Mission: Impossible 6 Finally Explains Ethan Hunt
Throughout the Mission: Impossible franchise, one consistent complaint has been the allegedly confused characterization of Ethan Hunt. Indeed, his personality changes as much as the tone or style brought about by a new director, with Mission: Impossible II's a straight action hero and Ghost Protocol's unthinking daredevil the same in name only. There is an arc to be gleaned if you dig deep (as Patrick Willems did in a recent video lecture), but that doesn't go all the way to underpinning the story. Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation seemed to address this by abstracting Hunt. Everything about his death-defying antics became too extreme, with the character pushing himself to insane levels that his comrades simply couldn't fathom. When Alec Baldwin's Alan Hunley declared "Hunt is the living manifestation of destiny", it wasn't (totally) ironic: Ethan is something more than human.
Mission: Impossible - Fallout is really the counterpoint argument. In what is essentially the second part of his initial exploration, Christopher McQuarrie (the first returning director in the franchise's history) asks the converse question: what makes a normal person become Ethan Hunt?
The answer is not hidden. Early on, Hunley states quite clearly to Ethan that while he believes his compassion for his friends is his big weakness it's actually his greatest strength, and the rest of the movie is essentially an extended case study of this. Throughout we see Ethan risk his life, the task at hand or something otherwise personal to save others: he jumps after Walker into a lightning storm and transfers his oxygen mid-air; reconfigures the plan to spring Solomon Lane so no civilians are killed; pauses an escape to save an unfortunate police officer; pleads with Ilsa to step away. This is why the high-spectacle helicopter chase stands out amongst Mission: Impossible finales; once again it's about Ethan Hunt saving the world for assured destruction, yet this time we truly know why he's doing it.
Hunt is the compassionate rebuke of the notorious quote (often albeit spuriously attributed to Stalin), "The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic." In events that threaten millions, he never loses sight of the individual. He pushes his body to breaking extremes because of an unwavering empathy for those around him. That does destroy a person inside and out - especially in the world of Mission: Impossible where the heft of fight scenes make clear every hit hurts and (in contrast to modern superhero cinema aided by the casting of Superman himself, Henry Cavill) means death is ever-present. But Mission: Impossible is also a just world, where Ethan's stretching is rewarded.
Both villains fail in the narrative because the heroes stop them just in time, but in a thematic sense it's because their negative desire to destroy civilization and/or Ethan can't match Hunt's overwhelming, positive will. Tellingly, this is a theme that sits at the front of McQuarrie's other work, most prominently, albeit in a darker form, with Keyer Soze in The Usual Suspects.
Julia Was The Key To Ethan... But Not Anymore
At the center of Ethan Hunt's emotional arc is Julia Meade. Introduced in Mission: Impossible III as Ethan's oblivious fiancée, Julia came to represent the normal life that he could never have; M:I-3 ended with the pair married, but Ghost Protocol twisted the marriage into a dark past, with Ethan putting Julia in hiding to protect her so he could go out and save the world. It was the ultimate sacrifice: he gave up his one to save the millions.
She was completely absent from Rogue Nation but returns in Mission: Impossible - Fallout for the film's (nay, franchise's) most heartwrenching scene. A key part of Lane's way to destabilize Ethan is to have Julia (whose CIA protector was Walker) working in the basin where the two bombs will go off, a symbol of his inability to save her. This tragedy is compounded when she reveals herself just as the team are finding the first plutonium core, introducing husband Patrick; it's not so much that Julia has found someone else, it's that her connection to Ethan is still putting her in danger.
Julia was the physical representation of what Ethan Hunt could have been: a normal guy, married and blissfully happy. Fallout extends to makes the sacrifice a case of duty - it's a cautionary tale Luthor tells Ilsa - and so her presence is intended to weaken him. However, she instead proves to be essential to the questioning arc. In accepting everything that's happened, Ethan doesn't only save the day but manages to understand who he is.
Mission: Impossible Is A Team Once Again
Mission: Impossible - Fallout's exploration of Ethan Hunt's compassion goes both ways. He will always give himself to save others, but so too is he supported by a team of IMF agents with equally complicated motivations and personal drives. The construction of the finale is done so that each of the key secondary players - Ilsa, Luthor and Benji - have an essential role to the play right down to the line: fitting of Ethan's weakness-turned-strength, if any one doesn't come through exactly, the entire world is in danger. They even take the plunge at the last second not knowing whether Ethan has succeeded, a perfect show of expectation and trust. McQuarrie isn't just interested in showing that Ethan will do anything for his team, but to highlight the power of the group as well. That takes the themes already discussed wider, presenting them as something to be universally learned from.
In the framework of the Mission: Impossible franchise, this a major step. The 1960s TV show was an ensemble, something Brian De Palma's first film upended to shocking effect - original protagonist Jim Phelps betrayed IMF and only new character Ethan Hunt was left alive - and since it's very much been Tom Cruise's show. The team aspect has - mostly - been a key backdrop (that Rhames has returned for every movie is a delightful touch) but especially in the more recent efforts, the focus was singularly on Ethan's daring.
In the final scene, somewhat reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings' equally all-for-one-and-one-for-all recovery, this arc for Ethan is solidified. He lets Julia go and live free with Patrick, and embraces his team each on an individual level. Most importantly, for the first time, he shows how physically wounded he is.