The Women of Mission: Impossible
“Your mission, should you choose to accept it…” The eight words certain to be heard in every Mission: Impossible film and marks out a franchise which -demographics show - are most commonly accepted by male cinephiles.
The films fall into a very male-centric category of films, joined by the likes of the James Bond, Bourne, and Jack Ryan franchises. That’s not to say the vast amounts of female fans are ignored - for we are here in plenty and with passion, - but when it comes to watching and analysing such blockbusters, it is interesting to look at the ways that filmmakers acknowledge and address female fans. Whether it’s through the inclusion and characterisation of women, their interactions with their male counterparts and the narrative itself. And when it comes to Christopher McQuarrie’s latest, Mission: Impossible - Fallout, there are some intriguing dynamics and directions that prove female strength belongs in this franchise.
Before we begin, it is only fitting that we cast a quick look back at the female presence in the M:I franchise before moving on to Fallout. It began relatively well; with Brian De Palma’s first in the franchise Mission: Impossible, audiences were faced with two antagonists fighting against the IMF team, one of whom was the delightful Vanessa Redgrave as Max.
Max was a woman who stood her ground, was ready to fight though would rather not get her own hands dirty if she didn’t need to. And she didn’t. She had forces at her disposal and wasn’t afraid to use them. Alongside her, however, were two other female IMF members, both of whom end up dead before the end of the opening mission, and one, Claire Phelps (Emmanuelle Béart) who had married into the Force. Phelps is more than a wife, seducing Cruise’s Hunt to help frame him for her and her husband Jim’s (Jon Voight) crimes but she has no agency of her own. Her husband is her boss and, like many cruel employers, he doesn’t hesitate to fire her (well, at her) when her use is spent.
In John Woo’s M:I 2, the role of ‘seductress’ is taken up by the wonderful (and here, wonderfully misused) Thandie Newton as Nyah Hall. Woo’s film is without question the most problematic and uncomfortable film in the franchise in regards to female representation. When you have the male IMF Mission Commander stating - after being asked about an untrained female officer - “To go to bed with a man and lie to him? She’s a woman - she’s got all the training she needs”, you know it’s bad. As the only named woman in the film (seriously), and the passive love interest for both Ethan and antagonist Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott), Hall surprisingly makes it out alive, but certainly not unscathed.
Things steadily start to turn themselves around with J.J. Abrams’ Mission: Impossible III. There are far more female characters included in the cast, two who fight to live another day in, and none of whom are plagued with the Bond Girl curse. The main woman - who I’ll discuss again later - is Julia Meade (Michelle Monaghan) — and though she spends most of the film framed as a damsel in distress having been kidnapped by the big-bad Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and seemingly has no agenda of her own, she does get two good kills. From here on out, M:I directors (all men, sadly) seemed to realise that their female characters could be more than just bad agents, seductresses, or damsels.
Brad Bird’s M:I - Ghost Protocol features two kick-ass female characters: Agent Jane Carter (Paula Patton) and assassin Sabine Moreau (Léa Seydoux). However, sadly they are still both somewhat undermined by either their emotionally instability or total lack of character — a stoic and speechless killer might be ‘enigmatic’, but it isn’t exactly a well-rounded representation. And then we come to Rogue Nation, the film that, despite not toning down the sexualisation of M:I’s women, gave the franchise and its fans a nuanced female character that stands alone in her own right. Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) with her own moral code will get the job done but in her own way.
Throughout the marketing for Fallout, the face of Ferguson’s Faust crops up many-a-time and in such a way that determining where her loyalties lie is a tricky task. After having been introduced in Fallout’s direct predecessor Rogue Nation (also directed by McQuarrie in an M:I first) Faust quickly became a fan favourite, particularly amongst us women. Refreshingly, she is introduced as an equal to Ethan Hunt and a spy of her own making. To have her back and in an equally powerful, and platonic, way was a perfect introduction to the film.
