This past weekend, audiences went back yet one more time to see a Paramount movie that is already a billion-dollar blockbuster, was hailed as one of the biggest theatrical experiences of its time, defied delays and pessimism about its very existence to exceed every possible expectation, was powered by a theatrical-obsessed, suspected madman and by one of the most prominent male actors in Hollywood, and went from mere action film to mega-hit to awards season hit. But after audiences already did that for “Top Gun: Maverick” almost every weekend in 2022, they did it one more time for “Titanic” this particular weekend too.
“Titanic” is briefly back in theaters 25 years after its initial world conquest and Oscar season sweep, and just a few weeks before “Top Gun: Maverick” attempts to make awards season history as well. Of course, since “Titanic” won 11 Oscars and today’s Best Picture winners are lucky to win more than three, “Top Gun: Maverick” can’t overtake its Oscar records, much like it couldn’t with its box office records. Nonetheless, if it can somehow spring upsets at the upcoming PGA and/or WGA awards, Best Picture would still have a chance to be won by another odds-defying Paramount blockbuster 25 years later.
“Top Gun: Maverick” is set in the air instead of the sea, is not built around a young love story, has a far happier ending, and is based on a 35-year-old movie instead of a real-life tragedy. Even so, there are many more ways in which it kind of really is the “Titanic” of its time – and helps prove that if “Titanic” was made in 2022 instead of 1997, it still might have been just as big now as it was then, if not more so. “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Titanic” each have creative forces at the center that have been big since the 80s, are as loved as they are hated, and have made it their apparent life’s mission to keep the theatrical experience alive. Still, while “Titanic’s” James Cameron is just the director, “Top Gun: Maverick’s” Tom Cruise is merely the lead actor and producer. However, he’s gotten far more credit than actual director Joseph Kosinski. With “Top Gun: Maverick,” Cruise was hailed more than ever for making epic-scale action look realistic and practical, despite some still necessary CGI. Yet almost no one else would insist on him and his co-stars actually flying fighter jets for training and dogfight scenes, especially in an era of green screens and underpaid visual effects artists. However, one exception would probably be Cameron – at least the Cameron who built as much of a stand-in Titanic as possible, then flooded it and his actors with real freezing water.
It is a bit hard to imagine an alternate universe where Cameron makes “Titanic” for a 2022 release instead of 1997 – and not just because of the implications for the “Avatar” franchise. But “Top Gun: Maverick” proved how starved audiences were for non-superhero blockbusters that looked more real than fake, were designed to be seen on massive screens and not just streaming services, and were about much more than blowing things up or advancing cinematic universes. In essence, that is precisely what “Titanic” did 25 years earlier – and it is exactly why it would have fit right into today’s times even more than it did back then.
A 2022 “Titanic” would have been hailed as a superhero antidote and a return to old-school blockbuster filming, just like “Top Gun: Maverick” is now. But if a 2022 version was dismissed as romantic pop fluff compared to the year’s other Oscar season masterpieces, like “Titanic,” indeed was by haters 25 years ago and beyond, the pushback against such backlash would have been much louder and faster. Ideally, some of today’s audiences would have been far quicker to shut down snide and/or sexist comments about the lead male actor’s female fanbase, the end credits love ballad, the female-driven repeat business, and especially outright hateful comments about the lead actress’s body type. Yet in today’s times, allegations of harsh and even dangerous working conditions on set would have stuck to Cameron and the film harder as well.
In this particular Oscar season, “Titanic” would have fit in perfectly with the season’s two biggest themes – populist blockbusters that made a lot of money and were loved by critics too, and “eat the rich” movies like “Triangle of Sadness,” “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” and “The Menu.” In fact, “Titanic” would have joined “Triangle of Sadness” as class-themed movies where a cruise ship sank midway through, and technically also joined “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” and “The Menu” although they both started with ocean cruises that made their destination.
“Titanic” was made back when the internet was just a pipe dream for this kind of discussion, let alone Twitter. But between its ‘realistic’ visuals and action, its sneakily feminist love story, and throwback romantic elements that are far harder to fully get away with mocking now than 25 years ago, it was tailormade for sections of modern society to embrace now. Even though it conquered the world regardless in 1997, it would have been unstoppable as a 2022 movie – and not just because Cameron proved 2022 audiences still love him with “Avatar: The Way of Water.”
With all that in mind, it is a bit harder to say “Top Gun: Maverick” is the “Titanic” of its time, especially when we already have a new Cameron blockbuster and Oscar nominee for our time with “Avatar: The Way of Water.” Despite that, it is hard to say that it doesn’t come as close as it possibly could have – and not just because they each have controversial, four-decade-spanning legends driving them who still get doubted at every turn. Like “Titanic,” “Top Gun: Maverick” came out far later than it was initially scheduled to, only it was primarily due to the pandemic instead of budget issues and long shoots. Like “Titanic,” “Top Gun: Maverick’s” very existence seemed ill-advised, only it was mostly due to being a seemingly pointless “Top Gun” sequel instead of an expensive love story from an action director. Like “Titanic,” “Top Gun: Maverick” has an Oscar-nominated chart-topping end-credits ballad from one of the most notable performers of her time, even if Lady Gaga’s “Hold My Hand” isn’t the mega-smash that Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” still is. And like “Titanic,” “Top Gun: Maverick” was not expected to rule the box office for more than one or two weekends, let alone for months on end, until it became the highest-grossing Paramount movie to date. For that matter, almost no one could have dreamed “Titanic” or “Top Gun: Maverick” would come remotely close to the Oscars until they made enough money to force their way in.
When Oscar season reached its end 25 years ago, “Titanic” dominated despite fellow nominees like “L.A. Confidential,” “Good Will Hunting,” “The Full Monty,” and “As Good as It Gets” leading the way until the industry weighed in. Likewise, “Top Gun: Maverick” is an apparent underdog to more critically decorated films like “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” “The Banshees of Inisherin,” “TAR” and “The Fabelmans” as the industry prepares to weigh in finally. But unlike “Titanic,” “Top Gun: Maverick” isn’t nominated in virtually every tech category, has no acting nominations, and doesn’t even have a Best Director nomination for Kosinski. Even if it wins most or all of its below-the-line categories, it will get nowhere for Best Picture unless it wins the PGA award on February 25th and then rides the momentum to rally in the only above-the-line category it is in beyond Best Picture – Best Adapted Screenplay. Ironic enough, Screenplay is one of the only categories “Titanic” missed a nomination for, let alone a win.
Even so, it may be written in the stars that an odds-defying, seemingly doomed Paramount-produced smash hit made by highly volatile creatives winds up winning Best Picture every 25 years. Technically, one can add “The Godfather” to that trend a full 25 years before “Titanic,” even though it was a gangster film on land instead of a disaster romance at sea or an action sequel in the air. But maybe this alone should have signaled that another improbable Paramount movie would take the same basic journey right on cue, despite a few added twists. Yet 25 years from now, it is unlikely that “Top Gun: Maverick” will get re-released in theaters – in whatever form they’ve taken by 2048 – and reappraised with the same level of devotion that “Titanic” is right now, even if it does stun the world with a Best Picture upset. Still, as different as they are, they are kindred spirits in too many other ways to ignore. Beyond that, it only scratches the surface of how “Titanic” has aged to fit right in with more than just this one symbol of the modern blockbuster and theatrical era.
Do you think “Top Gun: Maverick” will bring Paramount Pictures another Best Picture Oscar win? What Oscars do you see it winning? Please let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account and check out our latest Oscar predictions here.
You can follow Robert and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @robertdoc1984