I didn’t intend to write anything about Mission Impossible, even with the latest installment of the series debuting in a few days. But Netflix conspired against me and put the first two movies in the series up on the Recommended for You list. Inevitably I ended up watching both of them, and there are some things that I feel need to be said about them.
We give Disney and Marvel a lot of grief since, despite all of the things they do right, they have continued to be extremely hesitant to dedicate any time or money to developing their female superhero characters into being much more than supporting characters. Black Widow easily deserves her own movie. Hopefully, we’ll see a lot more of Wasp after Ant-Man…but who knows at this point? We’ll get Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers in a few years, but until then, that’s pretty much it.
The renewed attention to this inequality made it impossible for me to watch the Mission Impossible films and not apply the same concerns here. So lets look at each movie briefly to see how it treats the female characters vs male characters.
There will be spoilers for the first 4 movies in the franchise, but not for Rogue Nation. Since the previous entry in the series was released in 2011, I feel no guilt about discussing spoilers.
Mission: Impossible – Franchise Analysis
The movie seems to start out well, as the 6 person team that Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is a part of is split right down the middle: 3 men, 3 women. But that observation falls apart as soon as you examine what each character does.
For the men, we’ve got the Team Leader (Jon Voight), the Point Man (Cruise), and the Computer Guy (Emilio Estevez). What do the women do? One of them got a job at the embassy before the action even started, so anything cool or impressive that she did happened completely off camera. The second’s entire job seems to be to simply stand around, wearing sunglasses indoors, watching how a specific person moves through the crowd. Definitely not a job that could be performed by a computer or someone hacked into security feeds.
And the third female member of the team? Her sole qualification seems to be that she is the wife of the Team Leader.
By the time that first team mission is over, the first two female characters have been killed off and the Team Leader’s wife also dies towards the end of the film. Where her loyalties lie is one of the turning points of the plot, but it’s never particularly clear what skills she brings to the team or why she is even there, other than “the plot demands it”.
Mission: Impossible II
Right off the bat, this movie commits the sin of sending Ethan Hunt to recruit Nyah (Thandie Newton), ostensibly for her skills as a thief, only to upend that assumption when it is revealed that her entire purpose is due to her previous relationship with the movie’s villain. Whatever skills the character may have are irrelevant. What’s important is that the character is a woman, and that she’s pretty, and that the villain wants her in the worst kind of way. At no point does the movie treat her as anything more than a prize to be won. In fact, it gets worse once she injects herself with the movie’s supervirus, which turns her into a literal prize to be won and woman to be saved.
Mission: Impossible III
The only female characters of note in this film are Lindsey Farris (Keri Russell) and Julia Meade (Michelle Monaghan), respectively Ethan’s protege and fiancé (and later wife). Lindsey dies at the conclusion of the mission that opens the movie. Julia is largely a non-presence in the movie, and primarily seems to serve as a plot device so that Ethan can be killed via an electric shock and then brought back, since Julia is a nurse.
We do get a female agent, Zhen Lei (Maggie Q), but it’s been a long time since I watched Mission: Impossible III, and the Wikipedia page for this movie doesn’t say anything about this character or what she does in the movie, other than the fact that she exists.
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
Apparently the marriage to Julia was never meant to last (who knew?), because at the start of this movie she is believed to be dead. At the end of the movie she is revealed to be alive and well, and that her death was faked in order to protect her while Ethan continues to do crazy stuff for the IMF (while threatening to quit at the end of nearly every movie). Once again, the character is used as more of a plot device than a character.
It took until the fourth movie in the franchise to give us a female agent that doesn’t die in the opening sequence and isn’t a traitor. I can’t help but think there’s something wrong with that. Yet Jane Carter (Paula Patton), for as competent as she is in combat, is effectively a blank slate. We learn nothing about her history or her character, other than “competent, loyal agent”. And yet in the same movie we get William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) who actually has a story and character arc built around him in the movie.
I suppose an argument can be made that these movies are primarily Tom Cruise movies. He is the star of the movies, after all, right? Except that as the movies have progressed we get more and more characters that stick around for the next movie. Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) has been in every single one of the movies along with Tom Cruise. Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) joined the team in Mission: Impossible III, with Brandt in Ghost Protocol.
So whoever is running the franchise has absolutely no problem creating new characters to add to the team and building new movies around, so long as they are male.
And that’s the biggest issue I’m having with these movies right now. The feeling I get coming away from them is that the movie thinks, ultimately, women are interchangeable with each other.
From what I’ve seen of the marketing for Rogue Nation, I can’t say that I’m particularly hopeful that this movie will change things at all.
What do you think about the Mission: Impossible movies? Are we missing any strong, significant female characters? Comment below!