The Self-Sabotaging Hero: What I Learned from Rewatching Top Gun after 32 years

Top Gun is arguably the most iconic movie of the 1980’s and still one of the coolest movies ever produced up to date. F-14 Tomcat fighter jets taking off from aircraft carriers; an inspring soundtrack with invigorating guitar tunes; fast motorbikes and fancy sunglasses; sweating, muscle-packed bodies playing beach volleyball, and – last but not least – a young, shiny, and cocky Tom Cruise. It seems like the role of the renegade Pete Mitchell “Maverick” was carved out for him and his charismatic aura.

So is Top Gun only a “cool” movie? Why would somebody bother to write an essay about it? Is there anything more it it?

I think there is. There is a good reason why so many young men in the 80’s identified so strongly with the character of Maverick. His fascinosum was not so much his cockiness – at least not as a single trait. Rather it’s the whole package that comes along with it. Maverick is the extremely motivated, exceptionally talented fighter pilot who breaks the rules by acting on instinct. So he has a high level of competence, which seems to give him the right to break the rules. Now, what young man wouldn’t like that?

There is a reason why this character profile was and still is so appealing to young men.

Maverick seems to be the hero we all wanted to be in the 1980’s.

Or is he not?

The Hero we all wanted to be?

Archetypically, Maverick is the typical unbalanced Hero figure. While on the other end of the spectrum we have the Coward (which Maverick turns into only after his traumatic loss of his best friend and co-pilot Goose), Maverick is the typical Grandstander. He is a showoff, and he uses his talent to put himself above others. We find a similar figure in the mythological hero Achilles. He also stood above all the others by virtue of being the greatest warrior during the Trojan siege. And we all know how his story ended.

The Hero has apparently the noblest approach to life. The Hero is the one who moves out to kill the dragon, to save the princess and retrieve the treasure the dragon holds. The Hero story is always transformative. And its main transformation is from boyhood into manhood. The Hero itself is still immature. He matures only by virtue of his transformation, which is always conditioned by some sort of sacrifice. Sometimes, as in the example of Achilles, he does not transform, but stumbles over his own high self-conception.

The Grandstander is the Hero who sees himself as having no limits. He is talented and skillful, and he is confident that he can defeat any enemy. He is full potential. But that’s at the same time the source of his tragic fall.

This applies fully to Maverick. He could be the best – if only he wouldn’t keep self-sabotaging himself. Goose even tries to make Maverick aware of this, and Mav gets it. But when he gets into a dogfight, he just can’t help himself. His ego is too big. He needs to show off that he’s the best, that he’s creative, that he can pull of things that noone else can. For that reason he breaks the rules. And breaking the rules is what, tragically, delivers his punishment almost every time.

Why is Maverick self-sabotaging himself?

When Goose confronts him with his fears that they might mess Top Gun up, he addresses Mavs reasons behind his self-sabotaging behaviour. He talks about Mav being “Duke” Mitchell’s son, and living up to his reputation. “Every time we go up there it’s like you’re flying against a ghost,” says Goose.

What does this mean? The movie doesn’t reveal much about Maverick’s father, except for a hint that he had a “reputation”. As viewers, we pick up the vibes that he might have been an ace pilot, but probably also a problematic one – just like his son turned out to be. But to better understand Maverick’s psychology, it is already significant to know that he grew up without a father. He lacked a male guiding figure that would also give him the feeling of fatherly love and appreciation. And since he lacked this in his adolescence, he has developed his grandstander attitude as a means to attract male attention, recognition, and admiration from his peers and instructors. His risky manoeuvers are Maverick’s way to shock and surprise the other pilots, as to stand in the spotlight of general glorification. At least that’s what his purpose is. But obviously his behaviour backfires on him. His instructors scold him on a regular basis, and his peers reject him because he is “dangerous”, as Iceman (Val Kilmer) tells him in the changing room.

Behind this mechanism lies the fundamental inner conflict of the Hero type. The Hero is full potential, which means he is unfulfilled potential. A Hero needs to fulfill his potential by acknowledging his limitations and overcoming them consciously. That’s how the healthy Hero-archetype is the transformation from boyhood into manhood. While girls transition into womanhood naturally (through menstruation), boys transform into manhood only through initiation by older males, which act as Father figures.

Maverick’s refusal to follow the rules – which essentially means his unwillingness to obey the Father – is what brings him into trouble time after time. It’s even as though he disobeys the rules on purpose to provoke the Father’s attention – manifested in his instructors and the rules of the military life.

Hence, the Hero is stuck in boyhood for lack of connection with the Father. From this follows that he is overly tied to the Mother.

Let’s take a closer look to what this means for Pete Mitchell.

Struggling with the Feminine

In the whole movie, Maverick’s biological mother is not mentioned a single time. When Mav tells Goose (Anthony Edwards) that he’s the only family he’s got, we can deduct that she is not alive anymore, or that he at least has broken ties with her.

Mav’s relation with the Feminine seems to be a disconnected one. We learn from Goose’s wife Carol (Meg Ryan) that Mav used to be a womanizer, and to have had many unattached affairs. He is attracted by the Feminine, but at the same time keeps women at a distance to maintain his automony. This is a double-edged dynamic that makes it impossible for him to come to terms with the Feminine, and settle down with a woman.

