The 20 Best Summer Blockbusters of All Time: 'Top Gun'

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Image Credit: Everett Collection

Maverick has a problem: Too. Much. Awesome.

Maverick isn’t just a pilot. He’s the best pilot there ever was or ever will be. He’s not the best of the best: He’s the best of the best…of the best. But his superiors can’t handle Maverick. He flies the way he wants to fly — awesomely. His superiors try to teach him the value of teamwork or whatever. The super-hot lady instructor with the boy’s name tries to heal him using totally sweet neon-lighted lovemaking, and also by getting him to deal with his emotionally distant father. Maverick is dangerous. He plays beach volleyball; he plays by his own rules. Maverick is the ’80s. Maverick is America.

Maverick, most of all, is Tom Cruise. Previously the up-and-coming star of Risky Business, Cruise became a superstar in the summer of 1986 with Top Gun. The movie’s mixture of Reagan-era patriotism and MTV-era style proved an uncannily perfect concoction with something for everyone. It was Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson at their mid-’80s peak. The film’s plotline is almost inscrutable, if you look at it on the page: A movie about a super-cool guy surrounded by super-cool guys, who spends most of the movie in what amounts to a high-flying version of a prep-school novel, before ultimately defeating the MiGs, aka Evil Planes from Evilvania.

It’s nonsense. It’s genius. The film’s soundtrack became iconic. Everything about the movie became iconic. The definition of “iconic” is just a picture of Tom Cruise wearing aviators. And that’s why Top Gun is the next item on our list of history’s Best Summer Blockbusters.

Rank: 11

Release Date: May 16, 1986

Box Office: $179 million domestic ($8 million opening weekend); $356 million worldwide. (All numbers from Box Office Mojo.)

The Competition: Top Gun arrived in theaters one week after the goofy-robot gem Short Circuit and immediately claimed the top of the box office. Although it ceded the top spot to Sylvester Stallone’s Cobra the following week, it reclaimed the #1 slot for the following two weeks, which saw several fondly-forgotten releases (My Little Pony: The Movie, C-grade Schwarzenegger Raw Deal, and SpaceCamp) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, a film that sorta looks a little bit like Top Gun Origins: Maverick In High School. (1986 was also the summer of Aliens, a film that sorta looks a little bit like Top Gun Goes to Space Vietnam.) But in those halcyon days of less aggressive release schedules, Top Gun also managed to claim the top of the box office for three weekends in September.

What TIME said: “MTV goes to war: a relentlessly pounding pop score, strange light playing on otherwise realistic scenes, great blasts of special effects whooshing incomprehensibly at you (in most of the aerial combat scenes it is almost impossible to tell the MiGs from the F-14s). Top Gun is about the training of the Navy’s best fighter pilots and their blooding in cold war incidents, and the only thing Director Tony Scott has not brought up to date is the story.”

Cultural Impact Then: The film’s theatrical success was arguably mere prelude to its later success on home video: It quickly became the best-selling videocassette ever, helping to define the whole post-movie era of Hollywood moviemaking. The film’s halo was massive. Bomber jackets were cool for the first time since the ’40s. According to Time, Ray-Ban aviator sunglasses jumped 40%. The Navy had worked with the production, loaning them several actual fighter planes; Naval recruitment shot up considerably in the film’s wake. The soundtrack topped the Billboard charts five times. Top Gun was everywhere.

Cultural Staying Power: Top Gun cemented Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer as Hollywood’s hitmakers — and led directly into Bruckheimer’s decades as a megahit-maker after Simpson’s death. It turned Tony Scott into one of the defining smash-cut filmmaker of Hollywood’s MTV age. It turned Tom Cruise into…well, Tom Cruise.

And Top Gun became an essential document for the generation of moviegoers and entertainment-watchers that followed. The movie is ridiculous in so many ways, but somehow, that silliness has gradually been rebranded as a kind of insider Outsider Art. There’s that famous Tarantino monologue about the film’s subtext — which is funny, but also an example of the kind of full-immersion theory-criticism that’s at the center of how we consume culture today. Top Gun had one direct parody (1991′s Hot Shots!), but at times, it feels like all of pop culture is a parody of Top Gun. (Archer recently turned a running Top Gun joke into a full-fledged story arc,complete with Kenny Loggins.) As our movie critic Chris Nashawaty pointed out on the occasion of the film’s latest home release, you can hate Top Gun only if you also realize that you hate the world Top Gun created. Which is our world. We are Top Gun now — or at least, we want to be.

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