top gun: maverick – marketing recap

How Paramount has sold an unexpected but long-awaited sequel

Top Gun: Maverick movie poster from Paramount Pictures
Top Gun: Maverick movie poster from Paramount Pictures

The original Top Gun was released 36 years ago, launching Tom Cruise into the realm of super-stardom and inspiring a generation to fantasize about taking F-14s as high as they can go, debate Meg Ryan versus Kelly McGillis (there’s no wrong answer) and seek out the best pair of aviator sunglasses around.

A sequel should have been an instant no-brainer, but we had to wait nearly four decades before the stars aligned, with Top Gun: Maverick hitting theaters this weekend.

Cruise returns as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, still a hotshot who’s spent years avoiding promotions so he can keep flying as a test pilot. When former rival Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer), now an admiral, needs someone to train a group of pilots for a specialized mission he calls on Maverick to give them the edge they’ll need. One of those pilots happens to be Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s former radar officer and best friend Nick “Goose” Bradshaw, who died in the first film.

Additional pilots are played by Glen Powell, Monica Barbaro, Danny Ramirez and others, with Jon Hamm playing Vice Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson, who’s skeptical of Maverick’s abilities and presence on the base. Jennifer Connelly also joins the cast as Penny Benjamin, a character only referenced in the first film as the admiral’s daughter Maverick had a fling with.

With Joseph Kosinski directing, let’s take a look at how it’s been sold.

announcement and casting

Rumors and reports had circulated for a while but a Tweet from Cruise in May 2018 seemed to confirm that the movie was actually happening and might even be in production. That was followed shortly by news that Kilmer would return in his role.

Late 2018 saw Cruise post a video from the movie’s set featuring him talking about motion-smoothing on modern TVs and how it distorts the viewing experience. It wasn’t specifically about the movie, then, but because he was wearing a flight suit in the video it certainly helped remind people it was in production.

In a surprise move, Paramount included about two minutes of footage in its CineEurope presentation to exhibitors in 2018.

Part of the story was confirmed by the much-hyped search for an actor to play Goose’s son, a role eventually nabbed by Teller. Cruise also spoke about the movie early on while promoting other projects, including a stop on “Kimmel” during the Mission: Impossible – Fallout publicity cycle, also in 2018.

Teller spoke about the challenges of working with Cruise – namely keeping up with the older actor – while promoting “ Too Old To Die Young” in 2019.

the marketing campaign phase one: I’m going to need a beer to put these flames out.

The first poster (by marketing agency Concept Arts) debuted in July 2019. Surprisingly, it doesn’t feature Cruise’s face but instead shows the back of Maverick’s jacket, decorated in service patches, as he looks out of a hanger while a jet cuts through the sky in the background.

Familiar music plays as the first trailer (37.6m YouTube views), released in July at San Diego Comic-Con, begins. In addition to lots of footage of fighter jets performing incredible maneuvers, the focus is on how Maverick is still undeniably Maverick, unable to conform to the system to the extent he’s been passed over for promotion many times in the last 30 years. This despite the medals and accomplishments he’s racked up in that time. There are shots that invoke scenes from the original, including Maverick racing a jet on his bike and a scene of sweaty, shirtless men playing football, all meant to amp up the nostalgia factor in the audience.

One notable change from the first movie is the footage shot via cockpit cam showing Cruise behind the stick of the fighter. That’s a continuation of the approach taken for other movies with the star – especially recent Mission: Impossible entries – where the focus has been on how Cruise really does many of his own stunts and learns new skills so he can do more of what his character would. We’re meant to believe, then, that the actor was really flying the jet, part of the brand he’s built up, one that sells the audience on a more visceral experience instead of a collection of special effects that can overload the senses.

That SDCC presence included the first ever appearance there by Cruise, who showed up on a panel with some of his castmates to talk about the film. While he was in San Diego, Cruise stopped by “Conan” to talk more about returning to the movie after 30+ years.

A few months later, in December of that year, the next poster was released showing Maverick leaning against his car and looking on as two F-18s fly by overhead.

The first full trailer (21.2m YouTube views) came out at the same time, immediately establishing Maverick as being back at the Top Gun training base, now as an instructor to younger pilots. While there’s plenty of focus on the next generation – including two pilots that may have a connection to characters from the first movie – we also see Maverick still has the same cocky attitude as well as a few tricks left to show the kids. Fast planes, beach football and more are all on display here, helping to establish familiarity with the audience while still selling a sequel.

