“Today’s Assignment: Kick Some Ass.” Top Gun: Maverick, School of Rock, and the Cool Teacher Movie
The Teacher Protagonists of These Movies Don’t Teach Their Students to Excel—They Teach Them to Rebel
There are, probably, no two movies in the world less alike than Top Gun: Maverick, a nostalgic, technically-audacious movie about talented fighter pilots in the U.S. Navy, and the 2003 comic masterpiece School of Rock, a movie about a man who impersonates a substitute teacher and tricks his fourth-grade students into competing against adults in a local Battle of the Bands tournament.
And yet, after I saw Top Gun: Maverick in theaters this past year, I was gripped, transfixed by the overlaps between the two films. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Top Gun: Maverick reminded me more of School of Rock than it reminded me of any other film, including the original Top Gun.
The first Top Gun is told from the perspective of a student. Top Gun: Maverick is told from the perspective of that same man, but once he becomes a teacher. Yes, whatever else it is, Top Gun: Maverick is a Teacher Movie. Traditionally, teacher movies center around the protagonist convincing a group of people to believe in themselves and inspiring them to achieve something great (i.e. To Sir with Love, Freedom Writers, October Sky, etc.). In many ways, this is accomplished by getting the students to function together as a unit—providing much needed structure and rules and helping them excel in this context. But in Top Gun: Maverick and School of Rock, the teacher helps the students break free from structure. They encourage individuality, not conformity or cohesion.
Top Gun: Maverick and School of Rock fit into the subgenre of “Cool Teacher Movies,” like Dead Poets Society and Mona Lisa Smile. In movies like this, iconoclastic teachers impart to their students how to be independent thinkers, how to resist and break out of the stringent models of all-day-every-day uniformity and “excellence” that have already molded them. These teachers turn their students into ragtag bands of outsiders that they are the leaders—captains—of.
But Top Gun: Maverick and School of Rock take things a step further than the traditional “Cool Teacher Movie.” Usually in these movies, even the most radical, status-quo-disrupting instructor must ultimately leave his or her students; having imparted knowledge and inspired confidence, the teacher must allow the students to move forward on their own, bringing with them what they learned. The role of teacher turns from active to passive, watching their young charges grow beyond them. But these two films revolve around final acts (a Battle of the Bands competition in one, a death-defying aerial assault in the other) where the teachers—renegades, mavericks of sorts—must participate alongside their students.
They teach their straight-line students to be their own wingmen for their respective final missions, teach them how to in fact be like them, how to follow them. In these movies, the ultimate expression of teaching is to join in with students, and to achieve things with them, together. These movies work to collapse the distinction between student and teacher, making everyone equals by the end. By the end, everyone is a rebel. Everyone is… hardcore.
Top Gun: Maverick is full of surprises, including that it became the beloved, breakout hit of 2022. It earned a worldwide box office total of $1.48 billion. It received six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. It caused Steven Spielberg to thank Tom Cruise for “[saving] Hollywood’s ass.” It is a breakneck aerial fantasia of practical special effects and precision stunts. Underneath its big guns, it is a meditation (both narratively and formally) on “the fragility of humanity,” to paraphrase Elizabeth Cantwell in BW/DR, amid an increased computerization of everything; a refusal to accept the replacement of human effort, ingenuity, and creativity by technology.
Whatever else it is, Top Gun: Maverick is a Teacher Movie.
It is the sequel to the 1986 Tom Cruise vehicle about a young, prodigious Navy pilot who refuses to play by the rules. Well, it’s a sequel, but it’s also a redo of the first film, taking place 36 years later but set in the same place and featuring many of the same characters. It’s a better movie, and a better Top Gun, than the first one. The things about the first one that didn’t really work (including the almost out-of-nowhere military battle at the end) are redone knowingly, meaningfully.
Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) is older and wiser than the impetuous flying ace he was, thirty-six years before. But he still has the need for speed and an insubordinate streak, and because of these things, he hasn’t climbed the Navy ranks as high as he should have. He’s a mere captain. He doesn’t have flag rank. And he’s happy with that, because he gets to fly planes for the military, helping develop the future of aviation. He’s also single-handedly trying to change the turning tide away from using AI systems in fighter jets. His work is almost obsolete. He is almost obsolete.