To find the connection between his military career and his private life we need to switch to the symbolic plane of things. The Feminine is, symbolically speaking, Nature and Chaos. From a male perspective, the Feminine is whatever unforeseen challenge can be thrown at the man. Mav refutes Order and yields himself into Chaos by disobeying the rules and taking unnecessary risks. He is attracted to Chaos, to the Feminine. But he is unwilling to humble himself to the ordered structure of the Father, which would enable him to mater the Chaos and thrive in the military world. At the same time, as he is unwilling to mature and step up as a man, he cannot incorporate the Order and manhood which are necessary to lead a healthy relationship. As in all Hero stories, we never know what happens after the Hero slayed the dragon, saved the princess, and got the gold. That’s because the Hero has no clue what to do with the woman. He first needs to ascend into manhood. Only then, as a matured man who has overcome his boyhood, does he know what to do with the princess after things get normal.

Hence, on one hand his self-sabotaging adherence to the Feminine Chaos is what keeps him from thriving in his career, but on the other hand he keeps his intimate distance to his mother and to other women, to maintain his independence. This is the structure of Mav’s self-sustaining mechanism of self-sabotage. It allows him to indulge in the Feminine energy without needing to man up to make this connection sustainable. That’s why he has no stable relationships, that’s why he keeps messing up.

This is typical for the immature Hero archetype. He is too close to the Oedipal Mother, but at the same time struggling with her for independence, to assert his autonomy and masculinity. His inner conflict is between the comfort of the Motherly appreciation and worshipping, and his inner necessity of leaving his crib to go out, kill the dragon, and become a man.

The more meaningful is his relationship with Charlotte Blackwood, named Charlie, who turns out to be one of his instructors at the Top Gun academy. As his instructor, she is more than just a random woman for him. She’s a military aviation expert and evaluates Mav’s and the other pilots’ flying performances on a regular basis. She has the competence to judge him, and is thus integrated into the male military hierarchy, although she’s only a civilian. Their attraction to each other is obvious, but her position makes the constellation problematic. Their relationship takes off after a fight that ensued after she criticized one of his flying performances, and she confessing to him that she admires him as a pilot and loves him.

In her ambiguous position, it seems as if she could be the pole to help him consolidate his inner conflict. She is the woman who loves him, but she is also the instructor that appreciates him and wants him to let go of the self-sabotaging behaviour. And indeed, as they become a couple, things seem to start going right for Mav. Until, in an accident in which he has no blame, his best friend Goose loses his life.

Turning to the Father

After this devastating incident, Mav recedes from the Grandstander pole of the Hero into the opposite pole of the Coward. He lost all his self-confidence, and is unable to take the easiest shot. He blames himself, although the commission clearly states that he has no blame in the accident. Of course, his self-guilt comes not from this single accident, but as the sum of all the self-sabotaging behaviours in his past. So he decides to quit, even without saying farewell to Charlie.

The dialogue scene at the airport between Charlie and Mav is revealing of the dynamics between the two. At this point, Mav has turned away from her – not because his feelings had changed. He turns from her, because he turns from the Feminine. His lacking self-confidence drives him to reassert himself, and disconnect from all dependencies. It is Charlotte who seeks him out at the airport. She tries to encourage him, to make him overcome his self-doubt. But as she notices that he is wallowing in self-pity, she is disappointed and leaves.

It is at this point that Mav turns to his chief instructor Viper (played by Tom Skerritt). Viper is the uber-pilot. He is the commander of the Top Gun academy and the best pilot in the academy. Viper is the highest Father-figure in the movie.

In their conversation, Viper reveals to Maverick that he knew his father, and that he flew with him. And furthermore, he tells him that Mav’s fater was not a dishonorable pilot, but instead died as a hero and saved 3 other planes before he got shot down – the truth was kept a secret because the fight took place where it shouldn’t have.

This changes everything for Mav. Now, his world is not tainted by the shame of having a dishonorable father anymore. This is a topic that has been treated for example in Dostojewskij’s The Brothers Karamazov. Here, the shame of having a fiendish and despicable father is what makes the world unacceptable for 2 of the 3 brothers, Iwan and Dimitrij. It is a theological topic that our perspective of the Father has a decisive influence on the way we perceive the world. It is hard to love oneself knowing that one is the descendant of a disgraceful, weak and evil man. Thus, for Mav it has always been hard to exert self-love knowing that his father was remembered in disgrace.

Knowing that he and his world are not as bad as he had always thought, he tries to catch up with Charlie and apologize for rejecting her. But now she has already gone to Washington, where she had been promoted to.

With a new-found acceptance of his own life, he decides to re-enlist and to attend the graduation ceremony, where his archrival Iceman has won the trophy as the best pilot of the class – being embraced by his proud father, who is also a navy pilot.

From Boy to Man

Top Gun is the story of a self-loathing, self-sabotaging boy becoming a man. His hero-journey leads him through failure, guilt, and shame for who he is, and the self-inflicted loss of love. What redeemed him was, like the archimedic point outside of his own life, knowing that his father was not a dishonorable man, but a hero.

In a story, this is a good way for a son to find peace in the eternal conflict between father and son. The reality isn’t always like that. But what we can learn from Top Gun is maybe that forgiving our fathers their faults can help us love ourselves more. So we can learn to accept ourselves and our potential, while at the same time accepting our limitations, and step into our own personal greatness.

Yes, when we were young, Maverick was the hero we all wanted to be. But he is definitely not the self-sabotaging protagonist we want to be in 2022.

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