A man jumps out of an airplane. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. Another man jumps after him to save the first man. The second man gets struck by lightning. The first man passes out when his oxygen tank malfunctions. The second man, in free-fall, shakes off the lightning strike, takes off his oxygen tank and attaches it to the first man’s suit, then pulls the man’s ripcord. The second man pulls his ripcord mere hundreds of feet from the ground. Both men survive.
That impossible thing is just of the first of many impossible things Ethan Hunt does in the latest installment in the Mission: Impossible franchise. He’s the super-est of super spies – James Bond without the chauvinism or misogyny; a hopeful Jason Bourne. He’s treasured by his colleagues, admired by women, and respected by his superiors. Hunt is, admittedly, the odd duck, forced always to be on the outside of reputable, but in his otherness, for his otherness, he is loved.
Most movies are fantasies, not in the genre sense, but in the descriptive. Movies present a condensed, idealized version of people and the world. They tip easily into the realm of metaphor and symbol, creating and incarnating icons to which audiences can attach their own hopes, fears, desires, even prayers. The action is fantastic, utterly unrelatable to anything we know in the real world, but the emotions fueling the characters are, at their best, precisely the same as what we feel every day in our more mundane lives.
So, while I have skydived, I have not jumped into a lightning storm, saved another person, and narrowly escaped certain death on the pavement below. I’ve ridden the Chunnel, but in a seat in a train car, not on the back window stretched to keep a blade from slicing my neck. I’ve rock climbed, but not in Monument Valley without a rope. I can sprint, but I cannot sprint for measureless miles*, arms rigid, hands slicing the air, leaping from building to building, chasing a bad guy. I am not Ethan Hunt. No one is.
But I do know what it feels like to wonder if I am loved or merely tolerated. I have felt disreputable, begrudgingly accepted it, and done the work I felt like I, and only I, had to do even though I fear it will cost me relationships, even though it has cost me relationships. I’ve sat alone at restaurants and looked at people living normal lives and wondered why I can’t. I’ve longed to be valued for my weirdness, not in spite of it, to hear that my friends and family need me to be who I am, that I matter. I am Ethan Hunt. To a degree, we all are. That emotional core is essential to what the Mission: Impossible franchise is as much as the self-destructing messages, masks (now there’s a resonant symbol for a story-world about finding and accepting your inherent identity), double-crosses, and stunts.
That kind of emotional resonance is the gift of a good movie, even—maybe especially—a blockbuster action movie like Mission: Impossible. It’s true of our other successful action franchises too, even if their emotional energy is in another direction. So maybe you love The Fast and the Furious films, with their insistence on the enduring, sustaining value of family, redefined in a multicultural world; or the Captain America films with their deep appreciation for the worth of moral commitments in a relativistic age; or even the James Bond films for their dogged joie de vivre under the cloud of always-possible [nuclear] annihilation**.
The spectacle of a movie takes the characters out of our physical reach, but it also enables us to connect with them emotionally. Spectacle simplifies them so that they are unlike us in every way except in the particular ways they are exactly like us. They are beyond us, but their hearts beat like ours, and that is the magic of the movies.
*This is perhaps the keenest signifier of the difference between Ethan Hunt and Jason Bourne. Bourne knows he can “run, flat out, for half a mile before [his] hands start to shake.” Ethan Hunt’s hands tirelessly karate chop the air.
**Perhaps this is why the Bond franchise faltered after the end of the Cold War and only reignited in the age of Terrorism.