Sunday Reads: The Evolution Of Ethan Hunt, That Poor, Invincible Rag Doll Of A Man

From super spy to super crash test dummy.

This article was originally published in 2015.

Until recently, vagueness defined Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible series to an almost silly degree. We’ve been with Ethan Hunt for five movies now, but for the first three, most of us would be hard-pressed to describe him beyond the fact that he dangles from things, likes to wear masks, and basically defines perfection to an almost boring extent. He was a non-character. Actually, he was just Tom Cruise, Tom Cruising as hard as humanly possible.

Something new evolved from that, however, with the series’ fourth entry, Ghost Protocol. Starting from that film’s first big Tom Cruise scene, in which we watch Hunt break out of a Moscow prison, we have the pleasure of meeting a slightly different Ethan Hunt, one with actual character traits (though still no real weaknesses). It’s a little strange for a franchise lead to wait four movies to actually become a character, but we take what we can get.

This new Ethan Hunt is brave and capable but also tired, weary, and exasperated. Rather than eagerly jump into impossible, no-win situations like before, new Ethan Hunt now takes a moment to inwardly sigh “Goddammit” before diving headfirst into quicksand to retrieve a flash drive, fasting for weeks to fit through a drainage pipe, or entering a McDonald’s during the day when other people can see him.

Ethan Hunt has been humanized, ever so slightly, by Mission: Impossible’s new willingness to let us see how much Hunt would rather not hang from the side of an airplane or hold his breath for over three minutes. He still does all that stuff, but the fact that it sucks for him adds new pleasure and fun to the series. While it’s a thrill to see Tom Cruise dangle from the Burj Khalifa in Ghost Protocol, the greatest moments of that sequence come from his obvious reluctance to do so and irritation (“No shit?!”) when it doesn’t go according to plan.

This could have just been Ghost Protocol’s particular flavor, but Rogue Nation utilizes this version of Hunt as well and actually highlights it even more, solidifying this as Mission: Impossible’s new “thing.” Hunt doesn’t just hang off the side of an airplane in the opening scene, he literally bounces around the inside like a rag doll once he gets in. When fighting a goon at the opera, Hunt enjoys a breather between rounds. As a rising catwalk brings him to his enemy’s awaiting knife, Hunt holds up a finger as if to sigh “Okay, okay. Hold your stupid horses, I’m coming.” When Ethan, Benji, and Ilsa suss out the fact that Ethan will have to hold his breath for three minutes to steal his villain’s ledgers, Ethan doesn’t smirk at how gloriously impossible it sounds (which is how they cut it in the trailers). Instead, he looks mortified at what’s ahead of him.

Stunts and operations define the Mission: Impossible series, but this new character trait adds so much more to them. The real show-stopping set-pieces are now accompanied by scenes where Ethan’s crew identify the need for a beating, develop the excruciating details of that beating, and then send Ethan off to take that beating. The whole time, we have the pleasure of watching Ethan internalize this future beating. It's often hilarious.

And man, does he take a beating in Rogue Nation. Ethan Hunt gets gassed, he gets punched a lot, he survives an ugly car crash only to get up and drive straight toward and even uglier motorcycle wipeout, and of course, he briefly drowns to death. When he and a bad guy crash through a window, Ethan doesn’t just get up and run; he gets up and wobbles. Out of all the people in the film’s big motorcycle chase, he’s the only one to bump his little knee on the road during the high-speed turning lean. It’s like his James Bond DNA has been mixed with that of Jack Burton. The younger, clearly superior Ilsa Faust is even kind of his Wang Chi.

Tom Cruise is older now, and the series’ growing roster of returning support characters places Ethan Hunt into a slightly paternal figure. He can’t be a superhuman cartoon character forever. Rather than become a joke, this new Ethan Hunt allows the series to make the jokes themselves (see Alec Baldwin’s hilariously over the top description of Hunt while talking to England's Prime Minister). Hunt’s still going to win the day in some extremely exaggerated fashion, but the aches (or in Rogue Nation’s case, brain damage from drowning) now last a few moments, and it makes him a much more fun and relatable super spy. I can’t wait to see what magnificent beatings he takes in the next entry.

This article is part of B.M.D. Guide To: MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE