has forgotten: it’s really cool to watch jets do tricks.
The fact that jets do tricks is only one of many things to appreciate about Top Gun: Maverick. Another thing to appreciate, as an example, is the sound of the jets doing tricks. If you grew up on the original Top Gun and similar hyper-patriotic Reagan-era Pentagon infomercials, TGM — which has the same loving relationship to the bulked-up military blockbusters of the 1980s that George Lucas movies like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark had to the adventure serials of the 1950s — is as warm and comforting as a heavyweight POW/MIA hoodie.
On some levels TGM is an even better movie than its predecessor, insofar as it has a clear and satisfyingly paced plot structure. (On other levels, it’s worse: “dogfight football” sucks compared to beach volleyball.) Best of all, it inherits the original’s blithe indifference to geopolitical reality, or even any kind of specificity of all. You could imagine a “gritty reboot” of Top Gun that made some pretense to political seriousness or sophistication. But that wouldn’t be Top Gun, would it? Top Gun is first and foremost about how cool American planes are, and also how cool the Americans who pilot them are, not about the countries that those cool Americans are going to blow up in their cool planes, and how uncool those countries probably are.
If anything, Top Gun: Maverick takes this wonderfully American indifference even further than the original. While the bad guys in the original Top Gun displayed some recognizable geographical and visual markers — aviators fly Russian planes (fictional MiG-28s) with Chinese markings in the Indian Ocean — the “rogue state” targeted by the naval aviators in Top Gun: Maverick is almost fully generic. We don’t know where in the world it’s located; its jets are never identified by model; and we can’t see or make out any markings. It’s only ever called “The Enemy” by the Navy officers.
At the same time, we can make some deductions. We are told that The Enemy is a rogue state seeking to enrich uranium. We know it has “fifth-generation”1 fighters, which means it either has a sophisticated and well-resourced military-industrial apparatus, or is quite friendly with a power that does.2 We know it has mountainous terrain and a coast. And we know that it has a supply of F-14 Tomcats, the classic (fourth-generation) American fighter jet that Maverick and Goose fly in the original Top Gun.
I’m going to disagree with Slate’s Dan Kois, who proposes 10 potential candidates in his version of this exercise, and say there are really only four contenders here, for which Read Max has created a helpful visual chart to assess options:
So, I think we can say pretty definitively that The Enemy is not China, which has no F-14s, is not really considered a “rogue state” by the U.S., and already has nuclear weapons and uranium enrichment facilities. China does have a combat-ready fifth-generation fighter, but the J20 (pictured above) looks nothing like the fifth-generation fighters in the movie. (China is also made unlikely by the fact that Rooster and Maverick seem to feel confident they can pass themselves off as soldiers of The Enemy, which seems like a long shot if it’s the PLA.)
Similarly, North Korea is unlikely: While the U.S. thinks of the DPRK as a “rogue state,” America already took a big L on uranium enrichment there. Plus it has no Tomcats and no fifth-generation fighters. (The North Korean Air Force seems to run mostly MiG-29s, as well as a bunch of American helicopters smuggled in to the country in the 1980s with the CIA’s knowledge.)
Russia is a promising candidate, if only because the fifth-generation fighter seen in the movie is the Russian Su-57. But even though relations have deteriorated between the U.S. and Russia—maybe to the point where a U.S. Navy officer might refer to Russia as a “rogue state”?—it seems unlikely the U.S. would bother trying to destroy a Russian uranium enrichment facility. They’d still have about 1,500 nukes, anyway.
Iran, on the other hand, fulfills most of the criteria. It is a “rogue state” by U.S. standards; the U.S. has an avowed desire to prevent it from obtaining nuclear weapons; maybe most importantly, Iran does, alone among all countries besides the U.S., have a store of F-14 Tomcats—about 79 of them, purchased by the Shah of Iran during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1970s. (Rooster and Maverick could even, across an airfield, be Iranian?) The problem with the Iranian candidacy, of course, is that Iran doesn’t have a fifth-generation fighter. But if you had to pick one country, I’d go with Iran.
But why does The Enemy have to be “a country”? There’s a fifth possible identity for The Enemy: death itself.
Perhaps TGM’s most interesting quality, and the thing that sets it apart most clearly from the original Top Gun, is its ghostly, elegiac tone. At Vulture, Allison Willmore has proposed that most of the movie takes place in a “death dream” experienced by Maverick after the crash of the Darkstar experimental plane early in the film; her colleague Bilge Ebiri, in a lovely essay about TGM’s place in Tom Cruise’s career, notes the emptiness of the world Maverick and his students inhabit:
Which is maybe why Maverick takes place in such an otherworldly environment. The reality these pilots inhabit is a curiously empty one, mostly devoid of civilians, and the vast stretches of flat desert across which their jets blast feel like a dreamscape — an effect enhanced by the fact that during their training exercises, the valleys and mountains and missiles and enemy fighters they must evade exist only as readouts on computer screens. This is supposedly the same “Fightertown, USA” in San Diego where the first Top Gun took place (the airplane sequences were shot in real military-controlled areas where the U.S. Navy trains its pilots because those are the only places in the country where fighter jets are allowed to fly that low). But this time, the whole film seems to be playing out on the far edges of the empire. Never have fighters zooming across the screen looked so thrilling and felt so resoundingly, so gorgeously sad.
This reading of Top Gun: Maverick can be oriented around the ageless, tireless Cruise — one of the last true Movie Stars, staving off death in his late 50s with dangerous stunt after dangerous stunt. But the movie’s sepulchral qualities can also be read as an expression of anxiety over the future of the American imperial project. It’s not simply as The Enemy, as described, doesn’t exist in the real world. It’s that it cannot exist. No country can feasibly threaten American military hegemony. The only thing we have to fear is our own decline.
Look, in all likelihood the first-order reason that The Enemy is rendered generic and nonspecific because the movie studios that made TGM required geopolitical caution to protect global box-office profits. But set within the uncanny, featureless world built by the movie, in which nothing seems to exist outside the camera’s viewfinder — and in the context of a geopolitical balance still dominated by American military power — that blankness seems less like a cop-out than an appropriate artistic choice. There are no civilians in Top Gun: Maverick, no cities, no governments, no economies. There are just the planes, the aviators, and, awaiting them, their foe. This is “The Enemy” in the same sense that Satan is “The Adversary,” and he is generic in the sense of universal: All of us test ourselves against him, over and over, until he finally catches us, rising inescapably into our paths as we race toward the horizon, his face hidden behind an enormous black visor.
The work that Top Gun: Maverick’s script does to create an enemy that is threatening to American military prowess, but not too threatening, is magnificent. The Enemy is a pariah state (it’s weak)! But it has fifth-generation fighters (it’s strong)! But we could beat those fighters with F-35s (it’s weak)! But we can’t use the F-35s due to the elaborate video-game level The Enemy has built around its urianium enrichment facility (it’s strong)! Threading this kind of needle in propaganda is difficult, and should be left to professionals.