Warning: This post contains spoilers for Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning Part One
Seven movies into the franchise, Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning Part One is retconning Ethan Hunt’s backstory—along with that of Luther, Benji, and the rest of the IMF. In the newest Mission:Impossible movie, moviegoers find out that all the spies in the IMF—that’s the Impossible Mission Force, not the International Monetary Fund—are former criminals who were given the choice between life imprisonment or serving their government. They must make that choice on every single mission, hence the instructions for each new dangerous assignment being, “Your mission, if you choose to accept it.”
While the new explanation for the classic line may initially strike the viewer as a bit of trivia, ponder it for a minute. Mission: Impossible fans will realize that this acknowledgement is a pretty big character shift for Ethan, and one that comes rather late in Tom Cruise’s 27-year run as the character on the big screen. As a character, Cruise’s Ethan has always been obsessed with serving the greater good. Luther (Ving Rhames) and Benji (Simon Pegg) share a similar viewpoint. They don’t seem to fit the profile of former criminals who spent any of their lives in pursuit of selfish gain. And yet, seemingly, they were.
One of the best aspects of the Mission: Impossible franchise is its lack of continuity. Characters often disappear without explanation. We know he had a wife who was kidnapped at some point, but where she’s gone and how she pops up again is treated with the casualness of a throwaway episode of television. I mean that as a compliment. Keeping track of which superheroes fought who and why is exhausting. Mission: Impossible was free of much of that baggage.
The very appeal of these movies has been the fact that audiences can confidently walk into the new Mission: Impossible and enjoy it, even if they haven’t seen the previous entries in the series. The films are excellent exactly because the shaggy plot serves merely to link one eye-popping stunt to another. And when the stunts are that good, why, exactly, Ethan Hunt has found himself scaling the outside of the Burj Khalifa doesn’t much matter.
Dead Reckoning Part One’s sudden interest in Ethan’s backstory (not to mention its title) portends a concerning interest in forcing moviegoers to actually remember characters and storylines from film to film. Here’s everything you need to know about Ethan Hunt’s background and what rewriting his history means for the future of the franchise.
How did Ethan Hunt join the IMF?
The 1960s television series that preceded the Mission: Impossible films tackled a new mission each episode but little about the main character’s origins. The movies, too, aren’t terribly concerned with its protagonist’s backstory. Still, throughout the years, screenwriters have dropped a few hints as to how Ethan Hunt became so deadly and morally righteous.
We find out from his dossier in Mission: Impossible—Fallout that Ethan Hunt was an only child born in Madison, Wis. He joined the army and fought in Desert Storm during the Gulf War before earning a degree from the University of Pennsylvania where he double majored in Engineering and International Relations. He applied to the CIA but was contacted by Colonel Briggs, the head of the IMF, to join that very secretive and elite institution.
Anyone who has watched a Mission: Impossible movie can tell you that the difference between a regular spy and an IMF spy is that when you work for the IMF, the American government can disavow you at any moment. It’s a system that creates some trust issues, to say the least. Ethan and his buddies have been disavowed quite a few times. As a result, various government officials have assumed that Ethan will get sick of being left out in the cold by his government and eventually break bad. Over the years, plenty of villains have leveraged that mistrust to frame Ethan for various world calamities.
Another major point of contention between Ethan and his bosses in Washington is over who should hold world-altering power. Various CIA directors, IMF officials, and politicians tend to be of the opinion that America should control a weapon/computer program/some dangerous thing that can destroy the world. Ethan often lands on the side of destroying said scary MacGuffin because no one should hold all that power.
Ethan’s loyalty is not to a government, to himself, or even to his friends. He answers to some higher moral standard, even if it means he can’t have a personal life. (He even gave up his marriage and sent his wife into an extreme version of witness protection in Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol.)
How does Dead Reckoning change Ethan’s backstory?
In Dead Reckoning we find out for the first time that everyone who joined the IMF got into some sort of legal trouble. They were then given a choice: Spend the rest of their life in prison or join the IMF. Ethan, Luther, and Benji all confirm to thief Grace (Hayley Atwell) that this is how they came to join the force.
This new background clashes with just about everything we know about Ethan, who is known for being morally righteous to a fault. In Mission: Impossible—Fallout, Ethan displays a near-maniacal determination to prove that he doesn’t have to sacrifice lives in order to save a bigger group. Because this is a Mission: Impossible movie, he does succeed in saving both his friends and the planet. This does not sound like the attitude of someone who committed so many criminal acts he was forced to choose between imprisonment or duty. It sounds like someone obsessed with duty.
Why does changing Ethan’s backstory matter?
Big picture, this change doesn’t mean much. Let’s be honest, you’re paying for an IMAX ticket to watch Tom Cruise HALO jump out of a plane or drive a motorcycle off a cliff. You’re not there for plot.
But the new story does undermine Ethan’s moral fortitude. Ethan insists on doing the right thing instead of the most convenient thing, the most profitable thing, or the thing that would be best for his government. He is not James Bond, who puts country above all and happily deploys his weapon. Nor is he an Avenger who primarily puts faith in himself and operates largely outside government bounds. He is a man who does his best to reconcile the orders he’s given with what he believes in.
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That doesn’t align with the attitude of a criminal who has essentially been forced into the IMF. It makes much more sense for such a person to have chosen this excruciating profession because he believes in serving the greater good above all else.
Why make this change to Ethan’s past? It is a convenient way to bring a new character, a criminal played by Atwell, into the fold. There’s a good chance she will be joining Ethan’s crew In some capacity for Dead Reckoning Part Two.
But there’s probably more to it than that. Throughout the movie, we get hints of some darker moments in Ethan’s history, including a flashback to the murder of a woman we’ve never seen before. We don’t learn who this woman is or how Ethan knew her. All we know is that the man who killed her is back to wreak havoc in Ethan’s life again. Confusingly, this isn’t a flashback to a previous film, it’s a new scene constructed to fit the plot.
Dead Reckoning Part One, as the name suggests, is just the first half of a two-part saga, so we likely will not find out the reason for this major shift in plot until the second film. At least we can be confident in Ethan’s moral center.
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