Everyone loves a good spy movie. They are entertaining, and they feed the belief that crazy government conspiracies are going on in the background of everyday life. It’s encouraging for us to think that America has an Ethan Hunt in real life that is just going around beating up the bad guys and saving the masses. That’s why these movies always do well. We love to see the superhuman Ethan Hunt do what he does best: Save the world in dramatic fashion.
I keep referencing Ethan Hunt. I find his character arc to be incredible. Yes, these are huge blockbuster movies, but the Mission: Impossible series has latched on to a great lead. Tom Cruise is an incredible actor, and if you doubt that, read Amy Nicholson’s book Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor. Let’s explore the power of Tom Cruise’s acting abilities with his character arc through the Mission: Impossible franchise.
Just take a look at Ethan Hunt in the first M:I film directed by Brian De Palma. We already get to see the incredible spy power of Hunt with how successful he is in his opening mission. He gets the name he needed. We also see, in this opening scene, a side of Hunt that often gets downplayed. Hunt makes sure that Claire Phelps is okay, which just shows how strongly he cares about the individual and not just the group.
This is important because he also cares about the good of the whole. The Mission: Impossible movies aren’t about just saving a single person, they are about saving the world from certain doom.
Not long after this first mission success, Ethan Hunt shows how childish he can be. He makes a childish joke about the coffee maker. Those are the two most important pieces of character development for the first Mission: Impossible film. The rest of the film is typical action movie nonsense. That means, that we don’t see Ethan Hunt grow throughout the film. He is just an imposing spy that saves everyone.
Mission: Impossible II
The second film in the series does a little more to evolve the character of Ethan Hunt. This film, directed by John Woo, throws in a love interest for Hunt. It’s still a big action-spy movie, but it really keeps Hunt as the only person putting themselves inside enemy lines most of the time. This film does the least of any of them to really develop the character of Ethan Hunt, but it does show how he likes his downtime. He is rock climbing in the opening scene before being recruited to go on a mission. The love interest doesn’t build too strong throughout the film, but it is there. It almost makes you think the ‘big kiss’ at the end of the film only comes from fact that Ethan Hunt saved Nyah’s life. Though, it is important to show that Ethan doesn’t need to know the person very well at all to show that he still cares. This reinforces the point that Ethan Hunt cares about the individual just as much as the masses.
Mission: Impossible III
Mission: Impossible III is incredible for showing the development of a character. Directed by JJ Abrams, MI3 does the most important thing for the series, it humanizes the superhuman Ethan Hunt. That doesn’t mean that it is the best, but it is definitely the most important to the series. Hunt is at his engagement party when he gets the call to action. He hasn’t told his soon to be wife yet, but Hunt is showing that he has a life outside of the IMF. Because of the second film establishing that Hunt can have a love life, the third film shows that he has more than just a love life, he has a fiancé.
An important part in the movie is when Ethan’s fiancé, Julia, gets abducted. It shows that he was careless with his secret identity. The prologue of MI3 gets played back in the middle of the film where we have more information and is one that really breaks Ethan Hunt. He is sitting there begging with the bad guy to leave Julia alone. Hunt is a wreck here, we can see he is experiencing his actual worst nightmare. He’s sitting there just watching his fiancé crying with a gun pressed to her head. The emotional distress being felt by Hunt is visual and just leaks into the viewer’s emotions too. Of course, the bad guy doesn’t shoot his real wife, instead he shoots a henchman he had disguised as Hunt’s fiancé. In response, Hunt goes on to save the day and marry his fiancé for a happy ending.
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
The fourth installment in the Mission: Impossible series takes an interesting turn for the Ethan Hunt arc, as well as changing the way the movies are titled. They switch from the number system to subtitling. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, directed by Brad Bird, starts to take the turn from a fun-loving espionage franchise to an interesting look into the characterization of a spy. Throughout M:I4, Ethan Hunt doesn’t go around cracking jokes about the coffee maker. Instead, he is displaying a more arrogant tone of his belief that he is the only person that can do what this job requires.
The cool part about this movie is that we get to see a new side of Ethan that is simply stoic. He is less goofy, but still pretty arrogant in his planning. He comes up with ideas that literally don’t make sense to try because of how risky they are, but he thinks that he is just so good at what he does that only he can pull it off. But the development of Ethan Hunt is set in his backstory that is really filled in by the rest of his team. We learn that the new Ethan Hunt we’re getting to see is because of the noticeable lack of his wife. Halfway through the movie, we are told that Hunt and his wife split.
