May 22, 1996 was a huge day in the history of the then already storied Mission: Impossible franchise. While the classic series, and its revivals, had already run their course, the cinematic reboot craze saw Paramount rebooting the Impossible Mission Force for a brand new generation. With Tom Cruise at the head of this new push as Ethan Hunt, the studio probably had no idea that their efforts would lead to a mega hit saga that still reigns with its most current installment, Mission: Impossible - Fallout.
Through all six of the Missions so far, the story of Ethan Hunt has been told with some interesting twists and turns. Not only has Mr. Hunt’s talent for risky stunts grown with each outing, but his personal life has wound up finding some interesting developments make their way into the Mission: Impossible framework as well. You might know the missions, but do you know the man? Let’s take a look at what makes Ethan Hunt’s story in the Mission: Impossible series so compelling to follow, alongside the explosions and mole hunts.
Major spoilers from the Mission: Impossible movies ahead...
Mission: Impossible (1996)
Speaking of mole hunts, Ethan Hunt’s first big mission on screen saw him inadvertently becoming a part of one. What started as a routine mission to prevent the Non-Official Cover (NOC) List from exposing the identities of IMF agents around the world, turned into a race against time for Ethan to prove he wasn’t a traitor, as well as expose the actual parties behind his team’s death in Prague.
The List Is In The Open
After the first attempt to prevent the release of the NOC List left his entire IMF team dead, Ethan Hunt is accused of being a mole. Escaping captivity with Claire Phelps (Emmanuelle Beart), the only other surviving member of his team, Hunt has a plan to clear his name, and stop the government from continuing to harass his mother and uncle.
Those Damned Gideons
Enlisting disavowed IMF agents Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Franz Krieger (Jean Reno), Ethan Hunt steals the full NOC list from CIA headquarters. Playing a game with a notorious arms dealer known as “Max” (Vanessa Redgrave,) Hunt uses the list to ultimately unmask the IMF mole that caused his team’s death; and it’s none other than his presumably dead mentor (and legacy lead of the Mission: Impossible series) Jim Phelps (Jon Voight.)
Red Light, Green Light
Piecing together fact that Phelps sold his team out, with the help of Franz Krieger and his wife Claire, Ethan sets up his own mole hunt to expose the rogue IMF team to Eugene Kittridge (Henry Czerny). As Kittridge has been hunting Hunt throughout Mission: Impossible, the young agent’s efforts effectively clear his name. Krieger and the Phelps’s are killed in action, the NOC list is recovered from Max, and ultimately Ethan and Luther are cleared to return to the IMF for a long and fruitful career.
Mission: Impossible 2 (2000)
Ethan Hunt picked the wrong time to go on vacation, as IMF agent Sean Ambrose goes rogue while covering for Hunt on an assignment. Ambrose steals the virus/anti-virus Chimera/Bellerophon, and engages in a game of blackmail that, should it fail, will see a deadly viral pandemic fall upon the world.
Mission: Impossible, Not Mission: Difficult
Hitting the stride of his IMF career, Ethan Hunt is tasked with recruiting expert thief Nyah Nordoff-Hall (Thandie Newton) to help sabotage the plans of Sean Ambrose. As she once dated Ambrose, Mission: Impossible 2 sees Ethan setting up a honey trap operation, with Nyah as bait. What Ethan Hunt didn’t count on is personally falling for Nyah, which is exactly what he proceeds to do.
Hero Seeks Villain
Ethan Hunt is successful in sending Nyah Nordoff-Hall into the lion’s den of Sean Ambrose’s viral plot. This leads to a huge left turn when, during an ambush designed to prevent Ambrose from stealing an actual sample of the Chimera virus, Nyah injects herself with the virus to act as a bargaining chip. Now acting as the virus sample in Sean Ambrose's arsenal, she's dropped in the middle of Sydney, just in case the blackmail plot doesn't pay off. Which means it's time for Ethan to get really lethal in his efforts to save her.
Getting The Gun Off
With the clock ticking down to when Nyah becomes patient zero for a Chimera outbreak, Ethan saves the woman he loves. But being Ethan Hunt, he does so by icing her ex-boyfriend in an epic, motorcycle enhanced climax that sees him gunning down Sean Ambrose once and for all. Mission: Impossible 2 sees Nyah Nordoff-Hall cured with Bellerophon, with her and Ethan walking off into Sydney, apparently in love. Thanks, Star Trek!
Mission: Impossible III (2006)
Lindsay Farris (Keri Russell), an IMF agent Ethan trained, has gone missing during an investigation into arms dealer Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman.) About to get his hands on the weapon of mass destruction known as “The Rabbit’s Foot,” Ethan and his team of agents are about to discover a greater infiltration in the ranks of the IMF.
You May Now Kiss The Spy
In Mission: Impossible III, the absurdly inconvenient action that Ethan happens to undertake is, surprise, marrying his latest steady girlfriend Julia Meade (Michelle Monaghan.) Quite possibly the most personal mission in the Hunt legacy, Ethan not only sees his protege die in his arms, but he also sees his wife kidnapped. Both actions are courtesy of Owen Davian, who escapes IMF custody under Ethan’s watch, in a huge action set piece on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel.
From Humpty Dumpty To Helter Skelter
Ethan Hunt is once again between a rock and a hard place, as the IMF thinks he’s a mole (again) and Owen Davian gives him an ultimatum that doesn’t help matters. Either Hunt steals The Rabbit’s Foot in a 48-hour window, and hand it over to Davian, or Julia dies. Naturally, Ethan and his team choose to do the crime, in order to reveal an awful truth at the core of Mission: Impossible III.
