Both Bond and Mission: Impossible Have Questioned Their Relevance
The Bond Girl problem is a solid stand-in for the issue of relevance that both franchises have faced. Audiences have far greater choice in terms of movie series these days and competition for the top spot remains tight. How do mere spies, regardless of their coolness, compete with Jedi and the Avengers? How do they retain audience interest over the decades while sticking to their core formula enough to maintain the franchise itself? Moreover, how do you keep these franchises going without an end? As long as both Mission: Impossible and Bond keep making money, their respective studios will keep making more additions to the franchises. That can make it difficult to keep up the tension and stakes: how do you creative life-changing stories for these characters, then swing back to the status quo in the next movie?
That’s a problem both franchises have faced. Skyfall changed the game, but Spectre went back to square one. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol added new stakes and oppositions but couldn’t hold onto them once Rogue Nation premiered. This was less of a problem for Mission: Impossible because those stakes exist almost exclusively to give Tom Cruise new opportunities for stunt work. That’s one of the reasons the series remains so fresh. It’s not just that these films let audiences see amazing stunts; it’s that they get to see amazing stunts done by Tom Cruise himself. Nowadays, it’s practically unheard of in Hollywood for a star of Cruise’s stature to be allowed anywhere near these kinds of situations. That’s why stunt doubles and CGI exist, yet the Ethan Hunt movies have retained their relevance by latching onto this unique selling point. When that happens, who cares about plot or character (although the franchise has also made great strides on that front through its core ensemble of Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg and now Rebecca Ferguson).
Mission: Impossible had a luxury the Bond films didn’t. These are films that can strip back their components and be unconcerned about things the Bond franchise has to care about. The problem is that the Bond series hasn’t always been able to figure out how to keep moving forward. They have the option to essentially reboot the franchise every time they change actors, which can provide a refreshing change of pace but there’s only so many times you can do that before audiences grow tired. They also can’t tinker too much with the character of Bond himself. He can show growth, but it may not always carry over to the next film. Because multiple actors have played the role, there’s a sense of disposability around the character that Ethan Hunt doesn't have. Many actors have been Bond, but Tom Cruise will always be Ethan Hunt (and they're unlikely to recast Cruise).
Mission: Impossible Knows Exactly What It Is
Bond’s identity as a character and franchise is clearer than that of Ethan Hunt, but that does not make its foundations sturdier in the long run. These movies can, will and must change, but it’s Mission: Impossible that has retained its core essence more than Bond. Here is a franchise that knows exactly what it is: a major movie star, big stunts, and high stakes the audience are free to care about should they so desire but it’s not crucial to the story. It’s not a franchise weighed down by its own history.
Tom Cruise has the kind of freedom most actors will never possess. He’s wildly famous, incredibly rich, a producer in his own right, and someone whose star power has endured for decades, both in the United States and worldwide. That means he’s essentially able to do whatever he wants with the Mission: Impossible movies, and with the franchise, he has chosen to become a patron saint of action. He does all those incredible stunts and the films go to great pains to remind you of that. While Cruise is still seen as something of a joke by many, mostly thanks to those couch jumping days, he’s seriously good as Ethan Hunt. The films serve as the sort of star vehicle Hollywood doesn’t make much nowadays for its big names, as the franchise takes pride of importance over the actor. Henry Cavill may be Superman but even he plays second fiddle to Tom Cruise.
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In that sense, Mission: Impossible feels like a franchise from a bygone era. This is blockbuster filmmaking where spectacle and star power are key, far more than the universe they inhabit. The Hollywood magic is evident, but the action feels impeccably real. Audiences’ tastes may change but there will always be a very large demographic who wants to see some old-school action scenes where there’s an actual person riding that motorcycle or hanging from the tallest building in the world.
Daniel Craig will soon reprise his role in Bond 25 in the franchise, to be directed by Slumdog Millionaire’s Danny Boyle. He has said this will be his last time as the character and talk of his replacement has been an ongoing subject since the release of Spectre. It remains to be seen where the franchise will take Craig and Bond and how they can continue on in this new age of cinema. There will always be a place at the table for James Bond but it’s Ethan Hunt who has carved a path forward through fine-tuning the formula and understanding so keenly what audiences want. One can only hope that Bond can keep up with the frantic pace Mission: Impossible has set for the genre.