One of the coolest and most ruthlessly efficient elements of the Top Gun: Maverick script is that it never tells us who the enemy is. Like the first Top Gun, it leaves the audience to conclude for ourselves who Pete “Maverick” Mitchell and his cohorts are training to dogfight.
Let’s be clear: The Top Gun films don’t tell us who the enemy is because they don’t need to. This isn’t a film about geopolitics, but rather the courage and sacrifices of a small group of elite fighter pilots. They’ve been trained to think of their enemies as the bad guys. So we in the audience are expected to think of them that way, too. The enemy pilots hide their faces behind darkened visors, and display no flag.
Still, it’s almost impossible not to wonder who the enemy is supposed to be, especially when we see the surprising terrain where the climactic mission in Top Gun: Maverick takes place. And because the Top Gun films aim for realism, we have to assume the five credited writers on Top Gun: Maverick imagined an opposing fighting force that could theoretically exist.
Especially with the Oscars fast approaching — Top Gun: Maverick is up for six, including Best Picture — let’s weigh the evidence and answer the question: Who is the enemy in Top Gun: Maverick?
Spoilers follow, so you may want to skip this if you haven’t seen the film. But that said, here are…
When the mission is first explained to Maverick, he is told that the enemy has uranium enrichment sites that will come online soon. These will be used to make nuclear weapons, and for this reason the U.S. and its NATO allies stand unified in opposition.
NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, includes 30 countries, all of which we can safely cross off the list to potential enemies in the film, based on the clues provided. (Not that anyone thought our heroes were taking on France, Germany, Canada or the other NATO members.)
We get a big surprise when we see the topography of the area where the climactic mission will take place. Maverick has been training his young pilots in the desert, which has incepted into viewers’ minds the notion that the big mission might take place in the desert, too. But it turns out the uranium sites are in snowy mountains with forests and ocean nearby. Which leads us to think that the enemy in Top Gun: Maverick might be…
Possibility #1: Russia
This may seem the most likely candidate. In the original Top Gun, Maverick and co. faced off with MiGs, which were Soviet-made jets. No one said the bad guys were Soviets, and no one needed to: The Cold War between the U.S. and Soviet Union was raging, so we could assume.
It would be easy to assume that the former Soviet Union is back as the bad guy in Top Gun: Maverick.
But it would also be wrong.
Why? Not to get too heavy — since this is a movie site — but as we’ve seen in recent months as the Ukraine war has escalated, the U.S. and its NATO allies are extremely hesitant to directly confront Russia, for fear of starting World War III. The U.S. has rejected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s pleas that NATO “close the sky” and create a no-fly zone over Ukraine that would bar Russian planes. The U.S. is well aware that shooting down a Russian plane — even one dropping bombs on Ukraine — would be seen as a declaration of war. (We originally wrote these words when this article was first published on May 26, 2022, and they remain true.)
Okay, back to the fun pretend world of movies: In Top Gun: Maverick, several enemy planes are shot down — and no one expresses the slightest concern about World War III. That suggest that Russia is not the enemy in Top Gun: Maverick.
Additionally, the mission described in the film wouldn’t make much sense if Russia were the target: Russia already has thousands of nukes, so while adding more might be alarming, it wouldn’t really be a game-changer.
Which makes us think the enemy might be another country, such as…
Possibility #2: China
China has the same topography, in places, as that seen around the uranium sites in the film. But attacking China could also start a world war, and China, like Russia, already has plenty of nukes. So the reasons that rule out Russia would seem to rule out China, as well.
When we first published this post, we pondered whether Top Gun: Maverick might have a financial reason not to offend China. But we were misguided.
Here’s what happened: The recent book Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy included an interesting anecdote that the film removed a Taiwan flag from Maverick’s jacket, for fear of offending Chinese censors who consider Taiwan a rogue province rather than it’s own country.
But no: It turns out that the flag is indeed included in the movie. In fact, Bloomberg reports that during a Maverick screening in Taiwan, audiences cheered when it appeared on screen. Bloomberg also reports that Top Gun: Maverick isn’t expected to be released in Chinese theaters. The inclusion of the Taiwan flag is a welcome case of a major blockbuster refusing to submit to Chinese government censors.
That said, we’re still leaning toward the enemy not being China, due to the whole World War III thing.
Hmm. Is there anyone else in the U.S. government’s rogues gallery? What about…
Possibility #3: North Korea
It has the right topography, in places. But that’s the only thing to indicate North Korea could be “the enemy” in Top Gun: Maverick.
First, like Russia and China, it already has nuclear missiles. And it’s a safe bet that no one wants to antagonize a nuclear power unless it’s absolutely necessary, and wouldn’t bother with an attack to prevent more nukes in a country that already has nukes.
But there’s another clue about who the enemy is in Top Gun: Maverick that we haven’t mentioned until now.
The enemy in Top Gun: Maverick has some old F-14s, in addition to “fifth-generation” fighters, a term that refers to fighters with the newest technology on Earth. China and Russia both have them.
But North Korea, according to Forbes, “hasn’t acquired a new combat aircraft in more than 30 years,” which makes it unlikely to have any fifth-generation fighters. It is also unlikely to have American-made F-14s, since, according to Forbes, it has mostly Soviet-made planes and Chinese planes that copy their designs.
So: Is there any nation on earth that has snowy mountains, forests, old American F-14s, no nuclear weapons, and a history of antipathy to the United States? Why yes! And it is…
Possibility #4: Iran Is the Enemy in Top: Gun Maverick
I know what you’re thinking — But Iran is in the desert! — because I thought the same thing. But a little Googling reveals that in fact it has snowy mountain ranges — at least they’re snowy for part of the year — as well as forests.
Additionally, it has potent anti-aircraft technology, provided by the Soviet Union, not unlike that dispatched by “the enemy” in Top Gun: Maverick.
And it has quite well-known nuclear ambitions, though it is not presently known to have nuclear weapons. Just like the enemy in Top Gun: Maverick.
But perhaps most curiously of all, this long-time enemy of the United States still uses American F-14s. Weird, right? It acquired them from the American government in the 1970s, before relations between the two countries broke down.
Don’t take our word for it — again, we’re just a silly movie site. Military Watch has interesting article about Iran’s embrace of the F-14.
We’d be 100 percent convinced that “the enemy” in Top Gun: Maverick was modeled on Iran, except for one thing: When Iran rolled out its model for a fifth-generation fighter, the Qaher F-313, nearly a decade ago, many aviation experts questioned its viability.
Still, we’re happy to allow Top Gun: Maverick some artistic license.
Of course, there’s one more possibility.
Possibility #5: Amalgam
Where is Amalgam, you ask. Is that near Turkey? No. An amalgam is just a mixture, and it’s certainly possible that the enemy in Top Gun: Maverick is a made-up country, created solely in the minds of the screenwriters to avoid offending anyone. It shares several characteristics with Iran, sure, but also some commonalities with Russia, China, and North Korea, and both fairly old and very new fighter jets.
Why not? It’s just a movie, and as we said at the beginning, the story in Top Gun: Maverick is very satisfying even without any enemy being named.
Top Gun: Maverick is now in theaters.
Main image: Tom Cruise as Capt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, flying a mission against an unnamed enemy in Top Gun: Maverick, from Paramount Pictures, Skydance and Jerry Bruckheimer Films.
This post was originally published on May 26 and has been updated with the digital release of Top Gun: Maverick.