Everyone knows the spy genre when they see it on screen. If you’re watching incredibly photogenic people in various incredibly photogenic locations around the globe (especially Europe’s capitol cities) doing incredibly photogenic and amazing physical feats, you’ve entered the world of international espionage. The success of James Bond in films in the ‘60s spurred many small-screen spies. One of these was Mission: Impossible, and it was a hit, running from 1966 to 1973. For over 20 years, the film franchise has been just as successful. Over the course of six installments, the Mission: Impossible series has improved in its treatment of female characters, its narrative continuity, and in maintaining its signature stunt work.
The first Mission: Impossible film hit theaters in 1996. Directed by Brian de Palma, it starred Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt, an agent with the IMF, or Impossible Mission Force, a section of American intelligence tasked with taking on the most difficult and covert spy work. Jon Voight costars as Jim Phelps, the only character transferred from the series, and other international stars join in, such as Ving Rhames, Emmanuelle Beart, Kristin Scott-Thomas, and Jean Reno. The second film opened in 2000, directed by John Woo and a mainly new cast supporting Cruise, including Sir Anthony Hopkins. J.J. Abrams directed Mission: Impossible 3 in 2006. Brad Bird took over directing duties for Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol in 2011. Christopher McQuarrie led Mission: Impossible- Rogue Nation in 2015 and continued with Mission: Impossible- Fallout in 2018.
This franchise evolves positively from its beginnings to its latest entry in many ways, but I want to single out its presentation of female characters. In the first film, the major female characters who aren’t killed early on turn out to be duplicitous or an arms dealer. The second film has some flat-out misogynistic dialogue, though the (only) major female character is on the good side. However, things take a turn with the third film, when the audience finds Ethan out of field work and getting married to Julia (Michelle Monaghan). Though inevitably pulled into the danger, she proves resourceful and genuinely in love with Ethan. The remaining films feature female characters who work with Ethan in some capacity and have complex motives of their own (yay for realism!).
An overall strengthening of the extended narrative becomes clear as the Mission: Impossible movies play out from the first to the last. I remember complaints about the first film being confusing. I didn’t relate to that—I could follow it. However, one of the best storytelling choices made in the later installments was to keep the emotional connections established earlier, like Ethan and Julia (though they don’t stay together), and add a strong overarching plotline that threads through the fourth, fifth, and sixth films. It’s pleasing for the audience when Rhames’ Luther Stickel appears in every entry, and when excellent comedic relief Benji, played by Simon Pegg, stays around for the rest of the series after popping up in Mission: Impossible 3. Another highlight is the way Fallout references the first film by introducing a character who is the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave’s arms dealer from that film.
The impressive stunts, many of which Cruise does himself, is a trademark of the franchise. Throughout all six films, the filmmakers maintain this while increasing the awe-factor of what they achieve. Everyone remembers Cruise suspended in the air over the pressure-sensitive floor of the vault in CIA headquarters in Langley in the first film, which the third film reprises a bit. The later chapters of Ethan’s story go even bigger. Cruise has climbed on the side of one of the tallest buildings in the world with magnetic gloves, hung onto the side of an airplane, and run all over too many cities to count. Fallout just may best all of that, though, with the “Halo Jump” scene in which Cruise and co-star Henry Cavill parachute out of a plane into Paris at night, presented in a single, unbroken shot.
In terms of treatment of female characters, narrative continuity, and maintenance of stunt work, the Mission: Impossible series improves from its first to its latest film. That’s six movies over 20+ years, and there is no doubt more to come is a safe bet. To the filmmakers behind this franchise, I would say: your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to continue these positive developments for future entries. Don’t let this saga self-destruct!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Sexton lives in Ohio with her dog Lily. Her favorite things are movies and books, and her hobby is editing fan videos.