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Top Gun: Maverick's Mysterious Enemy Explained

Contains spoilers for "Top Gun: Maverick"

Paramount Pictures is finally releasing "Top Gun: Maverick," the long-awaited sequel to Tony Scott's hit 1986 film starring Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer. The movie, which was originally intended to release in summer 2019 before pandemic-era delays and scheduling issues set it well off course, meets U.S. Navy pilot Pete "Maverick" Mitchell three decades after the events of "Top Gun" (via Deadline). The film quickly establishes that Maverick — even after a highly decorated Navy career — has avoided promotions for decades and remains at the rank of Captain. Meanwhile, Tom "Iceman" Kazansky (Kilmer) has ascended to four-star admiral and now commands the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

In the new sequel, Maverick is forced into returning to TOPGUN on Iceman's orders to train a group of the school's top graduates for a top-secret mission: an assault on a uranium enrichment site carefully placed in treacherous mountains, defended by heavy anti-aircraft weaponry and more advanced aircraft than the Navy's F-18 planes. Given that Maverick is one of the Navy's only pilots with real-world dogfighting experience from the original "Top Gun," Iceman considers him the only person capable of training the newer pilots — including Bradley "Rooster" Bradshaw (Miles Teller), Nick "Goose" Bradshaw's son. Maverick, who struggles with assuming a teaching role even after accepting one at the end of the original "Top Gun," slowly helps the pilots learn to work as a team and winds up leading the mission himself to prove that it actually can be done.

This makes for a thrill ride of a third act, but there is just one hiccup: In true "Top Gun" fashion, "Top Gun: Maverick" never actually identifies the enemy. For the duration of the film, we're dealing with shadowy, nameless uranium enrichers.

The original Top Gun never revealed who Maverick and Iceman fight

Creating a vague enemy is not anything new for "Top Gun." The original 1986 movie spends most of its time at the training school, where Maverick, Goose, and Iceman compete against one another in training exercises and develop a rivalry. In the film's opening sequence and climax, which do feature Maverick going up against real enemies, the movie never exactly names the nation that the pilots who operate enemy MiG-28s are from.

Task and Purpose dedicated a whole article to speculating on this very point. The military news organization noted that — given the Cold War-era release of the original — it would be easy to assume that the enemy MiG-28s are Soviet in origin. However, the article also notes that the paint on the enemy planes doesn't match Soviet-era fighters at all, and more closely resemble North Korean or Chinese planes. 

Task and Purpose also notes that the first combat sequence in "Top Gun" takes place in the Indian Ocean; China reportedly did not operate any aircraft carriers in the 1980s, and neither country is close enough to the Indian Ocean to have aircraft launch from the mainland for that encounter. Despite this, the "Top Gun" Special Edition Blu-Ray features commentary alongside the movie from Scott and producer Jerry Bruckheimer in which they reportedly confirm that they intended for the enemy combatants in the movie to hail from North Korea (via IGN).

Top Gun: Maverick keeps the enemy's identity ambiguous for a good reason

Soldiers in the U.S. military are supposed to follow orders as directed, but it does stand out that neither Maverick nor his pilots ever bother to ask what country they're attacking in "Top Gun: Maverick."

The target of this mission is a uranium enrichment site, so presumably the U.S. is acting preemptively against a fledgling nuclear power. The Arab Weekly supposes that this is meant to represent Iran, and that certainly seems plausible. International negotiations intended to ultimately prevent Iran from acquiring enough fissile nuclear material to make a nuclear weapon have been ongoing for years (via Politico). Beyond asserting that the enemy is using more sophisticated fighter planes than the U.S. and plenty of anti-aircraft radar weaponry, though, there is no indication of where exactly Maverick and Rooster set off to on the harrowing mission. The mountains and valley where the uranium enrichment site is located are bland; the enemy airbase the pair steal an old F-14 from is vaguely snowy, and they don't actually speak to anyone on the base.

As The Arab Weekly notes, it's probably for the best that "Top Gun: Maverick" does not identify Iran, Russia, or any other nation as the specific enemy in the new movie. American media has spent the last several decades making bogeymen out of other nations — NBC's "The West Wing" even invented a fictional Middle Eastern nation, Qumar, to create conflicts for its fictional White House. Rather than crudely invent a foreign nation or provoke a real-world one in a sequel to a movie that moonlit as a recruiting effort for the U.S. Navy (via The Guardian), "Top Gun: Maverick" keeps the focus on the characters at hand — not who they're shooting at.