Mission: Impossible, and films that were supposed to pass the torch

Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol (2)
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Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol was all set to pass the franchise from Tom Cruise to Jeremy Renner – but handing over is hard to do.

Spoilers for Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol lie ahead.

This year marks ten years since the release of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, director Brad Bird’s take on the long-running spy-action franchise. In 2011 it was the highest-grossing entry in the series and the also most financially successful film in Tom Cruise’s career up to that point, a sign that audiences had got over the period around an infamous interview with Oprah Winfrey  (that was said by Paramount’s then owner to have hurt the box office returns of 2006’s Mission: Impossible III).


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With film four, the onus was far more on the film and big stunts: Cruise duly ran his way back into being a hit machine.

That’s in large part due to just how good the Mission Impossible movies are at what they do. Frantic and frenetic in front of the screen and strictly assembled behind the scenes, there are few tighter ships in blockbuster cinema these days: Ghost Protocol was no exception.

These days it’s perhaps best remembered for Cruise’s Burj Khalifa climb. While Ethan Hunt free solos up the exterior of the world’s largest building, clock ticking and equipment malfunctioning, Cruise himself legitimately scaled the Dubai structure, secured only with cables. Like that climb, Cruise is firmly tied to the Mission Impossible series, and his enduring star-power and high-profile stunts have kept it that way, even though Ghost Protocol flirted with a notion that has long-since been forgotten: that Cruise might pass the series on to co-star Jeremy Renner.

Second billed in the film, Renner plays William Brandt, supposedly the IMF’s ‘chief analyst’, later revealed to be a capable field agent. Brandt proves his worth to the mission, comes around to Ethan’s ways, and Renner even replicates Cruise’s famous vault heist wire act from the original Mission Impossible scene. The word at the time was that the Hurt Locker star was in line to become the new star of the series.

In an interview during Ghost Protocol’s filming, Renner said: “It’s a franchise to potentially take over. I can’t predict the future and what they want, but that’s certainly the idea.”

Quite a few blockbuster films at the time batted this idea around to varying degrees. Mission: Impossible isn’t even the only series in which this happened with Renner specifically, as the following year saw him briefly take over from Matt Damon in The Bourne Legacy. As studios became increasingly reliant on their big-name franchises, different approaches were taken on how to keep gravy trains rolling while ensuring series remained fresh or stories felt conclusive. For example in 2008, Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull teased the idea of Shia LeBeouf’s Mutt taking up the iconic hat and whip of his forefather.

The Bourne Legacy

Jeremy Renner in The Bourne Legacy

In the same year as Ghost Protocol, X-Men First Class turned back the clock to check in with younger versions of Professor X and Magneto, while Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides let Jack Sparrow continue to play out his schtick while an ersatz Will and Elizabeth carried the load-bearing plot (Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom having sailed away from the series onto more financially secure tides).

Even Toy Story 3 toyed with the idea of saying goodbye to beloved characters, bringing Buzz, Woody and co to a white-knuckle brink and exploring the importance of letting go.

The idea mostly didn’t stick. Bourne came back. Buzz came back. Next year, in his 80s, Harrison Ford will come back as Indiana Jones. After all, if you tell audiences that it’s time to move on, there’s always the danger they’ll take you up on it and bring their money elsewhere.

Ghost Protocol made $694.7 million worldwide, numbers that wouldn’t have suggested a change was urgently needed. And regardless of what Renner may have said during filming, before the shoot was even over his chances of taking over Mission Impossible were increasingly imp…robable.

While Ghost Protocol is a very entertaining blockbuster, it’s not much of a pilot for ‘William Brandt: Memorable Action Hero’. Even when his field experience is revealed, Brandt’s character is positioned in the story as the naive newcomer. He questions Ethan, he’s a magnet for exposition and while he does get his hands dirty in both fight scenes and stunts, he’s generally positioned less capably, and more comedically, than Cruise or Paula Patton’s Agent Jane Carter.

Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol (1)

Jeremy Renner and Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol

Moreover, Brandt’s emotional arc in the film lands on pretty shaky ground.

Brandt has self-doubt as a field agent and is unsure around Ethan because, as far as he knows, he is responsible for the death of Ethan’s wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan). At the very end, Ethan reveals that Julia is still alive, and that her ‘death’ and Ethan’s own resulting revenge were staged in a plot to protect her identity and position Ethan for his next mission.

That’s the kind of terrifying devotion to the job Ethan Hunt has to have in order to save the world every couple of years, and we don’t see enough of Brandt to see that he has that. Renner’s not bad, but he and his character just don’t do enough to make a big impression.

It’s possible that the original plan was somewhat different. Ghost Protocol was where Christopher McQuarrie began to take hold of what was originally a series with a more free-wheeling creative hand accompanying Cruise. McQuarrie did uncredited rewrites of the film’s screenplay and has stuck around to write and direct ever since.

Speaking on his work on this entry, McQuarrie said: ‘…The script had these fantastic sequences in it but there was a mystery in it that was very complicated. What I did was about clarity. The mystery had to be made simpler. It’s like reaching into a sock and pulling it inside out. It’s still a sock, still all the same pieces, but all put together in a different order.’

How much of that mystery involved Brandt and his connection to Ethan and Julia is hard to say, but the streamlined story certainly keeps more focus on Cruise and the action scenes, giving Brandt less of a chance to stand out. Compare him with Rebecca Ferguson’s introduction as Ilsa Faust in the follow-up Rogue Nation, who in both performance and positioning captures the attention from the get-go.

Renner reportedly grew frustrated with McQuarrie’s rewriting on the fly during Rogue Nation, stuck in London away from his family when he wasn’t always needed. Brandt has quietly been dropped from the series for now. And studios are more reluctant to move on than ever.

But then to really make a go of passing the torch, you have to commit to it, the slowly but surely approach demonstrably doesn’t work. Compare the examples above to Creed which firmly, faithfully positioned Michael B Jordan in the centre stage from the get-go and also is called Creed, not The Rocky Protégé. Usually though, studios play it safe and while that makes sense – Cruise is slavishly devoted to MI and he’s a money spinner, it can’t go on forever. These aren’t comic books and actors do age.

Another factor in this hesitancy is that MI, 007 and others have all embraced similar longform, episodic storytelling to the dominant superhero movies, especially since Avengers. We’re still watching our action heroes grow, and in some cases, grow old, with studios comfortable giving us more of the same. From the latest Star Wars trilogy to this year’s Ghostbusters Afterlife, any attempt to bring in new characters and stories seems to demand, from viewers or creators, fidelity to the original stars. But look where that got Brandt.

Interestingly, those same superhero movies are in a similar position now, with contracts expiring and characters exiting long-running series. Marvel is mulling over the idea of legacy characters stepping in for the likes of Captain America, and even Renner himself has come full circle, with Clint Barton mentoring upcoming Avenger Kate Bishop in the Disney+ Hawkeye series.

It remains to be seen how they handle these transitions. As any Olympiad will tell you, it’s hard to pass the torch if you never actually let go. And if there’s one thing William Brandt learned about Ethan Hunt in Ghost Protocol, it’s that the man likes to keep running, and running and running.

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