Mission: Impossible is Now Better Than James Bond
With the release of Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Ethan Hunt’s has finally completed his mission to overtake James Bond as the best spy series in Hollywood.
When, in 1996, Brian de Palma and Tom Cruise, two of the biggest names in Hollywood at the time, chose to remake a popular television series from the 1960s for the big screen, few could have imagined that the franchise would become one of Hollywood’s most enduring properties. It’s been 22 years since Ethan Hunt accepted his mission and the film industry has changed in major ways since then. The A-List model of stardom is on the wane, CGI dominates the blockbuster medium, and expanded universe franchises rule the roost, with particular focus on high-concept genre fare like Marvel, DC and Star Wars. It seems almost unfeasible that the Mission: Impossible films would go from strength to strength, as its leading man gets older and audiences’ expectations for glossy Summer viewing increase.
Yet the Mission: Impossible series has done that and become as much a critical darling as a commercial one. To date, the first five films in the series have grossed a total of $2.7bn worldwide. From the second film onward, the aggregate scores for the film’s critical response on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic have increased with each addition to the franchise. Currently, Fallout sits at 98% on the Tomatometer. As of the writing of this piece, Fallout is projected to gross around $135m in its opening weekend. Clearly, audiences are on board for more Ethan Hunt. Indeed, he may soon overtake another major movie spy in the popular consciousness. Both franchises have changed a lot through their respective lifespans, but in the battle of the franchises, Mission: Impossiblemay very well have overtaken James Bond.
BOND AND MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE ARE NOTHING LIKE THEY WERE AT THE START
The James Bond franchise has a solid 34 years over Mission: Impossible, as well as nearly 20 extra films. To compare them is inherently faulty but not without merit. Bond arguably stands as the most iconic action hero in cinema, and through his various iterations, he’s helped to redefine the genre again and again. 007 is the suave gentleman of impeccable breeding who likes good cocktails, fast cars, beautiful women and ruthless efficiency in his work. He’s the best at what he does but is often smothered by his own vices. Every actor who has played him has put their own spin on the character, and the franchise has been smart enough to drop some of Bond’s less attractive attributes over the passing years.
The Ethan Hunt films have changed a lot since their inception albeit in less drastic ways. They’ve dropped all pretenses of sticking to the original source material, a move which is for the better, and they’ve placed less emphasis on the intricacies of plotting. The first film is deeply focused on its often-labyrinthine plot, although this doesn’t always pay off as the script wobbles in the details Ethan Hunt himself is also, as is befitting the protagonist, given a more rounded character arc than he would receive in later films. He’s established but his narrative isn’t all that exciting. The audiences care less about Ethan Hunt than they do Tom Cruise. As the franchise moved on, hiring directors like John Woo, J.J. Abramsand Brad Bird, Cruise took control of his franchise and distilled it to its essence: these are films about a major star doing major stunts, and that’s what viewers want to see.
Both franchises have had to adapt to changing tastes or risk becoming irrelevant. The Bond series spent many years leaning into its knowing camp nature until the double-entendre names, increasingly silly gadgets and convoluted villains became too much for viewers. It happened mostly with Roger Moore, but it was also the fate that befell Pierce Brosnan, who spends most of Die Another Day talking in cheap sexual puns and driving an invisible car. By the time Daniel Craig took up the mantle, audiences had seen everything Bond could do and so the franchise went back to basics: darker, more rooted in realism, and very much of its time. That has led to a strong run in the series, with Skyfallproviding a new zenith for Bond as the film showed the character at his weakest and most conflicted. This was Bond with growth and audiences responded eagerly, yet, when its follow-up, Spectre, was released, its direction seemed like such a step back. It did not want to stray from its iconic formula.
BOTH FRANCHISES HAVE FORMULA… BUT IS BOND’S FLAWED?
Everyone knows what to expect from these dueling franchises. Mission: Impossible will give you death-defying stunts and Tom Cruise at his most Tom Cruise-y; James Bond will give you high-class mystery, daring action and impeccable Britishness. Bond, in that sense, is far more rooted in a cultural consciousness than Ethan Hunt, because Bond is consistently held up as a British idol in a way Hunt isn’t with Americans.
That makes it harder for the Bond franchise to stray from its formula, mostly because audiences are more strongly connected to it: you have to have the martinis – shaken, not stirred – even if that drink doesn’t make much sense as a beverage of choice in 2018; you have to have the gadgets and state-of-the-art technology, even as such things become less fantastical to everyday audiences; you have to have the Bond Girls, despite that concept being horribly outdated and at odds with modern cinema. All of these things can be changed, and they have over the years, but the urge to return to what audiences know is frequently too strong to ignore. Mission: Impossible hasn’t had to worry so much about these things, mostly because the franchise doesn’t have those kinds of iconic markers. They have the self-destructing messages and such but none of these things define the movies in quite the same way an Aston Martin and sexy woman with a sexual pun for a name defines Bond. They can afford to tinker with their formula more dramatically.
Where this franchise fares stronger than Bond is in the freedom it has with its protagonist. Ethan Hunt is a cipher more than a definable character. You watch him and know you’re just watching Tom Cruise (and he has played the role in each film for over 22 years, whereas Bond refreshes itself regularly with a new actor). While Cruise has proven himself repeatedly to be a talented actor, he has been a megastar of gigantic proportions for most of his career, and that defines him more than any character he plays. Where that would be limiting for many, Cruise has embraced it, using the franchise and the role of Ethan Hunt as a stepping stone for the kind of ambitious stunt work most actors could only dream of. By not caring all that much about the character, Cruise can do more with the films. Bond doesn’t have that luxury, for better or worse.
The problem with the Bond formula is that so much of it is rooted in ideas that simply don’t fly in 2018. The books are far more lascivious than the movies, with Bond frequently expressing racist and homophobic views, as well as drinking and smoking to levels that would send most normal people to the emergency room. Nowadays, Bond doesn’t smoke and is less heavy with the puns, but many of those traditional markers remain, the most notable being the Bond girls. There will always be gorgeous women with unusual names for Bond to seduce. They’ll typically be a decade or so younger than him (Monica Bellucci in Spectre provided that rarity of an age-appropriate love-interest for Bond), and at least one women in each film will probably die horribly. The franchise will have to directly confront this problem at some point. Even Daniel Craig has been vocal in calling the character a misogynist. Yet, for better or worse, that is his character, so how can you make that formula evolve beyond surface level changes and have it stick?