The most recent entry in the Mission Impossible series, Mission: Impossible VII — Dead Reckoning Part One, is expected to smash box office records for the series. But Dead Reckoning breaks from the past in another key way: it gives us a new Ethan Hunt origin story. Yes, the iconic superspy played by Tom Cruise used to have a very different backstory.
Through a flashback in Dead Reckoning, we see Hunt express grief and responsibility over the death of a woman in his past who was killed by the newest antagonist, Gabriel (Esai Morales). Though Dead Reckoning only offers us a few minutes of this fairly generic backstory, the storyline is symbolic of a shift in the series away from the light-hearted tone of its predecessors, and towards a grittier and grayer morality.
Up until Dead Reckoning, the clearest Ethan Hunt origin story did not appear on screen, but rather in a DVD bonus feature. In a character profile on the Mission Impossible (1996) DVD, Hunt is identified as an only child from Wisconsin whose boyhood knack for impressions led him to a dual degree at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in linguistics and theater.
Later, while enrolled in the CIA training academy, Hunt pulled off a large-scale prank that drew the attention of the IMF, the super secret organization that still assigns him impossible missions to this day.
How the Changing Ethan Hunt Origin Reflects Changes in Mission Impossible
A class clown-turned-spy Ethan Hunt origin story is fitting for the protagonist and playful spectacle of the first Mission Impossible film: Hunt is young, charming, and showy, and the action scenes mimic his personality — exploding chewing gum is used more than once. Burying a throwaway joke about Hunt’s theater kid background in a DVD menu only heightens the film’s frothy sensibilities.
Fallout (2018) updated the dossier in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene to show that Hunt was a recruit of Colonel Briggs, a reference to the original Mission Impossible series of the 1960s. It’s an insider joke for the eagle-eyed, and a sign of reverence for the series that started the entire franchise. But it’s mostly been ignored by modern fans.
How the New Ethan Hunt Origin Story Fits Dead Reckoning
In comparison to both Mission Impossible and Fallout, Dead Reckoning is downright nihilistic. The IMF team is more under-resourced than ever and the primary trio of Hunt, Luther, and Benji are weary. None of the tech they’ve relied upon for the last six movies can be trusted anymore thanks to the evil AI antagonist, and they instead switch to clunky analog tools. The message is clear: the old world is gone and they’ve helped to kill it in the rampant proliferation of surveillance and military tech.
Significantly in Dead Reckoning, we learn that the IMF does not exclusively recruit from intelligence agencies, as has been hinted at throughout the series. As Hunt explains to series newcomer Grace (Hayley Atwell) — the master thief who unwittingly gets tied up in Gabriel’s plans for world domination — he, Luther, and Benji have all been in the exact desperate spot she is.
They were all given the choice she’ll have to make: to either die on the run, spend life in prison, or join the IMF.
This new turn in Dead Reckoning indicates that Hunt is no longer the beacon of all-American morality we’ve come to know over the last twenty-five years. Hunt’s previously been portrayed as certainly imperfect and undoubtedly a risktaker, but not rash or selfish. He’s never shared James Bond’s taste for liquor, luxury goods, or sexual impropriety.
Hunt has always seemed motivated by, yes, adrenaline chasing, but most profoundly by a deep sense of global humanism. He wants to save the world, and he does, over and over again, without complaint.
Mission Impossible’s fast and loose attitude towards continuity has always been one of its strengths. Its anti-nostalgic ethic stands in fierce contrast to the backstory-heavy trauma plots that have dominated the major franchises.
In a landscape where the Star Wars universe dedicates hours of screen time to minor plot points from decades-old movies and entire Reddit forums are dissecting individual frames of Taylor Swift videos, it’s a breath of fresh air to see a movie that prioritizes large-scale storytelling over minutiae and requires no prior knowledge to enjoy.
Like Cruise himself, Ethan Hunt has mostly avoided looking in the rearview mirror. Perhaps this is why Cruise has deliberately merged his public persona with Ethan’s, hoping that their shared penchant for hard work and gravity-defying stunts will convince audiences to ignore the actor’s once very public and hotly debated private life.
Dead Reckoning reminds us what Ethan Hunt has always been: a folk hero. And we adapt folk heroes to fit the times. In 1996, we saw a cheeky upstart explicitly reject the past and recognize that no authority figure, no matter how trusted, was immune to corruption.
In 2023, we’re asking what the ramifications are of the technology that we’ve welcomed into our lives, and whether a man who has done wrong can redeem himself. We’ll have to wait until Dead Reckoning Part Two to find out the answers.
Main image: Tom Cruise and Vanessa Kirby in Mission Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.