At several points during “Top Gun: Maverick,” we see Maverick almost lose his wings within the Navy forever. It happens at the beginning of the film when he takes an unauthorized test flight, it happens later when he dares to challenge the restrictions of training, and it happens once more when he finally loses his cover within the Navy with the death of friend and former rival, Iceman (Val Kilmer) — who used his status as admiral to protect Maverick.
This is, of course, the ultimate threat one can level at him, as Maverick emphasizes repeatedly that flying is all he knows how to really do well. He spends the whole movie fighting off the idea that he might be out of the cockpit for good, until he’s finally proven himself enough to fly as team leader on the mission at the heart of the film. A few hiccups aside, the mission is successful, and Maverick returns home a hero. After that, the film doesn’t really tell us exactly what he’s going to do next in terms of his career, but we do see him back in his hangar, working on that old P-51 Mustang he’s apparently been fixing up for a long time. It’s not definitive proof that he’s moved on, but watching Maverick take to the skies in the Mustang, rather than an F-18 or another experimental aircraft for the Navy, suggests that he’s begun making peace with the idea that he doesn’t have to be a naval aviator forever. By finishing the Mustang, he’s seemingly finished that chapter in his story.