Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt has been the face of the Mission: Impossible franchise ever since the first movie came out in 1996. Many characters come and go, and some even stick around for more than one movie, but Ethan is the guy leading the charge each time. One way or another, Ethan ends up being active in the field, but apparently 2011’s Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol was originally supposed to conclude with him hanging up his gun and becoming the new leader of the Impossible Mission Force (IMF). According to Ghost Protocol cinematographer Robert Elswitt:
The original version of Ghost Protocol, most of the people involved probably wouldn’t speak about this, but I can because nobody gives a shit about what I say. The original version of this movie was at the end of it Tom Cruise stops being Ethan Hunt the agent and becomes Ethan Hunt the Secretary. The whole version of this was they were gonna put another IMF Mission unit together with another actor—maybe it’s Jeremy Renner, who knows who it is—and they’re gonna go through this series of wild events, and at the end Tom gets to be the Secretary and a new agent takes over the franchise. Which I think seemed kind of nutty, but that was kind of the marching orders.
It was already public knowledge that Christopher McQuarrie was brought in to rewrite portions of the Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol script to reintegrate parts of the story into the action, but Robert Elswitt went into great detail about what the fourth movie of the Mission: Impossible series had planned for Ethan Hunt. After three movies of fighting the bad guys, Ethan would have taken over IMF, which makes sense given that Ghost Protocol sees the then-current IMF secretary, played by Tom Wilkinson, being killed. From there, a new agent would have taken over as the hero in the field for future movies.
And it wasn’t just Ethan Hunt’s promotion that was changed for Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. During his appearance on the Light the Fuse podcast, Robert Elswitt also talked about how the movie’s ending changed significantly. As he put it:
Everybody kind of had signed off on that. The script was a little loose, but that’s what the script was. You meet these other agents and then they free Tom from prison and they go though all this other stuff that happens, the Secretary gets killed… and then there was a big battle at the end in the snow and all this stuff happens and then Tom gets elevated to Secretary. I can’t remember who the new agent people would be, but it doesn’t matter now.
Once Christopher McQuarrie came aboard to handle rewrites, that’s when a good portion of Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, primarily the latter half, was changed. This included a scene where Ethan Hunt was speaking with his IMF allies aboard a train, took over the team and laid out everything that had happened and what they will do next. As for who this agent was supposed to take over Ethan’s spot as the main action hero, my guess it was Jeremy Renner’s William Brandt. He was introduced in Ghost Protocol, and with movies like The Hurt Locker and The Town on his resume, it’s easy to see how the creative minds could have envisioned his character as a worthy successor. Brandt came back for Rogue Nation, but because Jeremy Renner was busy in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he didn’t return for Fallout.
Needless to say that Ethan Hunt calling the shots at IMF is a far cry from where we are now with the Mission: Impossible franchise. Ethan is still out in the field and saving the world, and there’s no sign of that changing for Mission: Impossible 7 or 8. Christopher McQuarrie is also now spearheading the Mission: Impossible franchise as both writer and director, and all of the movies that he’s had a hand in have been met with critical acclaim. So it’s safe to say that the Mission: Impossible movies have been in good hands with McQuarrie.