But then he gets an invitation back to Top Gun, the elite fighter jet training academy he attended as a young man. It’s where he came into his own as a pilot, overcame his obsession with being the best, made lifelong friends with his squad, including his rival Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer). And it’s where he lost his best friend and radar intercept officer, Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards), in a tragic accident. And now, all these years later, he returns: not as a student, but as a teacher.
Though he has the skills in spades, Maverick has little business being an educator; the end of the first Top Gun teases that he might stay on and become an instructor, but the sequel reveals he didn’t last more than a few months. Still too-cool-for-school, he’s still a daredevil; he wants to fly.In these films, teachers and students don’t simply collaborate, they coalesce.
But he’s the only one who can do the job the Navy needs. Someone has to teach the Navy’s cream-of-the-crop fighter pilots how to take out an impossible target: an unauthorized uranium enrichment plant located on enemy soil. The plant is close to being operational, and the Navy plans to bomb it before the uranium arrives. The thing is, the plant is located far inside a deep, twisty, and heavily guarded canyon. Flying into it means certain death. And the Navy needs Maverick to teach a handful of talented aviators how to pull off the hit.
School of Rock is a standalone film, directed by Richard Linklater and written by Mike White, and released in 2003 to excellent reviews and a worldwide gross of $131 million, nearly four times its original budget. The protagonist is Dewey Finn (Jack Black), a talented musician whose enthusiasm for rock ‘n’ roll makes him a loose cannon onstage. Fired by his band and in need of a job, he ends up impersonating his meek roommate Ned Schneebly (Mike White), a substitute teacher sought-after by an expensive prep school in need of sudden coverage.
Bored by his new daily grind, he lets the kids have recess every day, until he picks them up from music class and realizes they are all very talented musicians. He then transforms their curriculum into Rock n’ Roll 101—not only organizing them into a music group and assigning related positions, like “security” and tech, but also planning immersive lessons on the history of rock and “rock appreciation and theory.”
At the teachers’ lunch table one day, he shoots the breeze with the other adults, making up a backstory about how he decided to take up the craft. “I was this close to getting the Polish Philharmonic and I nailed the audish, but I didn’t get it. Guess who did? Yo-Yo Ma’s cousin. Little nepotiz! Anyway, I just decided to give up and become a teacher, because those that can’t do, teach.” (He adds, for the benefit of the gym teacher sitting near him, “and those who can’t teach, teach gym.”) But this is antithetical to the kind of “teaching” that Dewey (or Mr. S, as the kids call him) ultimately enacts, which necessitates that the teacher be a “doer,” a practitioner, above all else. Just as Dewey plays music together with the students, Mav dogfights in the air with his own pupils, proving to them that they’re not as swift as they think they are.
When Maverick is called into Top Gun, he’s initially dismayed that he isn’t being asked to fly into the canyon guarding the uranium plant himself. He’s not being asked to be the team leader. He’s frustrated at the prospect of remaining on the ground, preparing students to do what he knows he can. He wants the thrill. He wants the glory. Dewey is the same way.
This desire is very precise. Top Gun: Maverick does not frame Mav as explicitly wishing he were a student, or even as dreaming of reliving his glory days at Top Gun—before graduation, before Goose’s death. School of Rock absolutely doesn’t frame Dewey as wanting anything to do with school (until he realizes he can turn it into all-day-every-day band practice). Both men don’t want the confinement so closely associated with school; they want the opposite. They want to bust conventions, structure, barriers. They want to break records, do the impossible.
This is why Dewey is intrigued by transforming his studious fourth graders into a rock band in the first place, and it’s the same reason why, in the opening scene of Top Gun: Maverick, when Mav learns that his scramjet program is about to be defunded for its inability to break the speed record, he hops into a plane before the inquisitors arrive and breaks the record right there, accelerating to Mach 10 and then a little bit past it. Both men want to do things that have never been done before, an impulse which only compounds once they stand in front of potential disciples.