Rhetorical Questions, Answered
Following a lead left to him by Lindsay Farris, Ethan Hunt discovers that it’s not IMF Director Theodore Brassel (Lawrence Fishburne) that’s compromised, but rather Assistant Director John Musgrave (Billy Crudup) who’s pulling the strings. Racing the clock to save his wife, as well as disarm the explosive charge in his head, Ethan blows the lid off of this latest mole hunt, and saves the world, along with his wife. Finally, time for a proper honeymoon!
Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011)
An IMF mission to retrieve Russian nuclear codes outs a rogue operative code named “Cobalt.” This agent provocateur is revealed to be nuclear strategist Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), and his plot is simple: he wants to start an atomic war between the US and Russia, all in the name of destroying society in order to rebuild it.
Kremlin With Anticipation
The history running up to Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol sees Ethan grieving the death of his wife, Julia, through the repercussions of a supposedly “unsanctioned hit.” But an IMF team breaks Ethan out of jail… just in time to land in hot water again. What starts as a mission to the Kremlin to discover Cobalt’s identity turns into the destruction of the Kremlin, with the IMF framed as the apparent culprits.
Ghosts Of The Past
With the help of analyst/former field agent William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), as well as the rest of the IMF team he’s been with since Moscow, Ethan tracks down Kurt Hendricks through various phases of his evil plot. But besides saving the world, Ethan also confronts his past in a very special way: he reveals to Brandt that despite thinking he failed to protect Julia, she didn’t actually die. Oh, and he narrowly avoids nuclear armageddon with the funniest/cringiest catchphrase.
Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol reveals that, sadly, Ethan and Julia made a conscious choice to split, so that she could have a normal life once again. William Brandt was unwittingly enlisted to help create a smoke screen that basically put Julia into witness relocation. Showing him that his ex-wife is alive and well, Ethan Hunt restores Brandt’s confidence, and gets him back into active field work. Also, his next mission pertains to some organization called The Syndicate, which is probably one of those between movie missions that’s so easy to crack, it’ll never come up again.
Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015)
Ethan Hunt is dead set on proving the existence of “The Syndicate,” a terrorist organization of internationally disavowed intelligence agents, exists. Meanwhile, Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) and the CIA want to totally disavow the IMF, and shut them down.
Ethan Hunt: Living Manifestation Of Destiny
For once, Ethan Hunt isn’t being considered a mole in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation. Rather, he’s considered a “rogue agent,” which just means he’s on the right side, but not playing by the rules. Hunt is back to making new foes in Hunley and Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), the head of the Syndicate, as well as a new friend in deep cover MI6 operative Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson.)
The Syndicate Is Real
Always the good spy, Ethan is able to bring those that oppose him within the halls of bureaucracy over to the right side. Thanks to his intelligence collecting efforts (and a really extreme case of holding his breath), Alan Hunley learns the truth: The Syndicate exists! Ethan Hunt was, once again, on the right side of history; and he only had to kidnap a Prime Minister, and risk the life of friend turned field agent Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg.)
Smoke And Mirrors
After the events of Mission: Impossible - Rogue Agent, the CIA finds itself working rather closely with the IMF from this point on. Ethan Hunt’’s former foe Alan Hunley becoming the new IMF Secretary, Solomon Lane is now in captivity, and The Syndicate never hurt anyone again! At least, that last part is accurate from a certain point of view.
Mission: Impossible - Fallout (2018)
The Syndicate is no more, as they’ve reorganized into The Apostles! Causing terror around the world, their next bid is to steal some precious plutonium to heat things up with a synchronized terrorist attack.
Scalpel vs. Hammer: Dawn Of Fallout
A botched operation sees Ethan Hunt framed yet again, this time as the head of The Apostles, the mysterious John Lark. With three spheres of Plutonium on the line, CIA Director Erika Sloane (Angela Bassett) hires a babysitter to make sure Ethan’s on the up and up. That babysitter is named August Walker (Henry Cavill), and he’s got an attitude, imposing shotgun arms, and a luxurious mustache that signals Ethan may have found his match.
Storms Of The Past
The past history of Ethan Hunt fittingly comes front and center in Mission: Impossible - Fallout. Not only is Ethan compelled to free Solomon Lane in order to try and retrieve the weapons in play, but he also runs into two figures tied to his deeper past: Alanna Mitsopolis (Vanessa Kirby), the daughter of Mission: Impossible arms dealer Max, and Julia, Ethan’s ex-wife, who just happens to be in the crosshairs of The Apostles
A Close Shave With The Apostles
Like the veteran mole hunter that he is, Ethan Hunt reveals that August Walker is actually John Lark! And doing his crazy action hero thing, he fights him in a showdown that results in another horrific helicopter fatality in the Mission: Impossible series. Giving his nemesis the hook and disarming nuclear armageddon, Ethan finds closure with Julia once and for all, and frees himself and his team for whatever the next mission will bring.
Ethan Hunt has gone through a lot in the history of the Mission: Impossible series, and this is merely the beginning for Tom Cruise's legendary agent of espionage. With Mission: Impossible 7 and 8 in production at this moment, friends old and new will join Ethan in whatever the next chapters of history hold for the IMF and the CIA's joint operations. But what isn't a mystery is the fact that Ethan Hunt will be there to pull some sick stunts, fight the good fight, and protect the world from whatever threat comes next. This history lesson won't self-destruct in five seconds, but if we're going to tell the story of Mission: Impossible's greatest hero, there's no better reference to end on.