Three decades after the original Top Gun soared into theaters and became an instant hit, the new sequel Top Gun: Maverick is poised to do the same thanks to its rave reviews and early box office predictions.
One element that has been consistently praised by critics and fans alike is how the film pays homage to and includes Val Kilmer and his iconic character Iceman in a key plot point, which Kilmer's son Jack said means the world to his dad.
"They honor the legacy of Iceman, and he was so stoked by it," recalled Jack, 26, while speaking to PEOPLE about his dad and their documentary Val last year. "[My sister] Mercedes and I went down to San Diego to that big naval base for the shoot with Tom Cruise and everyone. And there were hundreds of extras of real pilots coming up to us and telling us that the first Top Gun inspired them to join the Navy and the Air Force. It was one of the proudest moments of being American that you could think of really."
Maverick producer Jerry Bruckheimer and writer Christopher McQuarrie say that crafting a proper moment for Kilmer and the character was at the top of their to-do list from the beginning. Kilmer was delighted to be involved, no matter the limitations of his speech following the star's 2015 battle with throat cancer, which required chemotherapy, radiation, and a tracheostomy that damaged his vocal cords and permanently altered his speaking voice.
"We called Val and told him we wanted to meet him to be in the picture. And he was thrilled," says Bruckheimer at the film's San Diego premiere in early May. "Tom [Cruise] said he wasn't going to make the movie without him. So the fact that he was able to do it and he worked with us on the script, to have him there and be a part of it was a really emotional day when we filmed him. Because you want to see those two on the screen again, Iceman and Maverick going at it. And that's what movie making and audiences love."
"The really critical thing there was you had to capture a 36-year friendship that you only saw for [a short time] at the end of the film," adds McQuarrie, who has also written/directed the most recent Mission: Impossible movies. "In the first movie they were rivals and they were pushing at each other and it wasn't until the end of the first film, spoiler alert, that they reconcile. So how do you encapsulate that relationship so that you actually feel it without having to tell the audience?"
McQuarrie says everyone involved with the film felt immense responsibility to properly pay tribute to the original, especially when it came to Kilmer returning to play Iceman.
"The other secret to writing iconic characters is casting. You've got Val Kilmer, you're going to be okay," he shares.
"There were just days where you're sitting around and thinking about what you're doing and it truly was a responsibility for us. It was something we took really seriously. We never wanted this to be... It wasn't a cash grab. We had to make a movie that was worthy of the original. And then seeing Val there and seeing Tom together, I'm very excited for [audiences] to see that scene," McQuarrie adds.
Top Gun: Maverick is now playing in theaters.