The Evolution of the Mission: Impossible Franchise

The MIssion: Impossible film franchise started as a Tom Cruise pet project, and honestly, in that one regard it hasn’t changed too much over the 22 years since the release of the first film. However, in nearly every other facet, the films have evolved over time to become the mega-action franchise we recognize today. Major characters and love interests have come and gone. The films have changed styles, directors, writers, and producers. It’s been essentially rebooted twice, and only two characters are consistent through all 6 films so far.

Despite all of this change and the potential turmoil that comes with it, the franchise has remained incredibly consistent, well received, and profitable at the box office. That is an oddity in today’s film landscape, especially when you consider the fact that the most successful franchises are orchestrated by major movie studios, and most of their sequels planned out years in advance. That’s not the case with Mission: Impossible, which has basically been created as it goes along. We weren’t really sure if each of the M:I films would be the last of the series upon their release, and I think that makes the franchise one of the most intriguing, if not exciting. In many ways, the Mission: Impossible franchise lives up to its title. 

The Origin

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Mission: Impossible can, of course, trace its origin back to the television show of the same name. The most fondly remembered iteration of the television show ran from 1966 to 1973, and was produced by Paramount. In the early 1980’s, interest in a renewal began but never got off the ground. Paramount began looking into the possibility of resurrecting the show as a feature film, but there wasn’t enough funding available at the time to make it work. In 1988 a writers’ strike seriously hampered television studios’ abilities to produce new content. They began looking through old scripts to update easily, and one option was Mission: Impossible. An updated series ran on ABC from 1988 to 1989, but it was not well received.

After becoming a successful movie star in the late 1980’s, Tom Cruise wanted to have more creative control over the films he worked on. To make this possible, he started his own production company in 1993, Cruise/Wagner productions, and signed an exclusive contract with Paramount Studios. Paramount had maintained the rights to Mission: Impossible, and Cruise became interested. Cruise didn’t want to be associated as only a dramatic actor (all of his recent films at the time had been dramas), and he wanted something that was more of a challenge. On top of the additional complexities associated with producing the film in addition to starring in it, he agreed to do all his own stunts.

When Mission: Impossible was released, it was met with mixed reviews, but nonetheless found success at the box office. Part of the reason for its success came from the fact that at the time it had the widest opening in cinematic history. Paramount was desperate for a summer blockbuster, and so a large release along with an innovative marketing campaign helped to assure it got the attention it deserved. Also, having a big star not known for his action-movie chops step into a big-budget action movie was somewhat of a novel idea.

The Stylish Sequel

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Today the original Mission: Impossible film isn’t really considered an action movie. Although it had some crazy stunts and action sequences, it is more of a spy thriller by today’s standards. Consider that Ethan Hunt never fires a gun in the entire movie. That would change for the sequel, which looked towards upping the ante (as all sequels tend to do). Cruise wanted the Mission: Impossible sequel to live up to the title, and so the focus shifted towards having the film’s thrills come from action rather than intrigue.

Although the second film contained its fair share of extreme stunts, the “Impossible” aspect of Ethan Hunt’s mission came from mostly traditional action set pieces – think gun fights and car chases. This is different than later entries into the series where the insane stunts themselves would become the trademark of the series more so than traditional action. To assist in developing Mission: Impossible into a modern action vehicle, Cruise brought on legendary action director John Woo. Woo is best known for his contribution to the Hong Kong action subgenre, of which he brought many traits to the production of M:I 2 (insane shootouts, slow motion, martial arts, use of motor vehicles, fashionable costumes, and of course…doves!).

MIssion: Impossible II became the highest grossing film of 2000. However, box office success did not equate to audience enjoyment. The film was derided by critics and audiences who saw the movie as all flash and no substance. The change away from the more cerebral and twisty plot of the original film towards a more straight-forward action vehicle was not well received. Although the film’s image has recovered over time, Tom Cruise and his studio had difficulty getting interest to do another one. It seemed that MIssion: Impossible II had tarnished the original’s reputation, and a drastic change in direction would be required to bring audiences back.

The First Soft Reboot

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David Fincher was initially offered the opportunity to direct the third Mission: Impossible film. However, his experience directing Alien 3 made him cautious to become involved in the middle of a movie franchise because he feared he would not have much creative control. He was replaced by Joe Carnahan, who had plans for something big and brash. He worked on the film for 15 months before quitting due to creative differences with the producers. Cruise had watched Alias and was intrigued by J.J. Abram’s creativity. He offered Abrams the opportunity to direct (it would be his first feature film), and Abrams accepted after he was given the opportunity to finish Lost.

This was before Abrams earned his reputation as a reboot king, but Mission: Impossible III would go a long way to establishing that reputation. Gone was the excessive gun-toting action of the first film and the spy-thriller tone of the first. Instead, Abrams utilized many of the techniques that allowed him to find success on television. This included a more character-focused approach, Hunt’s reliance on help from his team rather than being a lone wolf, and utilizing deaths of characters as a shock factor. In many ways, Hunt became a more practical action figure, somewhat in the mold of Jason Bourne. Yet there was also a nod to the gadgets and drama of James Bond (Casino Royale would release the same year as M:I 3, but later). In essence, Abrams set up the series to exist between those other two popular action properties (and in terms of tone positioning it between the previous two sequels).