The next time we really see the Ethan Hunt character progress is through William Brandt (Jeremy Renner). Brandt tells us that he is responsible for the death of Hunt’s wife. Then when Hunt tells Brandt that he actually had to fake her death and send her undercover for her safety. This little bit of info tells the viewer why Hunt is the way he is. We are given a little glimpse into his ‘why’ for what he does. We kind of get the idea that Hunt feels that he failed his wife in not being able to guarantee her safety, so he tries to make up for it by saving the world over and making sure it stays a safe place. Hunt truly embodies the saying of “if you love it, you will let it go.” What Hunt adds to that is that he lets his love go, but he does everything he can to protect her by protecting the world she lives in.
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is the fifth film in the series, directed by Christopher McQuarrie. M:I5 is less about the character development of Ethan Hunt and more about the advancement of the IMF. Though, still really interesting and fun to watch, there are no major character developments.
The point of this film for Ethan Hunt’s development is really in his ability to bring his team together. He proves his intellect (yet again) and goes so far as to deceive the United States government. Rogue Nation does have the interesting aspect of introducing another woman into Ethan Hunt’s life. Early in the film, he gets captured by the nefarious group the Syndicate, who had already executed a woman that works for the IMF and just delivers the messages. The Syndicate is about to torture Hunt, but before they can actually carry through, Hunt is saved by a woman that is apparently a part of the Syndicate. It turns out her name is Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) and she is an MI6 agent undercover to infiltrate the Syndicate.
Faust becomes important to Hunt because she is trying to do good, but is also able to keep saving the individual in Ethan Hunt from certain death. In turn, Ethan Hunt continually tries to save her. This leads to them having some strong attraction. She even offers to have them both just go away together. Hunt draws on the hurt he has from his past wife and is able to walk away from this offer. It appears he only entertains the idea for a fraction of a second before deciding the greater good of the world is more important than his own happiness.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout
This brings us to the most recent film in the series, and the most powerful in describing the full character arc of Ethan Hunt: Mission: Impossible – Fallout. Ethan Hunt is a rather complex character in this installment of the franchise.
In M:I6, we get a powerful reunion. Ethan Hunt gets to have a face-to-face interaction with Julia. This scene is something I didn’t see coming, but it made for the best scenes in the whole film. There are two direct interactions between them that makes for amazing character development. The first being when she just so happens to see him while she is working. They have to tread lightly over their past because Julia is now remarried to a great guy. Hunt hugs her and whispers, “I’m so sorry.” This part is emotionally destructive to the viewer. It means that Ethan is showing that everything he does is for her. He has to continue living this deathwish of a life for sake of maintaining her safety, but they obviously still love each other. The last interaction between Julia and Ethan is what really gives him closure. She says it is because she knows that he is out there keeping them safe, so she can sleep soundly at night. He feels he ruined her life, but Julia is ok and is happy with her situation. That is how their story together concludes. It shows that although someone may seem incapable of being hurt, they are still driven by human desires. None more powerful than love.
The next insight we get is when Ethan is in a helicopter. Hunt is talking to his team, who are trying to disarm two nuclear bombs, while Hunt is trying to get the detonator. Hunt says he will get the detonator then he says, “I won’t let you down” followed by a whispered reiteration. This little line is what matters most for the character development of Ethan Hunt. It proves that Ethan is working through a lot of insecurities. He isn’t just saying this to his team. He has literally never let them down, but there is one person he has let down: Julia. He vowed to her during their wedding to always take care of her and only be separated by death. The fact they are not separated by death tells us that he thinks he let her down. He is saying he will never do that again. Just like any other person, the super-spy Ethan Hunt has insecurities that he is trying to disprove, to himself more than anyone.
The Mission: Impossible franchise is set up to where each film can really be watched individually without seeing the others, but there is something extremely interesting in watching them all in a row. The character development is something that should really be admired. The Mission: Impossible movies could be used as a primer on how to make a character develop throughout a series. The fact that the only real constant in the series is Tom Cruise makes for it to be interesting to watch his character grow. It’s almost like watching Ethan Hunt grow up and mature throughout as a person.
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