the unbearable weight of massive legacy
thoughts on the release of top gun maverick
I was ill recently, and to help me recover, I binged the whole of the first season of How I Met Your Father, the new series set in the same “universe” as the early 2000s hit How I Met Your Mother. HIMYM was basically conceived as a way to fill the void of Friends, which had ended the year before. Father, meanwhile, is capitalising on a wave of recent nostalgia for the kinds of sitcoms of yesteryear, again best exemplified by the resurgence of popularity of… what else but Friends.
As such, How I Met Your Father is a pretty odd watch in 2022. Before we continue, let me clarify; the show isn’t good. I’m not really a fan of the original anyway, but Father is particularly unfunny, especially in comparison. But it’s interesting because, despite being filled with the trappings of life in 2022 (references are made to tinder, instagram stalking, tik-tok dance trends etc.), the show itself hasn’t changed either the style of filming or comedy of Friends (which itself follows a long tradition of multi-camera sitcoms).
Even though Father makes some tangential references to the original, including a couple of cameo appearances from both characters and locations, the show itself is pretty separate. The main characters, including a bizarre choice to make one of them basically Prince Harry, don’t stick too closely to the dynamics of the HIMYM cast (perhaps they realised someone as sleazy as Barney doesn’t translate well to 2022). Instead, what it captures best is the tone of a bygone era, when sitcoms were best defined by a kind of comfortable blandness and a focus on interpersonal relationships between loosely drawn caricatures.
More modern sitcoms have pushed the envelope of the genre further - not just ditching the laugh track, but moving with the trend of prestige television to give more life and depth to their characters. No, says How I Met Your Father. Remember how great it was when these things were simpler? Of course, in thinking those early sitcoms were simple, it neglects to provide the viewer with a single memorable character or good joke. Say what you want about Friends, its success in the 2020s isn’t just that it’s comfortable nostalgia - it’s also because, love it or hate it, it was undoubtably written by some of the best comedy writers and performed by some of the best comic actors of its time.
If How I Met Your Father fails to find the appeal of the original, it might bear taking some notes from Top Gun Maverick, which perfectly understands how to capture and update the appeal of the 1986 military propaganda film Top Gun, dubiously crowned a classic due to its huge influence on the pop culture landscape (the phrase “wingman”, Highway to the Danger Zone, Need for Speed - the original Top Gun seems to have popularised more terms than Shakespeare himself ever dreamed of.)
Rewatch Top Gun in 2022 and its flaws become strikingly obvious; most of its charm comes from an aggressive amount of 80s cheese and sleaze, as well as a typically winning performance by certified insane person Tom Cruise. Going into Maverick, the long-awaited sequel, I was worried that it would take the route of the recent Ghostbusters sequel, giving an overwhelming reverence to something that simply doesn’t need or deserve it.
But Maverick is canny - it knows the appeal of Top Gun, even for its fans, was never that the film was a classic of cinema. Director Joseph Kosinski remakes the original film in a way that preserves its charms while updating the things about it that didn’t work. Difficult to follow action scenes from the original are made into some of the most impressive stunts and action set-pieces in a modern Hollywood blockbuster, while the scenes on the ground retain a cheeky wink and a nod, never going overboard into nostalgia, but never taking itself too lightly either. It knows it’s crap, but it doesn’t have to point it out. We’re all in on what’s going on, so just relax, have fun, enjoy the sights.
Because of this, and despite the film’s huge scale, this makes Maverick somewhat of a lesson in humility. It seems weird to call a film like this “humble”, but what I mean by that is that it succeeds because it never pretends its mission is anything other than to entertain, and it never strays from trying to find the most effective way to accomplish that.
The problem with making a legacy sequel is that it often means having to sift through years of pop-culture re-appreciation in order to determine the key appeal of what you’re trying to remake. Ghostbusters Afterlife got really confused, reimagining the first Ghostbusters as a kind of Amblin family classic, rather than a sleazy SNL comedy about a crew of exterminators. How I Met Your Father realised that much of the appeal of HIMYM came from a general audience’s nostalgia of shows like Friends, but failed to capture the easy character dynamics of that, and clumsily tried to mesh in 2022 life into a 90s sitcom style.
This is precisely why Maverick is such a tightrope walk, and so impressive to watch. So much of Hollywood now consists of ungracefully exhuming the ghosts of the past that it’s tempting to imagine that this could never be done right - but Maverick shows the way forward. We’ll see if other films and TV shows take some of this message on board, but I’ve seen the trailer for Jurassic World Dominion enough times already to guess the answer.
Very witty. Enjoyed