In a cinematic landscape where superheroes rule the box office, the kind of high-flying action/espionage franchises that were once a dime a dozen in the ‘90s and early 2000s have slowly begun to fade from the public consciousness. Sure, Hollywood still continues to churn out one-off action star vehicles and sci-fi epics, but true action-spy franchises are becoming a dying breed: Except for Mission: Impossible. Where so many of the franchise’s contemporaries—like Fast and the Furious’ endless parade of increasingly Ludacris heist-related sequels, or the lackluster late Pierce Brosnan Bond films—have struggled to remain fresh and engaging as audience expectations for visual effects soar higher and interest in non-superhero action flicks continues to decline, Mission: Impossible is one of the few spy franchises to thrive. Though most look to Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission entries as the best the franchise has to offer, it was Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol—which celebrates its 10th anniversary this week—that paved the way for the franchise’s continued success and reinvention: A lighthearted, self-aware fourth installment that infuses comedy with character to create a fresh, memorable film.
When most folks think “Mission: Impossible”, there are a few particular trademarks that come to mind: Tom Cruise and his notorious commitment to stunt work, self-destructing mission briefs, Lalo Schifrin’s iconic theme. But even with the franchise’s recognizable and well-loved elements, when the Mission: Impossible films were coming up on their fourth installment, it was clear that something had to give: The tried-and-true formula that had helped the franchise find early success was growing stale.
Despite box office success and a compelling lead, the franchise’s by-the-numbers approach to filmmaking and the less-than-dazzling supporting characters made for an initial trilogy that, though certainly watchable, lacked the necessary spark to ensure franchise longevity. Though each early franchise entry was helmed by a different director, none quite managed to forge a new, memorable identity for the franchise: De Palma’s first outing certainly had charm, but felt more like an adaption of the series than an attempt to establish a new cinematic universe that could stand on its own two feet. John Woo’s Mission: Impossible 2 (with the exception of Thandie Newton’s femme fatale) serves as an utterly unremarkable entry—from the cliched plot to its empty stunts. Mission: Impossible changed hands yet again with J.J. Abrams’ feature directorial debut Mission: Impossible III, which went heavy on the plot twists and backstory for Ethan, but still lacked the pulse-pounding spark and gleeful magic that makes the heist in the first film so beloved.
The twist-filled Mission: Impossible films were becoming ironically and unfortunately predictable, their old-school style being passed over in favor of grimmer blockbusters like The Dark Knight, Inception and the Bourne franchise. Even the Bond films had recognized the need to evolve, releasing the grittier, wittier Casino Royale to massive critical acclaim. Compared to their sharp, dark scripts and inventive action sequences, Mission: Impossible felt like a reliable but outdated remainder in need of an upgrade— but with roots in a cheesy ‘60s TV show, trying to follow suit and transform Mission: Impossible into a similarly serious action franchise would be a fool’s errand. So, going against the grain, Mission: Impossible took the opposite route—opting to take itself less seriously, infusing its films with humor, and enlisting a secret weapon to help bring Ghost Protocol to life: Director Brad Bird.
At the time, Bird was hardly the no-brainer choice to spearhead one of Hollywood’s most famous action/spy franchises. He’d only directed animated films—The Incredibles, The Iron Giant and Ratatouille, to name a few. As it turned out, though, an unorthodox choice of director was exactly what the franchise needed. J.J. Abrams, whose aforementioned entry was his first film after finding success in shows like Lost and Alias was the franchise’s first attempt at filling this void, but though his penchant for narrative twists and choice to introduce Ethan’s wife Julia would prove apt, his lack of blockbuster experience meant the action sequences—the one thing moviegoers had always come to expect from a Mission: Impossible movie—fell flat. With Bird, though, his unorthodox background in comedy-infused animated films helped bring some much-needed levity to Mission: Impossible, making it stand out from its self-serious contemporaries.
