How does Top Gun follow Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey breakdown?
Welcome to another installment of our new series A Hero’s Journey Breakdown where we explore Joseph Campbell’s mythological storytelling structure and how iconic films fit into that mold.
Related: our friends at ScreenCraft have created a Free Download: Exploring the 12 Stages of the Hero’s Journey
Christopher Vogler’s approach to Campbell’s structure broke the mythical story structure into twelve stages. For this series, we define the stages in simplified interpretations:
- The Ordinary World: We see the hero’s normal life at the start of the story before the adventure begins.
- Call to Adventure: The hero is faced with an event, conflict, problem, or challenge that makes them begin their adventure.
- Refusal of the Call: The hero initially refuses the adventure because of hesitation, fears, insecurity, or any other number of issues.
- Meeting the Mentor: The hero encounters a mentor that can give them advice, wisdom, information, or items that ready them for the journey ahead.
- Crossing the Threshold: The hero leaves their ordinary world for the first time and crosses the threshold into adventure.
- Tests, Allies, and Enemies: The hero learns the rules of the new world and endures tests, meets friends, and comes face-to-face with enemies.
- The Approach: The initial plan to take on the central conflict begins, but setbacks occur that cause the hero to try a new approach or adopt new ideas.
- The Ordeal: Things go wrong and added conflict is introduced. The hero experiences more difficult hurdles and obstacles, some of which may lead to a life crisis.
- The Reward: After surviving The Ordeal, the hero seizes the sword — a reward that they’ve earned that allows them to take on the biggest conflict. It may be a physical item or piece of knowledge or wisdom that will help them persevere.
- The Road Back: The hero sees the light at the end of the tunnel, but they are about to face even more tests and challenges.
- The Resurrection: The climax. The hero faces a final test, using everything they have learned to take on the conflict once and for all.
- The Return: The hero brings their knowledge or the “elixir” back to the ordinary world.
Here we turn to the classic Top Gun.
Note: As with any application of story structure or formula, this is just a hindsight interpretation and implementation of The Hero’s Journey to this cinematic tale. There can and will be variances.
The Ordinary World
Maverick is an elite Navy Aviator. He and his flying partner Goose come across two Russian MiG-28s. Their Wingman, Cougar, is locked on by one of them. Maverick outmaneuvers the one on his tale and helps to scare off Cougar’s. But Cougar is shaken. He can’t land his F-14 jet on his own.
Maverick breaks protocol when he hears that Cougar is in trouble. Despite being low on gas, Maverick disobeys orders and helps talk Cougar down to a safe landing.
Call to Adventure
Topgun, the elite Naval Fighter Weapons School based out of the Naval Air Station in Miramar, is inviting the Navy’s top aviators for their annual training.
Cougar was at the top of the list, but he’s turned in his wings, citing his newborn child that he’s never even seen before due to his duty as a naval aviator.
After their CO screams at them for disobeying orders, he tells them that they’ve been invited to attend Topgun. This is Maverick’s dream to go up against the best of the best.
Refusal of the Call
Maverick doesn’t outright refuse this Call to Adventure. However, he does everything he seemingly can to break the rules during the training. His maverick behavior represents the inner demons that are refusing to allow him to live up to his potential.
Meeting the Mentor
Viper is the CO of Topgun. Maverick meets him during the first meeting with the Topgun aviators.
Viper quickly positions himself as a no-nonsense commanding officer that is very aware of Maverick and his background. We later learn that he served with Maverick’s father who had died in combat during the Vietnam War.
Crossing the Threshold
After Maverick breaks protocol during training to lock onto their instructor Jester’s jet, he celebrates by buzzing the tower. Needless to say, this gets both Maverick and Goose into some deep trouble.
Goose confronts Maverick and tells him that he needs this shot. Maverick sees the seriousness on his face and knows that the decisions he’s making are wrong.
It is then that he truly crosses the threshold by playing by the rules and living up to his potential — without letting his maverick ways get in the way.
