Here's how Val Kilmer returns as Iceman in 'Top Gun: Maverick' (spoilers!)

Val Kilmer's fan favorite Top Gun character, Iceman, makes a cameo in Top Gun: Maverick. (Photo: Paramount/YouTube)
Val Kilmer's fan favorite Top Gun character, Iceman, makes a cameo in Top Gun: Maverick. (Photo: Paramount/YouTube)

Warning: This post contains spoilers for Top Gun: Maverick.

There's a celebrated franchise tradition of mortal enemies becoming the best of friends just in time for the sequel: think Rocky and Apollo, Woody and Buzz and Thor and Loki. With Top Gun: Maverick you can add Maverick and Iceman to that list. Thirty-six years after they traded sneers, insults and body oil in Tony Scott's era-defining 1986 blockbuster, Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer's alter egos — Pete Mitchell and Tom Kazansky — are now the best of flyboy bros in the long-delayed follow-up.

Kilmer captured the tenor of the duo's new relationship when he compared his Top Gun: Maverick return to "being reunited with a long-lost friend." Cruise reciprocated those feelings when he told People magazine: "We get together... and we just start laughing. It was special to have him back. It meant a lot to me."

Kilmer was still recovering from a long battle with throat cancer when Top Gun: Maverick was filmed in 2018, which limited his appearance in the sequel. And the trailers have been careful not to reveal the full nature of Iceman's storyline, apart from confirming that he's the reason why Maverick is brought back to the Top Gun program in order to train a generation of new pilots for a dangerous mission. In the intervening years since their feud, Iceman — who, let's not forget, ultimately became the top pilot in his Top Gun class — has ascended through the Navy's ranks to achieve four-star admiral status, while Maverick remains a captain whose only apparent interest is flying (and crashing) test planes.

from left to right: Rick Rossovich, Val Kilmer, Edwards and Cruise in a scene from 'Top Gun' (Photo: ©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection)
From left to right: Rick Rossovich, Kilmer, Anthony Edwards and Cruise in a scene from Top Gun. (Photo: ©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Naturally, Iceman's recruiting choice doesn't please Top Gun's ranking officer, Vice Admiral Beau "Cyclone" Simpson (Jon Hamm). "He seems to think you have something left to offer the Navy," Cyclone cynically tells Maverick. "What that is, I can't imagine."

Luckily for Maverick, Iceman is only a text thread away when he's in need of an ego boost. For the first half of the movie, Kilmer's presence is limited to those chat sessions, where he lends his friend a shoulder to lean on as he tries to navigate Navy politics and prove to the cocky younger pilots that he can keep up with them.

And he happens to have an intensely personal connection to one of those cocky pilots: Back in his Top Gun days, Maverick watched his best friend, Goose (Anthony Edwards), die under tragic circumstances. Now, he's been tasked with training Goose's son, Rooster (Miles Teller), for what could prove to be a suicide mission. (Funnily enough, Rooster has his very own Iceman — Glen Powell's Hangman has the same blonde hair and smug attitude that Kilmer rocked back in 1986.)

Not surprisingly, Iceman kept that particular detail from Maverick when he first arranged his return to Top Gun. That leads Maverick to angrily call his friend's subterfuge out over text. "Would you have come?" Iceman reasonably responds.

Midway through the film, Iceman and Maverick finally have a face-to-face reunion, prompted by an urgent text from Kazansky: "I need to see you." Arriving at the admiral's palatial home, Maverick first runs into Iceman's wife, Sarah (Jean Louise Kelly), who thanks him for coming. "It's come back — no one knows," she says, referring to an unnamed disease that her husband is secretly battling. Immediately concerned, Maverick walks into Iceman's study, where his friend is sitting in front of his computer.

As with Kilmer in real life, Iceman's illness has made it challenging for him to speak — hence the digital text-to-speech program that does the talking for him. (Kilmer reportedly collaborated with a London tech company to create the A.I. software featured in the film.) Maverick wants to talk about his health, but all Iceman wants to discuss is Goose, and how Maverick's guilt over his friend's death is still haunting him. "It's time to let go," he insists, driving home the point that Maverick will never be able to be truly help Rooster if he keeps seeing the ghost of the father standing behind the son. "I don't know how," Maverick insists.

Eventually, Iceman stops relying on the computer to speak, and talks to Maverick with his own voice. "The Navy needs Maverick," he says. "That's why you're still here." Iceman's words finally break through Maverick's defenses, and the two men share a hug. But Iceman being Iceman, he can't resist one last dig at his foe-turned-friend: "Who's the better pilot: you or me?" Maverick rolls his eyes in response: "This is a nice moment — let's not ruin it."

Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment last year, Kilmer's children, Jack and Mercedes Kilmer, said they were on set for Maverick and Iceman's brief, but touching reunion. "We were this close to Tom's face," Jack remembered. "He came up and hugged me and just looked me right in the eyes. It was very surreal!" Added Mercedes: "It was really beautiful... I had never seen all of the behind-the-scenes stuff of Top Gun, but my dad filmed all of it, and you can see the guys horsing around on set. And they're all exactly the same when they're together now."

Unfortunately, Top Gun: Maverick also marks the end of the Maverick-Iceman friendship. Late in the film, Admiral Kazansky succumbs to his illness and is given a military funeral with full honors and a 21-gun salute. Maverick is naturally in the crowd and personally pounds Iceman's wings into the top of his casket. And without his friend around, his own days in the Navy seem to be numbered. Cyclone wastes little time pulling Maverick out of his teaching position, but is forced to relent when the pilot seizes the moment to show why he's still a Top Gun.

Maverick attends Iceman's funeral in Top Gun: Maverick. (Photo: Paramount/YouTube)
Maverick attends Iceman's funeral in Top Gun: Maverick. (Photo: Paramount/YouTube)

With Top Gun: Maverick already soaring to the top of the Memorial Day weekend box office charts, there's a good chance that this three-decade old franchise could be set to fly again with additional sequels and spinoffs. That's led some to wonder if the filmmakers miscalculated by killing off Iceman this soon. Kilmer himself doesn't seem to have any hard feelings about his alter ego's fate — the actor recently encouraged moviegoers to make Top Gun: Maverick part of their Memorial Day plans.

For what it's worth, one of those Top Gun spinoffs could be a whole Paramount+ series devoted to chronicling Iceman's Navy career. And who better to write the theme song than one-man nostalgia machine, Vanilla Ice. Let's kick it, Maverick.

Top Gun: Maverick is playing in theaters now.