On paper, Ghost Protocol doesn’t veer too far from standard Mission: Impossible fare. Ethan Hunt, now on the lam after the entire IMF has been shut down and ‘ghost protocol’ has been initiated, must race against time (with the help of a ragtag group of remaining fugitive IMF agents) to clear the agency’s name and stop an impending nuclear disaster. Nothing about the premise is drastically different from that of Ghost Protocol’s predecessors—the film still fundamentally feels like Mission: Impossible—but what Bird brought to the table, the things that helped breathe new life into the franchise, was a self-awareness, a sense of humor and a willingness to have fun.
With a background in children’s media, Bird was able to veer Ghost Protocol away from the self-important direction Mission: Impossible was heading in—ditching the grittier, wannabe Bourne aspects (like the Julia backstory from M:I III) and relishing in the ludicrousness of the high-flying stunts. He allowed the franchise to enjoy poking fun at itself. That’s not to say that Ghost Protocol is a full-on comedy, but where the franchise’s past scripts were all business, Ghost Protocol is peppered with jokes, visual gags and moments for the audience to step away, take a breather and enjoy the the childlike wonder of watching Tom Cruise fling himself off the side of the tallest building in the world.
It’s a testament to Ghost Protocol’s newfound commitment to levity that the film’s central stunt sequence—the Burj Khalifa climb—is filled to the brim with visual gags. Over the course of the near 10-minute sequence, which in previous films would’ve been played nearly entirely straight, Bird takes every opportunity to emphasize the sheer insanity of the situation and bring it down to earth with comedic beats. Benji cheerily informs Ethan that “blue is glue, red is dead,” and when Cruise is hanging on the side of the building for dear life, we watch in simultaneous horror and amusement as the climbing glove he’d previously lost sticks to the side of the building before pathetically tumbling to the ground—a not-so-subtle reminder that Ethan could follow suit any second.
But Bird’s decision to infuse Ghost Protocol with a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor is perhaps most tangibly conceptualized in the increased role of Simon Pegg’s Benji. He first appeared as a one-off tech geek in Mission: Impossible III, but returns here as a full-fledged IMF agent, ready and willing to put it all on the line for Ethan—and crack jokes along the way. Though Ethan Hunt was always a recognizable character, he isn’t particularly memorable: He’s a fearless, unrelenting badass, but outside of his passion for the job, it’s difficult to pin down what type of a person he is, or why we should care about him.
By upgrading Benji to a franchise mainstay, Mission: Impossible not only gained a reliable source of comic relief in Pegg, but also an endearing, easy-to-love supporting character to help ground the franchise’s personal stakes (he’s thrown into jeopardy at the end of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation and again in Fallout), which is a refreshing change from the revolving door of damsels in distress from the early films. Benji also functions as an audience surrogate and a walking, talking fourth wall break—when your jaw is on the floor watching Ethan tackle his latest insane stunt, Benji can be counted on to crack some sort of joke about just how completely unhinged the entire situation is.
From the toe-tapping prison breakout set to Dean Martin’s “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” to Benji’s constant quips to the scope of the stunts being dialed up to eleven (the Burj Khalifa climb sequence remains of the franchise’s best), Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol helped the franchise shed its stuffier, formulaic roots and embrace a new, breezier attitude towards big-budget action-spy films. While still maintaining the core elements that all Mission: Impossible fans knew and loved, Bird’s willingness to steer the franchise in a more lighthearted, shamelessly fun direction was the crucial adrenaline shot the franchise needed to not only remain culturally relevant, but to open the door for McQuarrie’s ensuing sequels, which have since established Mission: Impossible as one of the best action franchises in film history.
Lauren Coates is a freelance entertainment writer with a passion for sci-fi, an unhealthy obsession with bad reality television, and a constant yearning to be at Disney World. She’s contributed to Paste since 2020. You can follow her on Twitter @laurenjcoates, where she’s probably talking about Star Trek.