In June 2020, the nostalgia-industrial complex will pump out Top Gun: Maverick, which will undoubtedly feature hotshot pilot Tom Cruise slaughtering a few dozen foreigners in order to complete his character arc. Cruise may do the hardest salute you’ve ever seen, but the real star of TG:M could just as easily be his F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet.
The movie is a sequel to 1986’s Top Gun, which was part of the 1980s’ obsession with turning cool vehicles into movie and TV stars. Depending on how pedantic you feel like being, this subgenre/cycle/craze kicked off with either The Dukes of Hazzard (1979) or Knight Rider (1982) and continued through Firefox, Iron Eagle, Black Moon Rising, and no less than 10 Knight Rider remakes/sequels/video games before culminating in Knight Boat. Even Magnum, P.I.‘s Ferrari and The A-Team‘s van were more recognizable than any of their actresses. (I know I just rattled off more Gen X signposts than a season of Family Guy, but bear with me.)
Attempts to revive the genre have been mixed. Why? Because now that you can sit down at a computer and make thousands of spaceships out of pixels and Red Bull, the idea of building an entire franchise around one vehicle seems silly. It was only in the ’80s—which came after the rise of the summer blockbuster but before CG-everything—that the vehicle show could flourish. (The closest analogs currently on the market are the Fast & Furious movies, which have the technology and budgets to create a world in which muscle cars outnumber people 10 to 1.)