Test, Allies, and Enemies
As the training continues, Maverick is constantly badgered and challenged by Iceman.
On top of this, he is pursuing a relationship with a civilian instructor. She fends him off until finally agreeing to go out with him.
Their relationship begins to force Maverick to open up about the reasons he does what he does and flies how he flies. We learn that his father’s death is classified — with many saying that he screwed up during the mission.
Maverick is forced to balance his relationship with his training.
Maverick is getting closer and closer to beating Iceman in the competition for the Topgun trophy. He even manages to lock onto Viper after the CO surprised the aviators during maneuvers.
Jester commends Maverick on his flying, but questions his tactics — as does Iceman.
Maverick and Charlie’s relationship grows after she openly questions his maneuvers during a briefing with his competing aviators. She divulges that she can’t show favoritism towards him in front of the men — even though she believes he’s one of the most talented aviators she has ever seen.
We also meet Goose’s wife and son as Maverick and Charlie go out to eat with them. We learn of the bond Maverick has with Goose and his family as well. And Goose’s wife tells Charlie that she’s never seen Maverick so dedicated to a woman before.
During a training maneuver, just as Maverick and Goose are edging out the competition, their F-14 flies through the jet wash of Iceman’s fighter jet, causing them to go into a deadly spin.
They manage to eject, but Goose is thrown into the canopy. He floats lifelessly down to the ocean with his parachute as Maverick swims towards him, screaming. He holds Goose in his arms as they are rescued.
Goose is dead.
Maverick and Goose’s wife, along with her now fatherless son, mourn. Maverick’s name is cleared after a trial and Viper sends him back up. But Maverick isn’t himself. He’s struggling with the guilt and the inner demons.
To make matters even worse, Charlie has accepted a new position in another city.
Maverick decides to quit.
When Maverick later visits the home of Viper, Viper divulges the truth behind his father’s classified death. Maverick’s belief that there was no way his father made a mistake during the combat mission that took his life — as most around the Navy believed — is confirmed when Viper tells him that his father acted heroically and saved the lives of many, including Viper himself.
The questions that haunted Maverick and forced him to push the limits in his own aviator career have been answered. His father was a hero. And there’s no reason that Maverick can’t be either. He now knows what he has to truly live up to.
The Road Back
Viper tells Maverick that he’s garnered enough points to graduate from Topgun. He can show up at graduation.
During the graduation party, Viper calls in the newly graduated aviators with the orders to deploy. Iceman, Hollywood, and Maverick are ordered to immediately return to the U.S.S. Enterprise to provide air support for the rescue of a stricken ship that has drifted into hostile waters.
Maverick and Merlin (Cougar’s former flying partner) are assigned as back-up for F-14s flown by Iceman and Hollywood, although Iceman has reservations over Maverick’s state of mind.
A hostile engagement ensues with six MiGs — one of which shoots Hollywood down. Maverick and Merlin are scrambled. But because of a catapult failure on the U.S.S. Enterprise, they are the only ones sent out. As Maverick engages, he encounters circumstances similar to those that caused Goose’s death. Maverick’s lack of self-confidence resurfaces and he pulls out, leaving Iceman in danger.
Maverick manages to muster back the self-confidence he needs to get back into the fight after grasping Goose’s dog tags while saying, “Talk to me, Goose.”
Upon finally rejoining Iceman, Maverick shoots down three MiGs, and Iceman one, forcing the other two to flee. They’ve won, and Maverick has been resurrected as a talented and reliable wingman.
Upon their triumphant return to Enterprise, Iceman and Maverick express newfound respect for each other — and Maverick is once again at the top of his game as a naval aviator. Arguably the best of the best after helping Iceman, the Topgun Trophy winner.
In a moment of silence and reflection, Maverick tosses Goose’s dog tags into the ocean — bidding farewell to his friend.
And by the end, Charlie has returned — if not for one last moment.
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