Why Top Gun’s Infamous Rip-off Wasn’t Really A Rip-off

Many critics (and some fans) of airborne action movie Iron Eagle believe the movie was a Top Gun knockoff, but it predates the more famous release.

1986’s Iron Eagle is mostly famous for supposedly being a shameless Top Gun cash-in and guilty pleasure—but that’s not actually true of the movie (the first part, at least). Released in 1986, Top Gun was a huge hit at the box office. The Tom Cruise vehicle proved so successful that the blockbuster increased real-life Navy and Air Force recruitments rates in the years that followed.

However, despite Top Gun being such an outsized success story for its studio, few movies attempted to rip off the hit’s unique appeal. There was never a Top Gun for the Army, and few movies have managed to imbue warfare with the triumphant fun summer blockbuster tone of Top Gun in the decades since its release (prompting some fans to wonder whether the long-awaited sequel will recapture this trick). There was one hit movie, though, that was accused of shamelessly ripping off Top Gun upon its release and in the years since.

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Related: Why Top Gun’s Reshoots Were A Mistake

Iron Eagle tells the tale of would-be test pilot Doug, rejected by the Air Force because he wasn’t a strong enough flyer. Along with veteran Col. Chappy, Doug “borrows” an F-16 from the US Air Force to save his father who is stranded in hostile enemy territory across the Atlantic. Iron Eagle is about as silly as its summary sounds, and the action movie spawned a trio of sequels despite only being a minor financial hit upon release. Nowadays, though, the movie is best remembered for supposedly ripping off acclaimed action director Tony Scott’s Top Gun—a provably untrue accusation, despite how often it is repeated.

Iron Eagle Came Out Before Top Gun

Despite what many fans and critics of the movie think, Iron Eagle was actually released a few months before Top Gun. Iron Eagle arrived in cinemas in January 1986, while Top Gun arrived four months later at the beginning of the blockbuster season in May. Top Gun was undeniably the bigger hit, earning over $300 million on a budget of only $15 million. However, Iron Eagle was not a failure in the financial department, earning over $24 million on its $18 million budget. However, despite this relative success, the public perception of Iron Eagle nonetheless grew to view the movie as a knock-off of the original Top Gun, even though the hit did actually come out before Scott’s movie.

Iron Eagle and Top Gun’s Stories Aren’t Similar

A failed test pilot teaming up with a veteran to steal a plane and save his father from a nation imprisoning him is not a lot like the tale of a successful test pilot running afoul of competitive co-workers and issues with authority. Iron Eagle’s story is more of a classic war film plot (ironically, as it was the less successful military movie), following the formula of “a rebellious hero faces down faceless foreign threats but this time, it’s personal”. In contrast, one of the most enduringly popular and odd elements of Top Gun’s success is the fact that the movie has no major external protagonist until its final dogfight, and Maverick is both the hero and villain of the original movie as it follows his personal growth rather than any specific mission.

Iron Eagle Wasn’t Military-Approved (Unlike Top Gun)

The creators of Iron Eagle could not get permission to use any real-life F-16s thanks to the Air Force’s longstanding policy to not condone depictions of aircraft theft (no matter how heroic and over-the-top). As a result, Iron Eagle was made without US military cooperation where Top Gun relied on the US military for both equipment and script approval. This was part of the later movie’s formula for success, as the involvement of the real-life Navy and Air Force in the production of Scott’s movie was proudly displayed as part of its advertising campaign. In return, the real-life Navy and Air Force signed up fans outside screenings of Top Gun, further reinforcing the movie’s cozy relationship with the institution that rejected Iron Eagle’s story outright.

Related: Jerry Bruckheimer Is Right About Tarantino’s Famous Top Gun Take

Iron Eagle Received Sequels Before Top Gun

Top Gun is just now receiving its first sequel, 35 long years after the original. In contrast, Iron Eagle received a sequel only two years after the first film in 1988. Not only that, Iron Eagle soon followed this feat with another sequel in 1992, and the fourth film in 1995. Admittedly, Iron Eagle’s sequels were not successes at the box office, with the first only earning $10 million while the second made a paltry $2.5 million. That said, it remains to be seen whether Top Gun: Maverick can beat Ghostbusters: Afterlife at the box office, so the financial imbalance between the two franchises may not be so large for long.

The Bizarre Reason Fans Think Iron Eagle Ripped Off Top Gun

Despite the ample evidence that Iron Eagle did not rip off Top Gun, many fans can be found claiming the opposite online. Even generally well-informed sources make the mistakes, as epitomized by one major review’s dismissal of Iron Eagle: “There’s no apparent logic to any of this, except as a way to capitalize on the current vogue for imperialist fervor and steal the thunder from Paramount’s “Top Gun” (Paul Attanasio, The Washington Post). This is an extraordinary claim when Top Gun was not even yet released at the time, although notably this review never actually says that Iron Eagle stole from the Tom Cruise-starring hit. Instead, the review contends only that the original Top Gun’s potential success could play into the timing of Iron Eagle’s release, a reasonable claim that nonetheless contributed to the erroneous belief that the earlier film copied the later hit.

This claim still barely holds water, though, as although the advertising for Top Gun was big enough that it may have begun by January 1986, Iron Eagle viewers would just about have known that the movie existed four months before its release. Top Gun still had not been seen by anyone, meaning the creators of Iron Eagle could at worst have only cashed in on the early hype for the Tom Cruise movie and not based their entire project on the movie’s success. A similar misunderstanding occurred when viewers of Critters presumed that the 1986 horror-comedy stole its “mini-monsters run amok in a small town” story from Gremlins, when in fact the original script predated the production of Gremlins despite the latter being released first. Whatever the cause, though, Iron Eagle does deserve to be freed from its status as a rip-off of Top Gun (even if, like the Tom Cruise movie, it does have some flaws of its own that are harder to ignore).

More: Why Top Gun: Maverick Flopping Could Be Good For Tom Cruise

Top Gun: Maverick/Top Gun 2 (2021)Release date: Nov 19, 2021

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About The Author

Cathal Gunning
(726 Articles Published)

Cathal Gunning has been writing about movies and TV online since 2020. His obsessions include The Simpsons, Stephen King, the Scream series, and the horror genre in general. He has spent more time thinking about Stranger Things than the writers of Stranger Things, and he has never seen a Star War.

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