It’s summertime, and that’s usually the time of year that cinephiles are accustomed to hearing a tune that goes a bit like this:

Of course, there’s no Tom Cruise in sight there, as that’s the opening for the 60s/70s television hit Mission: Impossible. Dropping at the peak of episodic “Men in Uniform” shows on broadcast TV (often about Cowboys, lawyers, cops, etc.), Mission: Impossible centered on the adventures of a team of spies, a profession that was then – and still remains – a great mystery to the general public. Peter Graves became a household name starring as Jim Phelps, the IMF super-spy who was often charged with putting together a team for the mission of the week.

Even for its time, the show was incredibly formulaic, but this was suitable for the era it took place in. Each episode was essentially the same: Jim Phelps is given a mission – Phelps puts the team together – they formulate a plan – sleuthing commences – a little action to end the episode. This seems quaint in retrospect, but what made the show intriguing for audiences was not a desire to BLOW YOUR MIND or create new subversions and tragic characters. Rather, Mission: Impossible exceeded because the audience knew what to expect, but also knew that the production, acting, and direction would be superbly crafted. The show could be best described as exciting but comfortable. Which kind of reminds me of another Ole reliable:

The truth about Mission: Impossible is that we’ve long reached a point where the movies are more iconic and more associative with the brand name than the television series. That’s due to an All-Time great Action Character run from Cruise, and a litany of edge-of-your-seat, yet also symmetrically and aesthetically pleasing, setpieces. Cruise’s portrayal is so firmly molded into the fabric of the brand, it can be forgotten that his character (Ethan Hunt) is not even the star of the original show, as the character of Jim Phelps has only made one appearance in the movies – that being the very first in 1996. Cruise and director Brian De Palma ensured that Mission: Impossible’s Silver Screen debut would decisively separate itself from the legacy of its small screen counterpart.

By effectively jettisoning the old characters, Cruise was able to make new lore and a new cast of characters that would exemplify what Mission: Impossible was to a modern audience. There are many who may have never heard of the television show, but they associate Tom Cruise, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, and Rebecca Ferguson with some of the best action-adventure movies in the past 30 years. De Palma kicked the series off in a spectacular way, with vivid cinematography and high-wire circus displays in the action setpieces. These state of the art effects and camera movements, which more than hold their own even today, guaranteed that Mission: Impossible (1996) would stand on its own without relying on the fame of the series, and the franchise hasn’t looked back since.

Well, except Mission: Impossible 2 (2000), the franchise’s only misfire. A bizarre, confusing, boring piece of indulgence that’s filled to the brim with soap opera quality acting, lethargic action sequences, and a romance lacking any chemistry. If Brian De Palma fit like a glove with the modern take on this formula, director John Woo was like fitting a square dove into a round hole. This left JJ Abrams, of all people, with the task of resuscitating the franchise. Mission: Impossible III (2006) was a return to the intense and chaotic energy the franchise needed, albeit a bit too indulgent of the “shaky cam era” which often hindered the spectacle of blockbuster movies. So leave it to Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles) to push the envelope even further in terms of death defying action.

III and Ghost Protocol (2011) were strong entries, especially the latter, which kept the series in the public consciousness. But there was something still absent – a missing ingredient that would turn these movies into something reminiscent of appointment viewing, like the episodic series that the movies draw their name from. In addition, entries like the 2nd and 3rd Mission: Impossible put too much focus on Ethan Hunt, forgetting that these movies were supposed to be about a team. So when Cruise and writer-director Christopher McQuarrie finally partnered on a collaboration, their goal would be to bring consistency to the franchise.

Thus far, Brian De Palma, John Woo, JJ Abrams, and Brad Bird were all very different filmmakers that were bringing 4 distinct styles to the series. De Palma wanted a breakneck/operatic action movie mixed with the intrigue of film noir, bringing his interest in the thriller genre to the forefront. Abrams wanted to up the intensity, depicting the most chaotic action and camera movements in the series to date. Brad Bird is a master of clean, rhythmic, all-the-important-visual-info-is-in-the-frame, action aestethics, ironically the polar opposite of Abrams’ style. Then there’s John Woo, and I still can’t describe what he thought he was doing – Korean soap opera mixed with parkour, meets NCIS?

The footprints left by these directors are important context, for McQuarrie was the first director to bring a unifying style and tone to the series, starting with Rogue Nation (2015), continuing with the uproariously acclaimed Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018), and continuing with this year’s Dead Reckoning: Part One. Through the McQuarrie films, the series has settled on a core group of players – franchise veterans Cruise and Rhames, some needed comic relief from Simon Pegg, and an impeccable turn by Rebecca Ferguson, whose Ilsa Faust made her debut in Rogue Nation, adding a Femme Fatale turned action dynamo that could keep up with Cruise in all of the action scenes.

McQuarrie’s goal was to improve the writing of the series. Past entries struggled with making Ethan Hunt a relatable character, often swallowed up by convoluted screenplays. McQuarrie wanted to clean up the confusion, focusing on just a few ideas that the audience needs to remember and punctuating each checkpoint with an engrossing set piece. He wanted the action scenes to be motivated (and escalated) by character. McQuarrie likes structure, and Mission: Impossible had been very sloppy before his arrival. Entertaining as fuck, but sloppy.

We’re currently having what has been coined a “Flopbuster Summer.” One in which big budgeted movies are released, flop at the box office, and then are roasted on social media for their troubles. Combine that with an ongoing writer’s strike, impending AI technology, and Zaslav The Terrible in the midst of crafting his soon to be infamous legacy, and Hollywood is down bad right now. In an era of uncertainty, viewers will only put their dollars behind movies they KNOW they’ll have a good time at. In that vein, while considering the past ten years, is there a more consistent franchise right now than Mission: Impossible? Even the entries I’m not crazy about still exemplify exceptional filmmaking skill. But this took time to nurture, as the series itself has its own highs and lows it has needed to navigate. But the franchise’s evolution from “saga of betrayal” to “I need a family” is the sturdy ground for a franchise dedicated to make sure each new entry tops the last. When people begin to think sequels are just diminishing returns, they’ll stay home. If an audience expects a new movie will surpass what came before, they’ll make sure to see it in theaters.