A Thousand Faces Without a Hero: Ethan Hunt, the ’90s as Transition, and the Power of Non-Identity in Mission: Impossible

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This is a guest post by Dr. Josh Smicker, a Lecturer in the Department of Communications at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  His work focuses on the intersection of new media technologies and new forms of militarization, and is currently working on a book exploring the history of discourses of “resilience” in the U.S.

In 1996, the year of Mission: Impossible’s release, the Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells published the first volume of his magnum opus The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture. It was his attempt to make sense of the sweeping transformations and transitions taking place throughout the 90s, and specifically to link up technological changes to the many geopolitical and ideological reconfigurations of the era. The second volume, 1997’s The Power of Identity elaborated (at length) a dialectic that is now mostly a commonplace—that the combination of the political, economic, and technological changes taking place throughout the 1990s allowed redefinitions of older identities and the emergence of totally new identity formations. However, these shifting or emergent identities also provoked backlash and resistance, and are therefore paralleled by a resurgence of nationalist and fundamentalist movements. The question of what tendency might prevail is largely left open, with Castells more interested in documenting the ways that the “process of techno-economic globalization shaping our world is being challenged, and will eventually be transformed, from a multiplicity of sources, according to different cultures, histories, and geographies.”

At a moment of resurgent nationalisms, the rise of right-wing parties across the EU, ISIS’ semi-successful attempts to re-establish a caliphate, and the palingenetic calls to “make America great again” currently dominating the U.S. political season, it is hard not to see the reactionary pole of Castells’ dialectics as ascendant. The idea that new identities, or even a rejection of the importance and pull of identity as such, might be possible and even desirable seems almost quaint. Within the U.S. context, an understanding of identity as fixed and in need of defense is increasingly prominent across the political spectrum. While the defense of “traditional values” has long been a familiar refrain on the right, a sense of needing to discover and live the individualized “truth” of one’s identity, and the fundamental incommunicability of that experience and identity, is also increasing central to liberal politics and activism.

This widespread entrenchment around set identities contributes to some of the strangeness of watching Mission: Impossible today. This is partially because Mission: Impossible is explicitly about the instability and performativity of identity, but also because it is a transitional film, embodying a number of the transitions occurring in the 1990s. This overwhelming sense of liminality (pardon the acadamese) functions on a number of different (but interrelated) levels within and beyond the film. In terms of its director and star, the film itself serves as a capstone for Brian De Palma, ending his mostly excellent run of 70s Hitchcock-esque thrillers (roughly Sisters to Blow-Out) and 80s NYC gangster movies (Scarface to Carlito’s Way) and moving him into more…questionable territory (Snake Eyes, anyone?). It was a turning point in Tom Cruise’s career, both in terms of his move to “prestige” movies and directors (his work with De Palma in M:I is soon followed by films with Stanley Kubrick in Eye Wide Shut, P.T. Anderson in Magnolia) and the increasing centrality of Scientology to his public image (which Amanda Grigg brilliantly maps out in relation to Ethan Hunt in her contribution to the symposium).   It is a period of change in the action genre more generally, which was largely moving away from the various Cold War fears and fantasies that typified it in the 1970s and 1980s, into the more individualized showdowns between apolitical heroes and equally apolitical evil geniuses, of which Mission: Impossible serves as an example.

1996 is also a key moment in the awkward adolescence that was the transition from analog to digital technologies (the scenes of Ethan Hunt surfing the Usenet serve as an immediate example of this awkwardness; see also: Hackers, Lawnmower Man). These shifts in the broader media ecosystem are both a theme within the film, and an element of its production and circulation. Diegetically, the movie is literally defined by the use of digital technologies framed by the analog, via the self-destructing videotapes that deliver Jon Voight and Tom Cruise their missions  Throughout the movie, the IMF employs a combination of analog technologies (latex face masks, video broadcasting) and snazzy (then) new digital ones (Laptops! Emails that look like postcards! Usenet!). In fact, it is possible to follows the slow erosion of the analog within the series.[i] As Will pointed out in the roundtable, by Ghost Protocol the much-beloved face printer literally breaks down. Instead, there is an increasing emphasis on the combination of pure physicality and “real” stunts with tableaus of more elaborate digital deceptions. In Ghost Protocol, for example, this new balance between the actual and the digital is present in Hunt scaling the side of the Burj Khalifa balanced by the use of the digital projection screen in the famous hallway scene in the Kremlin.[ii]

In the broader context of change in media technologies, the mid-90s marks the ascendance of the digital. CDs outsell cassettes first time in 1993, and a few years later DVDs displace VHS. 1994’s Jurassic Park functioned as proof of concept for believably realistic CGI effects. Perhaps even more importantly, 1996 is the year that AOL changed its billing from hourly to monthly, beginning a shift in our basic relation to and experience of the internet and being online, from either a novelty or task-oriented tool to a constant state of being. Mission: Impossible almost poetically captures some of these transitions. For example, was the last major studio release on Betamax, once the great hope of analog, and one of the first major studio releases with an interactive marketing website as part of its publicity campaign   As they were relatively emergent, there was a lack of definition of the rules and shape of these digital technologies at the moment (which might explain why a hyper-intelligent superspy might think it’s possible to find out the identity of someone named “Max” by typing “max.com” into a Usenet). This is paralleled by a broader lack of definition politically (with the end of the definitional co-ordinates of the Cold War), economically (shifts in advanced neoliberal capitalism[iii] ), and culturally/intellectually (the dominance of postmodernism and deconstruction, for example). To return more directly to Mission: Impossible, this lack of definition also defines Ethan Hunt, and really the series more generally.

