The Effortless, Expendable Women of Mission: Impossible

Movies Features Mission: Impossible
The Effortless, Expendable Women of Mission: Impossible

Ethan Hunt is back with the latest addition to the Mission: Impossible franchise, Dead Reckoning—Part One. While the series has long been a favorite with critics and audiences alike, over the past decade or so, it’s evolved into a cinematic titan far beyond its initial ambitions. With each installment, Tom Cruise’s pet project is making more money, executing grander setpieces, and setting a new standard for the action genre. We go to Mission: Impossible primarily for Cruise, who is doing the kind of stunts and old-school movie-star grandeur that is in short supply in the franchise era of Hollywood. It’s truly thrilling to watch such a familiar face throw himself from buildings, cling to the sides of planes, and weave motorcycles through the busy streets of cosmopolitan cities. Seven movies in, it’s now something of an accepted norm for fans that the plots are superfluous, mere stages for Cruise to do his thing. Yet the dressing of those Mission: Impossible sets has offered some interesting and underrated opportunities for a variety of women to shine. 

Mission: Impossible has been a movie mainstay for close to 30 years, and throughout the decades, it’s offered a sharp variety of female characters whose presences are crucial to the various arcs. Actresses as varied as Thandiwe Newton, Lea Seydoux, Maggie Q, Emmanuelle Béart, Angela Bassett and Vanessa Redgrave have gotten to make their mark on this franchise. They’re frequently stealing the show from Cruise, setting fun new standards for women in this sausage fest of a genre. And the M:I series does so with the lightest of touches. 

It’s in the mundanities of these women that a sliver of the radical lies. It’s rare to see one blockbuster have multiple female characters who are strong, capable and not reduced to props, let alone do so over the course of seven films. These women are agents and enemies alike, as crucial a component of the oft-tangled narratives as the action scenes, and they also get to kick just as much ass as anyone else. When you consider how long it took the Marvel Cinematic Universe to get its heroines front and center, or decades of archaic Hollywood logic claiming there’s no audience for such characters, it’s notable how Mission: Impossible just got on with it, no fuss or muss. 

That may not seem like much, but it’s worth remembering how pathetically low the bar is for both the American film industry and the action blockbuster genre in terms of allowing women to be people. We’re all familiar with those bro-down, guns a-blazing explosion demonstrations where the sole female character is a damsel with all the autonomy of a sexy lamp. Rare villainesses are frequently styled like bikini models, while the spouses who stay at home are bitches, nags, pushovers or some curious combination of the three. Mission: Impossible is not immune to tropes, but there are layers present nonetheless. Consider Max, the main antagonist of the first film, played by Vanessa Redgrave. An illegal arms dealer who has been conducting business with a mole located within the Impossible Mission Force (IMF), Max is erudite, cunning and enjoys toying with her underlings. She becomes an unlikely ally of Ethan for a while, but her loyalties are obscured, and her interactions with him are always tinged with suspicion. Max is the sort of role that is typically defaulted to male, so seeing Dame Redgrave, who was close to 60 at the time, mastering this villain is a simple change that makes a major impact. (She also has some of the sharpest sexual chemistry with Cruise, something he’s not always known for in this series!) 

So many fascinating women, but all too often, their appearances in this franchise are one-and-done. Mission: Impossible only has two consistent presences: Cruise, of course, and Ving Rhames as Agent Luther Stickell. When it does retain characters, they’re more likely than not to be men. Simon Pegg’s Benji Dunn is now a familiar presence since Mission: Impossible 3, but Maggie Q didn’t get to join him. Jeremy Renner got to star in two installments, but not his Ghost Protocol co-star Paula Patton. Keri Russell seemed primed to be Hunt’s protegee but got killed off quickly, while Thandiwe Newton’s Nyah was ditched shortly after her happy-ever-after with Ethan in Mission: Impossible 2. It’s a crime for any franchise to bring Angela Bassett in for a few minutes then pretend she never existed! 

Things have started to get better. Both Rebecca Ferguson and Vanessa Kirby are now franchise mainstays, with the former as Ilsa Faust injecting some real verve into the series, and the latter playing the daughter of Max from the first movie, continuing her arms-dealing legacy. Still, their presences drive home how quickly Mission: Impossible tends to go through its women. They’re not Bond girls, wined and dined and ditched by a suave hero. (And boy, is the franchise so much better for not turning Ethan into a playboy.) While many of them are positioned as seductresses, it’s a far cry from what was this genre’s status quo for too many decades. They’re also not as likely to be fridged, killed off to motivate the sad men in their lives. Indeed, Patton’s character in Ghost Protocol is in part driven by her boyfriend dying, which happens way less in the action world than you’d think. There’s progress here, yet the women are still somewhat left behind. 

Mission: Impossible is undoubtedly The Tom Cruise Show. This franchise has evolved into the unstoppable juggernaut of Hollywood almost entirely through his ability to wield icon clout and commit himself to eye-watering stunt work. Half the appeal of these films is in watching a ridiculously famous man perform the sort of life-threatening antics that the industry barely lets trained professionals do, let alone A-listers. It’s a minor miracle that Cruise even allows other people to star in roles other than nameless punching bags. Yet he’s at his best when he has someone to work with, a companion or adversary who can keep up with his insane running. His best action films—like Edge of Tomorrow, Oblivion and even Knight and Day—make good use of this, pairing him with women who get to stand by his side (or, in the case of Edge of Tomorrow, wail on him until he’s repeatedly begging for mercy). If the IMF is meant to be a team effort, it’s best displayed through the female characters in Hunt’s circle. Perhaps that’s the excuse for why the franchise goes through so many of them—there are lots of agents to collaborate with—but then why do the guys not get swapped out with the same frequency?

Cinema as a whole is still lagging behind when it comes to gender parity, and the action genre even more so, despite incremental progress made thanks to the sheer increase in releases. One of the most efficient and long-lasting ways we can improve things is to simply have female characters be an organic part of any ensemble, not mere tokens to be saved or scorned (and the same goes for racial diversity, where Hollywood seems to be falling behind in recent years). Mission: Impossible does this. It knows how to succeed on this front. If only it could make longer commitments to those fascinating women.

Kayleigh Donaldson is a critic and pop culture writer for Her work can also be found on IGN, Slashfilm, Uproxx, Little White Lies, Vulture, Roger Ebert, and other publications. She lives in Dundee.

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