December’s full trailer was accompanied by the release of Snapchat’s first-ever reaction filter, allowing users to see a split screen with the trailer on top and their own face inserted into the cockpit on the bottom. Giphy stickers also came out around then with key moments from the trailer available to add to your own messages/posts.

A featurette released just after the full trailer hit exactly the expected notes, focusing not only on the real flying done for the film but how much Cruise himself did. Additionally, it’s mentioned how he inspired and pushed the younger members of the cast to do their own flying in order to keep up, all of which was captured through state of the art cameras and other equipment.

The commercial that aired during the 2020 Super Bowl emphasizes both the incredible visuals of high-speed flying and the drama that will come from Maverick having to face the actions of his past and deal with the legacy he’s leaving behind.

A handful of photos came out in late January along with more details on the relationships between the characters.

When everyone went into quarantine in March, video meetings became popular among those working from home. Paramount released backgrounds that could be uploaded to Zoom profiles to add some Top Gun flair to those meetings.

the marketing campaign phase two: where’d *who* go?

It was among the last of the major summer releases to do so, but eventually the movie’s original June 2020 release date was pushed to December because of the pandemic-related theater closings. In July Paramount pushed it even further out to July, 2021 and then to November, the latter a move reportedly driven by Cruise’s desire to engage in a worldwide press and publicity tour, betting that Covid-related lockdowns would be lifted later in the year and allow for that.

The early 2020 release of an autobiography from Val Kilmer allowed him a number of opportunities to reminisce on the making of the original Top Gun as well as how he lobbied hard for a role in this film.

Barbaro was profiled in a piece that seemed to be half about the movie and half about the high-end watches she was now partial to. A bit later Kosinski was interviewed about working with Cruise again and bringing the new actors into the world of Top Gun.

Hasbro previewed a crossover with their Transformers toy series in July, 2020.

An interview with Hamm had him talking about working with Cruise, his first experiences with the original Top Gun and more. Similar ground, including how he was spending pandemic quarantine and the frustration of the movie’s repeated delays, was covered in an interview with Teller.

the marketing campaign phase three: he was inverted

Things then got very quiet for over a year, with only sporadic activity on the social media front – mostly amplifying people’s posts for Halloween, Top Gun Day and other events – until late 2021.

An interview with producer Jerry Bruckheimer from September of that year had him talking about Cruise’ insistence on having Kilmer be part of the sequel. There was also a group profile of many of the young actors, including Powell, Barbaro, Jay Ellis, Lewis Pullman and Danny Ramirez, who are jumping in the pilot’s seat for the sequel.

Before things could get on track for the November 2021 release date, Paramount pushed it even further back to May 2022.

In August 2021 Paramount gave CinemaCon attendees a first look at 13 minutes of footage from this and other upcoming movies. This marked three years since footage was shown to CineEurope.

Out of relatively nowhere a couple cross-promotional items popped up beginning in late 2021.

Hasbro was back again, this time revealing a look at a new Barbie figure inspired by Barbaro’s “Trace”.

The year ended with Ellis appearing on “Kimmel” to talk about the movie, including the repeated delays in release.

After the Ohio State University Marching Band performed a tribute to the first movie in November, Cruise seized the opportunity and invited all its members to a special screening of the sequel.

the marketing campaign phase four: talk to me, goose

Football was also the theme of 2022’s first marketing efforts, with Cruise appearing in a spot that mixed promotions for the AFC championship game with footage from this movie.

The actor then appeared on “Today” to promote the film in a more straightforward manner.

A co-branded Porsche commercial was released in February that contained footage from the movie

In an interview about his new album, Johnny Marr revealed he had recorded a new version of Hans Zimmer’s iconic theme for the sequel.

Ellis hosted the inaugural Anthem Awards at the end of February.

Reports emerged in mid-March that Paramount planned to screen the movie at the Cannes Film Festival, with those reports later confirmed with the addition that it would include a retrospective/celebration of Cruise’s entire career.

The next trailer (24.6m YouTube views) came out later that month. Some young hot shot pilots are assembling as we see Maverick has been called back to action by Iceman, now an admiral, over the objections of those in charge. What starts as teaching quickly turns into combat as we also see Rooster confront Maverick over the death of his father, some beach football and lots more in an exciting spot that focuses on the in-cockpit POV the audience will get for many of the flight sequences.

The poster that accompanied the trailer shows Maverick walking away from his fighter.

That was followed by a 30-second commercial version of the trailer that boiled the footage down to the essential thrill-inducing elements.

Elaborate theater standees in the shape of a fighter pilot helmet but with a massive screen playing the trailer were placed around the country at the beginning of April to help audiences arriving for other movies get a taste of this one.

Kosinski shared how about 800 hours of footage was shot in total, a massive amount resulting from so much time being needed to teach the actors how to use their equipment and other technical details.

The Dolby Cinemas-exclusive poster released in mid-April shows Maverick racing his motorcycle alongside an F-18, a scene from the new movie that recreates one from the first film. The ScreenX poster uses the cockpit cameras that were a focus of the campaign to show a phalanx of jets trailing Maverick’s fighter. D-Box’s one-sheet has Maverick looking pensive on an aircraft carrier while a pair of fighters fly by. Maverick is inverted on the 4DX poster and is looking out as he flies by the carrier on the IMAX one-sheet.

That process of teaching the actors about in-flight cinematography, the makeshift flight school Cruise put everyone through and more were covered in a featurette released in mid-April. A piece detailing the military training process the actors took part in came around the same time and added to the idea that this wasn’t just a role for anyone but a fully immersive experience.

At CinemaCon in late April 2022 exhibitors were offered an extended look at the film, with critics in attendance immediately giving it massive praise as an emotional visceral old-school blockbuster. A panel with Kosinski, Bruckheimer and others featured them all talking about the multiple release delays, why this was the right time for a sequel and more.

As that was going on Lady Gaga also teased an original song she wrote for the movie.

While he was technically promoting his Paramount+ series “The Offer,” Teller also talked about this movie when he appeared on “Kimmel ” around that time.

In an interview, McQuarrie shared how he approached writing the story, including a conscious effort to not simply ape or recreate iconic moments from the original but instead create something that would stand on its own.

Cruise joined the rest of the cast and crew at the red carpet premiere in early March. Held on an aircraft carrier in San Diego, it included Cruise arriving via helicopter, comments from him and others about how it came about and how they worked in Kilmer’s return.

After that San Diego event the cast and crew engaged on a publicity tour hitting stops in Mexico, Japan and the U.K. in addition to Cannes.

The full video for “Hold My Hand” from Gaga came out a few days later, mixing shots of her performing the song with footage – some of which is new here – from the movie. With the windswept nature of the video, the shifting back and forth from black-and-white to color and more it gives off major 80s vibes, making it a perfect fit here.

Another short featurette was devoted to explaining the rationale behind aviator callsigns.

Powell talked about the process of shooting the movie when he appeared on “Kimmel.”

Select AMC Theaters and Cineplex locations held screenings of the first Top Gun that included an extended preview of the sequel in early May.

XBox offered an exclusive movie-themed version of the popular Flight Simulator video game.

Kosinski explained the controversial decision to not invite either Meg Ryan or Kelly McGillis back for the sequel, saying he wasn’t interested in looking backward. Not sure that is satisfactory, but it’s a choice.

AMC Theaters shared a few exclusive cast and crew interviews.

What it was like to join the sequel and what she had to learn for the role was covered in an interview with Connelly.

OneRepublic leaned into the beach football sequence for their video for “I Ain’t Worried” from the movie’s soundtrack.

The Cannes Film Festival event was indeed a spectacle, with fighter jets doing a flyover before an enthusiastic response from the audience to the screening of the film. While in France Cruise was interviewed about his insistence the movie play in theaters and not on streaming, the surreal nature of watching a retrospective of his career and more. Connelly also spoke about working with Cruise. How he and the other filmmakers wanted to do something original was covered in an interview with Kosinski.

Short videos like this one for Rooster introduced each of the major characters with the actor playing them offering some background information.

An assemblage of elite athletes appear in a TV spot that focused on how those who refuse to settle for anything less than excellence are the true mavericks in the world.

You could get a free ticket to the movie if you spent $25 at Applebee’s.

Another featurette focuses on the respect the actors gained for the prowess and intensity of the actual naval aviators they worked with during filming as well as the fact that everything seen on screen is something the actors are actually doing. Similar ground, along with more about this being a big-screen experience was covered in a Dolby-exclusive featurette.

Cinemark also had an exclusive making-of featurette.

Cruise filmed a Fandango-exclusive greeting to audiences, welcoming them back for the summer movie season.

Connelly appeared on “The Late Show” and “GMA” to promote the film while Cruise stopped by “The Late Late Show” and other programs.


First off, an admission: I never thought this movie would happen. It seemed like one of those that was just not fated to move from pipe dream to reality. No one seemed very interested in doing it and the more time passed the less likely it seemed a viable story could be developed.

I’m happy to be proven wrong. Based on the campaign and with the addition of the positive reviews that have given the movie a staggering 97% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes this looks incredible, a worthy addition to the Top Gun mythos.