Unlike the previous two films, the critical response to Abrams’ Mission: Impossible III was largely positive. Unfortunately, audiences did not show up in the same numbers that they had for the previous two films (although it still earned a profit at the box office). Part of this could have been due to the reputation of the previous film, but part of it could have also been attributed towards changing perspectives on Tom Cruise himself. However, the film’s abrupt change in tone compared to the last film, and the fact that Ethan Hunt is characterized as more than just a blunt object means that this film had a remarkably different feel than the previous two. In many ways, Abram’s job was to reignite interest in the franchise, and by all accounts, he succeeded even if it didn’t result in an immediate sequel.

The Second Soft Reboot

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Initially there were no plans for another film, as the ending of M:I 3 depicted Hunt leaving for his honeymoon, and it was assumed that he would no longer be working with the IMF in the same capacity. In real life, Cruise’s erratic behavior was at least partially responsible for Paramount retracting their partnership with Cruise/Wagner productions after the release of the last film. Without Tom Cruise, there was no way for another Mission: Impossible movie to be made, even if he didn’t star in it. But Paramount was desperate to have a profitable movie franchise, and the studio’s eyes fell to Mission: Impossible because it had the benefit of audience recognition. They repaired their relationship with Tom Cruise and the studio hired writers to begin writing the script in 2009.

Initially the plan was to have this film become the basis of an entirely new franchise with Cruise handing off the baton to someone else (Jeremy Renner?). They wanted to have Abrams return as director, but he was unavailable. However, he did contribute as a producer. The film’s direction was offered to Brad Bird, who had made a name for himself as an animated director at Pixar. Bird was offered the opportunity chiefly because of his work on The Incredibles. The studio was looking for a more exciting, adventurous take that would appeal to younger audiences who may not have seen the first few films. Once again, it seemed that the series was starting over; you didn’t have to know what happened in the previous installments to understand the plot of the new film.

Brad Bird’s direction style was a huge boon to the film. It was a hit in theaters and with critics. Bird had decided to make a film that felt big, as he believed Hollywood films lacked the grand spectacle that they had previously been known for. His use of IMAX cameras during many of the film’s action sequences made it an entertaining experience. In many ways, Ghost Protocol is an adventure film. Bird ramped up the pace and introduced a physical comedic element which made the film feel lighter, even though the stakes remained high. While the focus on a team element remained from the previous film, the more character-driven plot was watered down so that the focus could be squarely on the slick action.

Surviving as a Modern Action Movie Franchise

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The success of Ghost Protocol convinced Paramount pictures to continue developing the franchise further and the next film began development in 2013. Christopher McQuarrie was offered the opportunity to direct, and he also would write the script. McQuarrie had been involved on the previous film to finalize the script, although he was not credited. This familiarity with the property marked the first time in the franchise that a director had been involved in more than one film. That familiarity allowed a continuity between this new film and the previous one, also something that had not previously been attempted in the series. In many ways, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation finally molded the Mission: Impossible films into a modern movie franchise.

Part of the modern movie franchise transformation meant maintaining elements from the previous film, more so than any of the preceding sequels had. In the case of Rogue Nation, that meant carrying over more than just Ethan Hunt and Luther Stickell, the only two characters who had been consistently featured in the previous films. It also meant that some story elements were carried over. Rogue Nation deals with the consequences of the events that took place in Ghost Protocol, mainly the idea that Ethan Hunt is now a rogue agent. Audiences responded well to the high-stakes stunt-driven aspect of the previous film, and the filmmakers decided to use the same approach for this sequel. They realized that this was something that audiences could associate to the Mission: Impossible films over other movie franchises. The stunt-focused approach became the franchise’s trademark, along with its star’s participation in them.

Of course, the film couldn’t just be a redux of the previous entry into the series. Every film up to this point had felt distinctly different, and a lot of that had to do with the approach of different directors handling each production. Rogue Nation is probably the most similar-feeling film in the series so far, and that has to do a lot with the decision to utilize continuous elements as discussed above. However, there are some important creative decisions in this film that still make it unique. With Hunt on the run, the tone of this film feels more desperate, which allows the stakes to still feel high, even though the situation is familiar. The film also introduces a female counterpart to Ethan Hunt who he has to work with on an equal basis. This gives the film an interesting dynamic duo feel where the previous films had all but been focused on Ethan Hunt as the lone hero.

Rogue Nation was another hit in theaters and became just as well received as the previous film. In many ways, it confirmed that Tom Cruise’s appeal as an action star has returned despite the ups and downs he has experienced both on screen and off screen. The sixth film in the series, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, arrives in theaters later this month.