As discussed in the roundtable and in Amanda’s piece, Ethan Hunt is the odd action hero without even a minimal defining trait. He doesn’t have any definitional characteristics, attributes, or even personality quirks. If anything, pure “intensity” is the closest thing to an actual human feature that we get—Ethan Hunt as prototypical tryhard. As a result, he is simply the best at EVERYTHING, effectively a walking superlative. Throughout the series, he is presented as the best at fighting, deduction, medicine (makes a field defibrillator!), art (draws a perfect police sketch on his own hand for Jeremy Renner!), math (perfectly calculates the arc to swing across Hong Kong skyscrapers off the dome!), etc. The only thing Ethan Hunt seems incapable of doing without complete facility is delivering a passable one-liner, an inability that reaches its absolute nadir in MI:3 when, while infiltrating the Vatican, he stops on top of a wall, looks directly at the camera, and utters the timeless phrase “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall”!!!! Besides the Ving Rhames/Simon Pegg tech expert role—and even the technological element can be co-opted by Hunt, as when he cybersleuths the identity of Max in the first M:I, or becomes a living computer disc in Rogue Nation–the other team members are there mostly to be actual human beings, and to bring niceties like humor and emotion into the film. Although he is constantly moving and kinetic, Ethan Hunt doesn’t move an inch along a character arc. There’s plenty of motion, but no hero’s journey.

But this lack of identity isn’t limited to Hunt. Both the IMF and the various villains Hunt face are undefined. In terms of the IMF, it is totally unclear what, precisely the organization is, or how it relates to other governmental organizations (although the fact that Michelle Monaghan can just hang out there at the end of MI:3 raises some serious security/screening concerns, which might suggest why so many of their agents end up going rogue). In the first M:I, it appears to be a subsection of the CIA (they seem to share a NOC list, although its possible they just use the exact same software). However, they are nominally separate, as they are capable of being dissolved (twice!). In terms of the villains, there is pretty much an even split between the baddies who are bad because they want to hold on to old (read: Cold War) identities (M:I, Ghost Protocol) and those almost completely lacking any identity and are motivated by–??? or $$$ (all the others). Even nominal references to actually existing groups—Sinn Fein, Hezbollah, etc.–disappear as the series goes on.

While I’ve suggested that this lack of identity begins as a reflection of the franchise’s emergence in the 1990s, it also provides direct practical benefits for the franchise and its future. It allows the series to reference and respond to different moments, technologies, and trends without even the minimal requirements that need to be acknowledged and featured in other similarly long-running franchises and characters (for example, Bond and Englishness). The M:I films’ consistent structure of a series of set pieces each placed in a different global city is ideal for the increasingly global media market, and particularly the importance of the international box office for Hollywood productions. It is perhaps unsurprising that Alibaba, the enormous Chinese online retailer, picked the franchise for i its first Hollywood investment. In Variety, a spokesman for the company described their investment in Rogue Nation as their “first step toward internationalization, and Alibaba Pictures looks forward to collaborating with more international movie studios where we can consolidate resources, technologies, and talents to establish a world-class integrated entertainment platform for the film industry.” Non-identity becomes less of a thematic within the series, or a concept that fascinates a director like De Palma, and more of a useful way to maximize translatability and global marketing. Therein lies its true power, and that’s why you shouldn’t expect Ethan Hunt, or the series, to develop a personality any time soon.


[i] Of course, the dividing line between the analog and digital isn’t incredibly clear-cut. A number of the “analog” effects of using the fake face were made at least partially with digital technologies, for example.

[ii] It’s a little ironic that for a franchise premised on tricks and deception, the “authenticity” provided by Cruise doing his own stunts has become increasingly central to the films and their publicity. It seems to function simultaneously as a sort of testimonial to the power of Scientology (cf. Amanda’s piece again) and an attempt to bolster the plausibility of Cruise as an action star. Bill Simmons disqualified Cruise from his “Action Hero Championship Belt” on Grantland—twice!—because he breaks the cardinal rule of being an action star: “over everything else, I need to believe our hero can kick everyone’s ass, in any conceivable situation, at any time.” The extremes Cruise goes to in these films seem like both acknowledgment and redress of this basic lack of believability in his baseline badass status.

[iii] I know this is a maddeningly imprecise term, but it’s useful shorthand.

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