Why Do Strong Female Characters in 'Mission: Impossible' Movies Keep Disappearing?

by John Boone 10:25 AM PDT, July 30, 2015
Photo: Paramount Pictures

No mission is impossible when assigned to Ethan Hunt.

That sounds like the kind of cool tagline that could appear on any Mission: Impossible movie poster, but it’s also become a fundamental problem for the franchise as it nears its 20-year anniversary. At least in those early outings, the missions did seem impossible for Hunt, played for the past two decades by Tom Cruise. Now, it’s more like Mission: Inconvenient.

The problem isn’t the missions, though, but Agent Hunt himself, a fact more apparent than ever in the latest installment, Rogue Nation, out July 31. Hunt is too cool.

As Simon Pegg’s gadget guy, Benji, gushes, “Sometimes Ethan is the only one capable of seeing the right way.” Hunt is the smartest man in the room, no matter what room he’s in. He’s always one step ahead, even when he’s behind. When someone cautiously warns, “It’s impossible,” Cruise might as well turn to the camera and wink.

Ethan Hunt, as a character, just isn’t that compelling either. His has no arc, and his only personality trait is “heroic.” At one point in the movie, one of his accomplices says, “There is no security he can’t beat. No person he can’t become,” then calls Hunt, with eye roll-inducing earnestness, “The living manifestation of destiny.” Sure, it’s fun watching him run around for two hours, jumping out of planes -- or in this case, onto planes -- but is it wrong to want our action heroes to be human, not manifestations?

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Photo: Paramount Pictures

Compare Hunt to Ilsa (played by Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson), a British Intelligence agent who is every bit as capable, though she often has to work twice as hard to prove it to the mediocre men who order her around. Ilsa is nuanced. She has contradictions -- she is tough, but vulnerable. She is logical and calculating, but will rely on blind faith. She exists in the gray area between good and bad, not unlike another female hero deserving of more attention: Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow.

Ilsa is interesting. And, oh yeah, she kicks ass too. Because this is an action movie, first and foremost.

Rogue Nation does right by her, for the most part. She’s not a traditional romantic interest for Hunt, if you would consider her one at all. The most they ever do is hug, though there is an unnecessary, late-in-the-game proposal to run away together.

“I would describe Ilsa as an equal to Ethan Hunt,” Ferguson told ET at the New York premiere in Times Square. “I think they move like they’ve never done anything else, and if you want to see that as romantic...” She paused and shrugged. “Then that’s brilliant.”

And though she appears in a bikini at one point, as females in action movies are wont to do, she isn’t lounging poolside or emerging from the ocean in slow motion, all the better to male gaze at. She’s training, and it’s not a particularly sexy scene. There is a gratuitous shot of her butt later on -- particularly frustrating because it’s right after she saves Hunt – but it’s Cruise who shows more skin on the whole.

(“Taking one for the team!” Cruise chuckled when we brought this up at the film’s world premiere in Vienna. “That’s what I’m here for.”)

In the details, you can really see the care put into crafting a multidimensional female lead. Unlike Jurassic World earlier this summer -- in which Bryce Dallas Howard’s choice of footwear while outrunning a Tyrannosaurus rex sparked a hashtag frenzy -- Ilsa removes her heels before every action scene.

The first time, she does it methodically, slowly placing her shoes to the side before she’s meant to torture Hunt. It seems almost ritualistic. Later on, as the two are running across the rooftop of the Vienna Opera House, she swings her legs over a ledge and directs him, “Shoes.” Hunt looks at her blankly, and she says again, as if it’s obvious, “Shoes, please.” He removes her heels and she continues barefoot, a plot point Ferguson said originated with Cruise, who also serves as a producer.

“We did the sequence and we were moving about in high heels, and I move well in high heels,” Ferguson told us. “Then we thought, ‘But why would she? Why would she try to climb on top of someone and do a spin in high-heeled shoes?’ That’s when I started loving the man to bits. I realized he is not just a good action guy, he is very smart.”

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Photo: Paramount Pictures

Ilsa -- and Ferguson -- is but one woman, though. Forget passing the Bechdel test, there are three women with speaking roles in all of Rogue Nation, and the other two are each killed off in the same scene they’re introduced. (A low-level agent in one of the first scenes is so enamored with Hunt that she worshipfully asks, “Is it really you? I’ve heard stories.” She is gunned down moments later. Later, the Austrian Chancellor’s wife, who is more of a glorified extra, is blown up.)

Still, Ferguson explained, “I never saw myself as the only girl. I saw myself as someone who is brought in to an already established team who happened to be boys...Incredible characters, incredible people. It was more the feeling of trying to live up to my own expectations.”

Except that previously established team wasn’t all boys.

Paula Patton’s Agent Jane -- another strong female, though too often her special skill on assignments was looking good in a dress -- was an invaluable part of the IMF team at the end of 2011’s Ghost Protocol, only to disappear, unaccounted for, when that same team reassembled for this film.

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Photo: Paramount Pictures

It has happened before, too. To Emmanuelle Béart in the original, to Thandie Newton in 2, and to Keri Russell in 3. The one actress to return for a second Mission: Impossible film is Michelle Monaghan, who played Hunt’s wife. And after appearing in the third film, she only made an uncredited appearance in Ghost Protocol long enough to be “killed off.”

Though Ilsa’s exit isn’t as egregious, she too is sent off into the proverbial sunset in the end, while the team that just happens to be boys opts to recruit yet another white guy. (And a particularly useless one this time, no offense to Alec Baldwin.)

In Vienna, we asked Cruise why this pattern seems to keep repeating itself. “It’s what the story holds, really. It’s not a matter of --“ He paused, running his hands through his signature Tom Cruise hair. “It’s just, as you’re working on a film, the film kind of starts to dictate what it wants.”

Meanwhile, Ferguson said she doesn’t know if she’ll return. “I haven’t asked,” she revealed. “I am happy right now, at this very second, knowing that people are watching the film, and hopefully they’ll like it. I’ve kicked ass for 10 months, and I’m going to lie on a beach for a week.”

She smiled slightly. “And then we will see what happens.”

Now, look back on all of Tom Cruise’s best action movies: