His Name Says it All
Lieutenant Pete "Maverick" Mitchell is true to his name. He is definitely a maverick (i.e. a guy who plays by his own rules) if there ever was one. For most of the movie he is cocky, self-assured, and, as he himself admits in a locker room showdown with Iceman:
MAVERICK: That's right Ice… man… I am dangerous.
Maverick is notorious for leaving his wingman in the interest of greater glories elsewhere, and he'll also engage in childish pranks (like buzzing the tower) for sport and break the rules of the training exercises at Top Gun (in his first heat at Top Gun, Maverick goes below the mandatory, minimum elevation level). Getting yelled at by Viper and Jester doesn't seem to phase him all that much.
But He's So Charming and Talented…
Now, even though Maverick is a little rough around the edges, so to speak, he's a pretty likable guy. He's charming, good-looking, and a whole lot less arrogant than his main rival for the Top Gun trophy: Iceman.
Oh and one more thing: Maverick is an amazing pilot. Seriously, he's really, really good, if unorthodox. Even Viper himself has to remark during a training exercise:
VIPER: Damn this kid's good.
He definitely never says that about Iceman now does he? Both Charlie and Stinger also compliment Maverick's flying, a courtesy they never extend to Iceman.
The Chip on His Shoulder
Okay, so Maverick is a maverick. He marches to the beat of his own drummer, and sometimes he takes things too far. But what really makes him tick?
Oftentimes, the stereotypical story goes, guys that are really, really, really cocky are just trying to cover up a deeply rooted insecurity. What insecurity might that be? Well, for starters, the Mitchell name. Recall that near the beginning of the movie, when Maverick and Goose are being chewed out for breaking protocol and saving Cougar's life, Stinger reminds Maverick that he and everybody else knows that his name:
STINGER: ...ain't the best in the Navy.
If you look closely at Maverick's face when Stinger tells him this, you can kind of see the insecurity, especially in his jaw. Maverick looks totally vulnerable and scared at that moment, a sign that if you really want to make Maverick feel horrible just bring up his family history. This is one of the first signs that "Maverick" might just be a mask or alternate identity for an insecure Pete Mitchell.
Throughout the film we get little snippets of information about Maverick's family history—Goose visits him late at night to talk about their first run-in with Viper, and he mentions that Maverick wasn't admitted to the Naval Academy because he's "Duke Mitchell's kid." Hmm.
Maverick fills in the details during his first date with Charlie. Maverick's father disappeared and/or crashed during the Vietnam War, and the story Maverick has been told is that he disobeyed orders and that he was a failure—which is exactly the line Maverick toes throughout the movie. Maverick's family past haunts him, as Goose says:
GOOSE: It's like you're flying against a ghost.
Viper eventually tells Maverick what actually happened (his father saved several planes even though his plane was already hit), and Maverick is able to lay the ghost to rest, so to speak.
A Ladies Man
Let's tell it to you straight: Maverick is self-assured, overly confident, aggressive, and a womanizer (the nightclub for him is a "target-rich environment"). Speaking of which, remember the moves he puts on Charlie? He tells her two minutes into the conversation that his chances of sleeping with her are:
MAVERICK: ...looking good so far.
He's so confident, he follows her into the bathroom, then tells her a few day later that she was tempted to ask him to dinner.
Throw into the mix the fact that Maverick more or less denies Charlie when she's all but begging for a kiss, and you can tell we're dealing with a professional player here, a guy who knows to get the ladies chasing him (which Charlie does, in her car, after which she confesses that she's fallen for him).
Let's be fair to the guy. Maverick is also loyal to his closest pals (Goose especially), and willing to break few rules here and there in the interest of winning, saving the day, etc.
He's insecure, sure, but he does love life on the edge. He's a total thrill seeker: he loves fast planes, fast motorcycles, chasing women into women's bathrooms, and flying past air control towers at exorbitant speeds.
Dangerous, yes? The best there is? Probably.