On both of those fronts, you have to credit Cruise, who seems to have willed the movie into existence (and into theaters) by sheer force of will alone. Ricky Bobby may be right and Tom Cruise may actually have some form of magic, as he not only single-handedly made the film happen but did so while teaching other actors how to fly jets and more.

Tracking estimates of a $100 million four-day opening weekend may prove conservative based on the word of mouth around the movie, all of which has been supported by a slick, well-messaged marketing push that reinforces Cruise’s status ais one of the biggest stars around while also reminding us how emotional the first movie, which wasn’t really an action picture, really was.

Reevaluating 2003’s Hulk

Before there was a shared cinematic universe. Before there was Edward Norton, much less Mark Ruffalo. Before he was part of a team. Before all that there were…Hulk Dogs. And they were awesome.

This might seem like a massive troll coming a few months after the release of Avengers: Infinity War, but it’s not. I come not to simply take a position opposite that of conventional wisdom but to earnestly and unironically praise 2003’s Hulk as directed by Ang Lee.

No, the movie does not have a good reputation, having failed to a large extent to counter the negative reaction to a disastrous Super Bowl commercial that offered the first look at a CGI Hulk, reportedly before visual effects work was complete. That it was rebooted just five years later with a new actor as part of the launch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a testament to how Universal Studios wanted to unremember the divisive 2003 film

I am telling you, though, that the movie is worth a fresh look. It’s not exactly tied directly into the MCU as it exists today, but if you squint you can make certain elements of it work as the backstory that’s alluded to in 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, but it’s also alright if you don’t want to put in that much effort. Even standing on its own the movie has a lot of positives working in its favor.

The Visual Style

Even as this is the least controversial position you can possibly take on the movie, saying it out loud will still get you run out of Comic-Con on a (light) rail. Lee’s decision to incorporate comic book-like panel structures to some of the scenes in the film turned a lot of people off in 2003. It was too confusing for many and didn’t win it any new fans.

Darnit, though, if the movie doesn’t have a wholly unique and captivating vibe when that conceit is employed, though. It’s shocking to me that so many subsequent movies have been praised for “really looking like a comic book” when this one *literally* looked like a comic book. Watch this scene and see how you can follow the conversation characters are having with each other because of the panel structure. You’re able to see everyone who’s talking without contrived cutaways or off-screen dialogue

If there’s a problem with this idea it’s that it’s not executed often enough. Good stretches of the movie go by without it being used, so when it does come back – usually during action sequences – it can be a bit jarring. It certainly is memorable, though, and Lee deserves a lot of credit for experimenting with the look and feel of the super hero genre before it succumbed to producer-inflicted uniformity.

Finally, I don’t mind the bright green version of Hulk used here. I think most of the blowback to this look for the character came more from that just three years earlier Cyclops, in X-Men, had mocked the idea of “bright yellow spandex” costumes. The black leather costumes there, the subdued colors of Spider-Man’s outfit…we were still coming out of the 90s and the dark, gritty vibe comics had adopted for over a decade. The conventional wisdom at the time held that comic book movies couldn’t look too much like comic books with their vibrancy. It would be another five to 10 years before The MCU changed that.

The Hulk as Petulant Child

One of the problems with the Hulk as a character is that his motivations are often ill-defined if they exist at all. In the comics he’s gone from the lumbering Hyde-like incarnation to a semi-literate ape to a Vegas casino bouncer to an interplanetary gladiator and more. Hulk’s retention of Banner’s intelligence has ebbed and flowed from one character to the other, but it’s been hard to paint him as Captain America-like hero because he never seems to have a driving ethos aside from “rage” or “anger.”

The version created by James Schamus, who wrote the film’s screenplay, positions him as Frankenstein’s monster, freshly born from the lab and confused about his identity and place in the world. He is lashing out because he doesn’t know the consequences of his power and has no one there to explain things to him.

In this way, Hulk here is not necessarily the pure-Id he’s sometimes painted to be. He is not acting out because he is raw power unleashed, free from conscience and norm. He’s a toddler with the power of Hercules at his disposal. The one tether he retains to his Banner persona is the trauma inflicted by the actions of his father, trauma he doesn’t have the means to express in a healthier manner. A 1-year-old does not cry when he can’t reach the cookie jar because he’s an entitled jerk but because he lacks the language to communicate more effectively. The 28-year-old who screams because his soy chai latte isn’t hot enough…that’s the jerk.