Thankfully, McQuarrie was able to deliver on her character yet again. Coming up against Hunt, she is unpredictable, a real threat. As an audience member you are aware of her prior relationship with the M:I agent, but you don’t take that as a guarantee that she’d spare him if the situation arose. At the same time, Faust is never devoid of emotion - she allows herself to feel conflicted, desirous, angry, and yet doesn’t let it take over.
McQuarrie, in his now-famously long interview on the Empire Podcast, spoke about exactly this. “Ilsa is stronger when she doesn't let her emotions get the better of her”, he said. Showing his understanding that female strength, especially in action film, does not mean making their women robotic with solely brute strength to give them any character. You need only look at Blade Runner 2049’s Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) for an example of that, though she is as feisty as hell.
In the same interview, McQuarrie made a handful of remarks pertaining to his constant awareness of his female characters and their importance in the Mission: Impossible films. He discusses at length as to why a kiss between Ilsa and Ethan was cut. The scene shows the two discussing their positions against each other, since it is revealed that they are after the same guy, and, on telling Ethan that she does not care what happens to her, he hesitates to say that he does, ending on Ilsa leaning in for a spontaneous smooch.
In test screenings, this was popular with the women and unpopular with the men, but McQuarrie couldn’t get past a weird feeling he had when watching it back. "The scene makes [Ethan] strong at her expense”, he argued; by letting her kiss him he believed he was letting Ethan undermine Ilsa’s intentions, everything she had just before set out to him, and so was ultimately cut after he explained this view to another test screening and the responses flipped: it was suddenly popular with men but not women.
Unlike the films of Bond, Mission: Impossible has never taken part in ‘fridging’ the women; killing off a male character’s love interest in order to provide them with motivation. There are far more interesting ways that a female character can be used, an idea made evident by the resurfacing of another familiar face in Fallout with Julia: Ethan’s now ex-wife, lost love, and ever-present ghost.
Though the big-bads try to exploit Julia as a weakness of Ethan’s in the explosive third-act, McQuarrie fills her with purpose. A welcome decision following her bland ‘love interest’ character of Mission: Impossible III and rather limited screen-time in Ghost Protocol. The emotional reaction to seeing her alive and ready to help is, however, that much stronger because of it; her interactions with both Luther and Ethan too are deeply moving, it’s refreshing to see a strong bond between these characters that is immensely loving and realistic. This is, therefore, another thing we can add to the list of ‘What M:I won’t let its women be’. McQuarrie recounts how he told Ferguson: "I'll never ask you to be a little girl and I'll never ask you to be a man”. Clearly, he won’t ask them to be a plot device either. A simple idea, but one that is ignored by so many male writers and directors (see the aforementioned M:I III).
Though it would be wonderful to see additions to franchises such as Mission: Impossible written and directed by women it is refreshing to see one that has such feminist ideas explicitly set out by the director and filtered through powerful female characters who are not necessarily determined by their gender but by who they are. It’s for reasons such as this that I, like so many other women (and men), love these films because there are female characters to (finally) identify with and root for, And it is why Fallout excels.
Besides Ilsa and Julia, we have The White Widow (Vanessa Kirby) the electric and enigmatic go-between who, although her brother won’t accept it, works for herself and nobody else, happy to use people’s expectations of her against them; a dagger hidden in a lace garter is still as sharp after all. There’s also Erika Sloane (Angela Bassett), the head of the CIA and Agent Walker’s (Henry Cavill) handler, a role that was originally written for a man but was swapped at last minute. Is it really so unbelievable that a woman couldn’t be a powerhouse professional? And of course, she turned out to be a strait-laced badass.
So despite the M:I films having had a rather rocky start to providing strong female characters (yes, Mission: Impossible 2, I am without a doubt looking at you, and you too III, and Ghost Protocol a little bit) McQuarrie in both Rogue Nation and, especially, Fallout provides his audience with a plethora of female characters who are strong in so many unique ways. There’s still a lot of room for improvement but Mission: Impossible - Fallout promises to tread the way for other male-centric blockbusters to not only provide female strength, but to promote it.
Mission: Impossible - Fallout is available now to view on demand and is released on DVD and Blu-ray from December 3rd 2018.