'Top Gun: Maverick' Gives Val Kilmer's Iceman a Perfect Tribute

The nostalgia-obsessed sequel reunites Kilmer and Tom Cruise for one impactful, tear-jerking scene.

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Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer in 'Top Gun' | Paramount Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images
Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer in 'Top Gun' | Paramount Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

When Maverick and Iceman emerge from their respective aircrafts at the end of Top Gun, director Tony Scott's 1986 ode to shiny planes and the shiny men who fly them, they share a rare moment of tenderness. Iceman, the blond pretty-boy villain played by Val Kilmer, points at Tom Cruise's Maverick and bellows, "You!" Maverick removes his aviators to look his former enemy right in the eyes. "You are still dangerous," says the Iceman. "But you can be my wingman any time." Maverick grins: "Bullshit. You can be mine."

After all these years, they're still each other's wingmen. Released in theaters this weekend after a rocky road to production and a lengthy pandemic-related delay, Top Gun: Maverick understands the importance of the Maverick and Iceman rivalry to the Top Gun experience. In the same way that Harold Faltermeyer's score, Kenny Loggins's "Danger Zone," and beach volleyball are essential to the movie's ridiculous MTV-era head-rush effect, the dynamic between these two hotshots forms the true emotional core of the film. No offense to Kelly McGillis, who played Maverick's love interest (and instructor) Charlie in the original, or Oscar-winner Jennifer Connelly, tasked with playing an old flame of Maverick's in the sequel. There's simply no competing with the smoldering power of Mav and Ice.

In the sequel, director Joseph Kosinski (Oblivion) and the film's five credited writers make the wise decision to keep Iceman off-screen for a good deal of the running time. They tease his presence: You catch a glimpse of his photo hanging at the flight school, he's name-checked by other authority figures in Maverick's life, and you see Maverick sending him text messages. (Of course, Maverick has him in his phone as "Ice.") As Maverick darts through the legacy-sequel plot points, getting called back to teach at Top Gun and training a group of new recruits that includes Rooster (Miles Teller), the son of his dead friend Goose, the idea of Iceman hangs over the movie. He's not exactly tracking Maverick; he's patiently waiting in the clouds.

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Val Kilmer in 'Top Gun' | Paramount Pictures / Photo by CBS via Getty Images

Then, he strikes. In the movie's most moving scene, Maverick makes the pilgrimage to Iceman's home, where the admiral's wife informs Maverick that his friend's cancer has returned. For viewers who have followed Kilmer's health struggles in recent years, this wrinkle will not be a surprise. The actor has discussed his condition in interviews with The New York Times Magazine and Men's Health and chronicled his battle with cancer in his memoir I'm Your Huckleberry. Last year, A24 released Val, a feature-length documentary exploring Kilmer's career using intimate home-video footage shot by the star himself. In the film, you see him speaking through a voice box after completing two tracheotomies.

During the Top Gun: Maverick scene, Iceman mostly speaks to Maverick with the help of his computer, teasing him and offering sage advice. The actual stakes of what they talk about is a little silly: Can Maverick make peace with Rooster? Will he complete the mission? Can he save America and himself? If you've seen a movie, you know the answer to these questions. Maverick will figure all this out, and we will get our catharsis. What's more compelling is the delicate meta interplay between Cruise and Kilmer, which lends the movie a startling poignancy.

The reality of the moment and the shared history of the two stars, who have both battled private demons on a very public stage, gives the scene a gravitas and almost documentary-like texture that transcends the movie's occasionally cheesy, nostalgic tone. Here's a 62-year-old man (Kilmer) and a 59-year-old man (Cruise) getting together on screen to recreate a dynamic they had over 30 years ago when they were both young men starting out in the business. As portrayed in Val, Kilmer didn't even want to make Top Gun. "I thought the script was silly, and I disliked warmongering in films," he says. "But I was under contract with the studio, so I didn’t really have a choice.”

As the script consistently underscores with lines about Maverick being a "dinosaur" who will soon be replaced with a computer, Top Gun: Maverick is a movie about fighting the passage of time. (The temptation to view the movie as an elegy for the 20th-century blockbuster and for the American empire is strong.) In the 1994 romantic comedy Sleep With Me, Quentin Tarantino made a memorable cameo appearance as an excitable guy at a party who analyzes Top Gun's homoerotic undertones and ends his monologue by jokingly misquoting final lines as "You can ride my tail anytime." What Top Gun: Maverick suggests is that the job of a wingman is never truly over. Even in death, these two ride together.

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Dan Jackson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.