Here’s where I’m going to defend the narrative purpose served by the much-maligned Hulk Dogs. Yes, they’re kind of goofy and certainly came out of nowhere. What they show, though, is the indifference with which Banner’s father sees his son. He was just another means to an end, an attitude represented by the fact that animals were his next attempt. View them as part of his overall character and his callous disregard for scientific protocols and human life and you see how they fit into the story.

Again, if there’s issue to be taken with this portrayal it’s that it doesn’t go far enough while also getting bogged down in the story of how Banner’s father used him as an unwitting test subject as a child. The stronger story there is how children who grow up after losing both parents might harbor resentment they are still dealing with later in life, resentment that when triggered can lead to lashing out and heightened feelings of anger.

The Hulk’s Evolving Powers

Building on that point above, one of the more interesting elements utilized by Schamus and Lee is the idea that Hulk grows not only stronger the angrier he gets but physically larger. That’s something that, again, has been inconsistently explored in the comics over the years but it makes as much sense as anything else about the character. If he goes from human to jade giant because he’s angry it stands to (suspension of disbelief-aided) reason that he would become even bigger the more he’s provoked.

Watch this clip from shortly after Banner’s first transformation into the creature. He’s grasping desperately at the device as if he’s unsure if he can handle it or not. Contrast that with scenes later in the film where Hulk handily grabs a missile from mid-air and flings tanks left and right. Also note how Hulk’s initial leap from the rooftop isn’t very strong or very far, while later he’s seemingly covering miles at a time, practically flying through the air.

An All-Time DGAF Nick Nolte Performance

Nolte’s performance ranks as one of the great “I don’t even know what movie I’m in, I’m just going for it” turns in cinematic history. Your tolerance and taste for this will certainly vary, but for my money when he mocks his son’s whining while they’re both strapped in by Gen. Ross…it’s just fantastic, while also being a reminder that Bruce is dealing with a father who saw him as just another variable in his experiments, not a human being who needed love and caring.

OK, There Are Issues

Eric Bana just can’t summon enough personality for us to really care when Banner is on screen. He’s giving Episode II Hayden Christensen a run for his money in the “Most Bland Performance Of The Early 2000s” here. Also, How can you give Jennifer Connelly that little to do? More broadly, why does Hollywood keep giving talented actresses so little to do in super hero movies as a whole? I’m looking at you Zack Snyder, and your constant wasting of Amy Adams.

Those performances are contrasted against Sam Shepherd, who’s able to do more with his role as Gen. Ross than he should be able to. And Josh Lucas as Glenn Talbot is so mustache-twirling broad in his performance you’d think he was selling it to the cheap seats, blowing past caricature to be…not bad.

The future incarnations of Hulk, both from Norton and Ruffalo, had the advantage of not needing to cover the origin details. Again, if you want to make the end of Hulk, where Banner goes off to live in South America, fit with the opening of The Incredible Hulk where he’s keeping a low profile working in a bottling plant, you can. And if you want to make the end of that movie, where he’s gone off to get zen about his powers, fit with where we find Banner at the beginning of The Avengers, you can. You don’t need to, but you can. Both, though, were able to portray a weary Banner who had experience with the monster inside, something Bana couldn’t.

Hulk as (Fill in the Blank)

As I said above, Hulk has never been an easy character with one *definitive* interpretation that’s held fast over the last 50 years. What the version envisioned by Ang Lee and James Schamus offer here is one who represents the dangers of unexpressed emotions built up over a lifetime. Put aside the science and military elements of the story and you have someone struggling to simply come to terms with what he’s feeling and process that in a healthy way.

Those have, for me, always been the most interesting Hulk stories. When he was introduced in the 60s he was the lumbering brute representing the darkness that simmered under the surface of polite society. That version has come back over the years a few times with various twists.

Perhaps that’s why Ruffalo’s Hulk in The Avengers was so intriguing. At one point he talks about how if Nick Fury’s plan is to kill him it’s not going to work. “I got low,” he says, and tried to kill himself, only to have “the other guy’ spit the bullet right back out. Then, during the final battle, he reveals his secret to maintaining control: “I’m always angry.” That idea of anger – expressed, repressed and under control – is setup in Hulk and Avengers, but almost completely abandoned in Incredible, where the secret to not Hulking out is (checks notes) not letting your heart rate rise too high.

There are certainly issues with the movie, as there are with most. Sure, you can laugh at the Hulk Dogs if you want. But appreciate how Lee and Schamus weren’t making a super hero movie but one that held a mirror up to the dark places found in the human psyche with Hulk as metaphor and allegory and you have a much different film, one that deserves at least a second look.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.