These films negotiate their protagonists’ desires of being both teacher and wunderkind, both coach and player, both director and superstar. Top Gun: Maverick holds Mav back longer than Dewey; while Dewey assigns himself “lead vocal and shredding guitar” at the same moment he gives the kids their band positions, Mav, who puts together a risky mission plan, has to wait until disapproving Vice Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson (Jon Hamm) nearly cancels the mission, claiming that it can’t be accomplished and training the students is a waste of resources, before he can make his case to lead the pilots himself. He quickly hops in a plane and navigates the same exact course that the fighters will need to take through the real canyon, beating the clock.
Even the reproachful Cyclone can’t conceal his amazement, watching the avatar of Mav’s plane bob and swerve on the classroom monitor. Only when he does the impossible does he get his rightful spot as team leader. Mav’s job isn’t, the film clarifies, to teach his students the tools so that they can one day be better than him: it’s to get them to follow his lead.
It’s important to note the big difference between the two men; namely, that Maverick is legendary for his skills (to the point that they override the resistance to hiring him) and Dewey isn’t, in any way. Duly, they find themselves in their teaching positions for different reasons. But in both, the students blossom under the leadership of their unconventional pedagogues. The fractious, competitive pilots in Top Gun and the stiff Horace Green Prep students have stuff to talk about with each other now, beyond ranks and grades. For the first time at school, they’re having fun. As the fourth grader Zack reminisces in the song he’s working on of the time before Mr. S showed up: “Baby, we were making straight A’s… but we were stuck in our dumb days.”
In turning Maverick into a teacher who must stay in the classroom, Top Gun: Maverick asks a lot of maturity and restraint from him, a character infamously lacking in these two areas. But at the same time, the film isn’t about Maverick growing up; it expects that he will, but it also wants him to be himself. It’s essential that he remains himself. Dewey actually becomes the more selfless leader (in a way), realizing that a song written by his shy guitarist Zack is better than the one he’s written himself about how no one understands him and his band kicked him out. The song that they start rehearsing, and ultimately perform at Battle of the Bands, is Zack’s. And Dewey learns that part of being a leader (and even being an effective teacher) is learning when not to be the center of attention.School of Rock provides a lens for Top Gun: Maverick that further humanizes—even de-militarizes—it.
Top Gun: Maverick locates Mav’s own emotional growth in a deeper realm than education: parenting. Complicating his mission is the fact that Goose’s son, Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller, who, with his sunburned neck and buzzed hair, bears shocking resemblance to Anthony Edwards), is a promising student at Top Gun. He’s not talking to Maverick, who, the film tells us, had become a surrogate father to him throughout the years. Rooster doesn’t blame Maverick for getting his dad killed; he’s mad because, years before, Maverick pulled his application to the naval academy to try to protect him from meeting the same fate as his father. Rooster’s mad because Maverick is trying to parent him, and he insists that he doesn’t need parenting, even though he clearly does. He’s a slow, overly cautious flier, and this is going to get him killed. He needs to listen to Maverick, one way or the other. But he doesn’t want to. So Mav has to convince him.
The first Top Gun movie is all about how cocky-but-skilled Maverick wants to be recognized as the best and eventually (sort of) discovers there are more important things, like teamwork. But the sequel is about discovering the instincts to nurture, protect, and actually teach young people. Dewey has a similar discovery, listening to his students’ anxieties and teaching them about the power they have to express themselves. By the end of their respective films, all of the students are flying high.
School of Rock provides a lens for Top Gun: Maverick that further humanizes—even de-militarizes—it. Like its predecessor, Top Gun: Maverick is, by its very nature, a military movie. More than that, it’s a film that makes the military industrial complex and its practices look very cool. At the start of this essay, I refer to the last-minute aerial battle that takes place at the very end of the first Top Gun. Since that entire film is exclusively about “who’s going to rank #1 in the graduating class,” it’s very surprising when, suddenly, the pilots are sent to a real-life skirmish with an unnamed enemy country. Top Gun: Maverick handles the military backdrop better on a narrative level; having the students train for a mission the whole time helps keep the stakes in focus and avoids inheriting a whiplash-inducing third act.“Defy orders, trust yourself, do what you want,” both movies seem to say.
