The Unstoppable Continuity of ‘Mission: Impossible’

Franchise filmmaking, Tom Cruise style.
Mission Impossible
By  · Published on July 16th, 2018

Franchise filmmaking, Tom Cruise style.

In 1996, Paramount released Mission: Impossible. Directed by Brian De Palma and produced by Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner, the film met with mixed reviews but did well enough to spawn a sequel and, eventually, a franchise. Fallout comes out next month and, I’m, like, really excited.

But more than anything I’m interested in how this 22-year old movie series (the same age as me!) has managed to make it this far without a single continuity reboot or attempt to “relaunch” the franchise. Not only is Cruise’s Ethan Hunt the same actor and character we first met in 1996, but there is a shocking amount of canon to these films and, as piecemeal as it may be, an underlying plot to all of this.

Contrast that with other older franchises, like Terminator or, heck, even X-Men, a relatively modern franchise. There’s no arguing that the process of making a franchise film has become even more complicated since Marvel rolled up to the club with Iron Man and their end credits scenes and interwoven continuities. Execs scrambling to catch up to Marvel have tried every trick in the book to make their own IP cinematic universes take off the same way. Cruise was even involved in one of these; remember The Mummy reboot? And “reboot” is indeed the knee-jerk response that a lot of these franchises go with (see: Terminator Genisys, Jurassic World, X-Men Days of Future Past, and all of the Tomb Raider movies), which loops back to why Mission: Impossible is so surprising in this regard.

How did a franchise as old as Mission: Impossible make it all the way to movie six without a single continuity reboot or reset?

Undoubtedly the Mission: Impossible franchise’s greatest asset is Tom Cruise. He stars, he runs and stands on apple boxes as he is wont to do, and, perhaps most importantly, he is on the team for every movie to make this happen. “Producer” is a rather vague title in movies and TV, which can mean anything from “I paid for some of this movie” to “I clung to the side of a plane during takeoff for the sake of this movie,” but Tom Cruise is definitely the latter, and owns it. His consistent presence means there’s at least one person on the team of higher-ups who really cares about running this show right, and I can’t imagine that this isn’t a contributor to the franchise’s longevity.

But I think an overlooked part of the franchise’s success involves its shaky and unremarkable start. We look back on the first Mission: Impossible and remember it with rose-colored glasses, but it’s easy to forget that while it made a fat enough chunk of change to bankroll future installments, most critics wrote it off as action schlock. Contrary to what you might think, this is absolutely fantastic for the series, because it means there aren’t Iron Man levels of expectations that harm future installments. “Mission: Impossible 2 didn’t review well? Eh, the first one didn’t either and that still made money. Let’s keep going with this and see if we can’t make it better next time.”

Cruise definitely seems to have taken one look at those reviews and continued right on making the kind of movies he wants to make, because the Mission: Impossible movies have NEVER tried that hard to break away from this image, despite continual criticism to this effect. Tom Cruise just keeps on making action movies and doesn’t worry about trying to hard to add characterization or depth to a series of movies that he’s totally making just so that he can keep jumping out of planes.

The Mission: Impossible movies are always centered on Ethan Hunt, and never try too hard to set up an extended universe or spin-offs. They focus on doing what they do best: crazy, over-the-top spy action. Cruise knows why people keep coming back to watch these movies, and while he’s not afraid to experiment, he’s also smart enough not to invest a ton of effort into something that’s totally not the point of why he keeps making these. He’s also fortunate enough to be enough of a big deal in Hollywood that nobody’s going to insist he try to set up a Mission: Impossible extended universe or some garbage like that. All he wants to do is jump out of some planes, man.

In short, the story of the Mission: Impossible franchise is the story of a man who made what he wanted through sheer determination. I guess that makes Tom Cruise an anime protagonist? I’m not sure if that’s awesome or kind of weird, but I AM sure that I’m going to be front and center for M:I Fallout. Shine on, Tommy.

Hans Qu is an animator with Strong Opinions about animation. Along with said opinions, his art and animation can be found on his Bird App account: @NerdyChineseBoy