But this also, conversely, makes the armed forces an unavoidable part of the story, while the first film can forget about it for a while. And rooting for the students—and Maverick—seems to involve endorsing America’s geopolitical self-righteousness.
However, rooting for Maverick means rooting against the military. The things that make Top Gun: Maverick a good teacher movie are also what make it a bad military movie, or more specifically, an ineffective piece of military propaganda. Maverick’s encouragement of independent thinking and overall insubordination make him an ideal teacher in this subgenre, but an undesirable, a black sheep of the military machine. The film makes it clear that traditional military training is supposed to stamp-out the maverick streaks in its prospective recruits—turning them into cogs in the machine.
Top Gun: Maverick is ultimately more pro-Mav than it is pro-military. Maverick is stubborn, unruly, defiant—a charming foil to the U.S. Navy, which is represented as a stuffy, restrictive, and backwards institution. Mav’s attitudes and behaviors, which stand in direct, fundamental conflict with military orthodoxy, are unequivocally the correct ones. The film relentlessly makes its case that if the military got off of Mav’s back and let him do his thing, everyone would succeed.
In the film, insubordination wins… and in fact, saves the day. The Top Gun movies represent a cool protagonist who not only resists formation, but also convinces a part of the next generation to follow suit. And, throughout the course of the film, he unravels the conventions and policies of the military, curdles its crème-de-la-crème.
This is why it makes a fascinating, and fruitful, double-feature with School of Rock, a movie which stresses time and time again that rock ‘n’ roll is about “sticking it to the man.” Dewey tells the kids, in a lesson about bullying that he cleverly disguises as more “rock theory,” that this is the most important part of their music. “You can’t just say it, man,” he tells them. “You’ve gotta feel it in your blood and guts! If you wanna rock, you gotta break the rules. You gotta get mad at the man!” You’ve got to, as Maverick does, challenge rigid, controlling structures with every fiber of your being.
Top Gun: Maverick pulsates with this kind of anti-authoritarian, individualist dissent, from its cold open, in which Mav forces his plane to hit Mach 10 right when he knows the General who plans to shut it down is arriving; he even blasts right over his car as he takes off upwards, a sort of metal middle-finger from the flyboy to the Man.By the end of their respective films, all of the students are flying high.
Top Gun: Maverick is about the increased depersonalization of the military, and the obvious bad idea that this is; Mav is the last defense against an imminent drone-implementation program, and he’s running out of time to stall. Indeed, everyone knows this is Mav’s last stand, but it also might be his last straw. Mav teaching the promising pilots to beat their impossible target is just as important as him showing them how to stick to their guns (so to speak) and fight back against policies and decisions that are wrong. Mav is inspiring his students not to become assimilated, impressed into the military machine so far that they lose their personhood, their personalities.
Top Gun: Maverick is streaked with anger. It glows with passion. It beats with hope. When the pilots follow Maverick into the canyon, when they finally embark on their mission, start implementing what Mav has taught them, what he has inspired them to do, it’s a stirring, invigorating, stand-up-in-your-seat kind of scene. Similarly, when Dewey and the kids finally arrive at the Battle of the Bands contest and step on stage, it’s thrilling. In these moments, all the naysayers (stuck-up military higher-ups, controlling parents) watch the students pull off the most incredible feat they have ever done, and even they can’t help but be moved to cheer. Here, singing the final song—Zack’s song—Dewey purrs into the microphone during a downbeat, “May I please have the attention of the class? Today’s assignment…” and the kids yell out their new battle-cry: “kick some ass!” Their whole audience erupts in elated screams.
This, if anything, is what both Mav and Dewey teach their charges. They teach them to be bold and brave, to speak up and act out, and remain individuals in the face of uniformity. This is certainly an unconventional message for a film that might otherwise be hefty military publicity. “Defy orders, trust yourself, do what you want,” both movies seem to say. There is nothing to be gained from losing yourself in the face of authority.
Or, as a wise man once sang, “if you wanna be the teacher’s pet, baby you just better forget it.”