Fall approaches and summer starts retreating, but it’s still here though, you can see it at the multiplex that is still almost completely dominated by blockbusters, the sequels of summers gone by. I’ve still yet to see the two Spielbergian monster sequels, the ones about the dinosaurs and sharks (even if they forgot to include Jaws in the title for the latter).
But I did check out Incredibles 2 and Mission: Impossible – Fallout last week and felt a formula fatigue sitting in, even if the films were not that bad. Yet there’s some small twists to the formula, although that’s of course already a part of it – but it matters what sort of twist it is.
Here the main twist is the gender angle, that has usually been overly masculine in Hollywood actioners. Incredibles 2 goes all the way by simply making Elastigirl the main hero – by the advice of PR agents in the movie – while Mr. Incredible is a stay at home dad. (I was going to write househusband but that felt weird, why don’t we talk about househusbands?) And when the toddler of the house starts showcasing his unpredictable superpowers, albeit with the lack of self-control that toddlers have, you start wondering if this might not be harder then stopping runaway trains and beating up bad guys. In addition, the main villain turns out to be female – while the men are mostly side-lined or clueless about what’s going on.
The gender twist is a bit subtler in the sixth Mission: Impossible. The series has always flirted with being the new Bond – but at the same time tried to be its own spy series (and it could really borrow some ideas from Bond when it comes to naming the sequels, Ghost Protocol, Rogue Nation and Fallout sound like a competition in forgettable movie titles). The first film even had a theme song by famous pop stars – an idea since abandoned. But perhaps what is most interesting is how the M:I version of the Bond girl has evolved. At first, they chose much bigger actresses than had usually graced the Bond films, with Emannuele Béart and Kristin Scott Thomas, but didn’t really know what to do with them. Nevertheless Scott Thomas used the few minutes she got to become the soul of the first film – the very best actors have a knack for this, not stealing films but giving them a soul they perhaps don’t deserve.
Then there were number II & III and Thandie Newton and Michelle Monaghan being the best thing about forgettable films – before Paula Patton was forgettable in an otherwise unusually memorable fourth film. But then the fifth came along and Rebecca changed everything, not unlike Eva Green did for Bond in Casino Royale. Here we got a female hero that was too memorable for the film makers to simply forget her in the next instalment. Tough and resourceful, better written then usually – but primarily starring actresses that simply allowed themselves to put their heart and soul into an otherwise generic action part. In addition, Ferguson is Swedish and her character’s name, Ilsa, a lovely nod to film history, also fitting since she’s the only thing in those films worthy of mention in relation to Casablanca, well, that and the Charles Bridge scene in the original of course.
And now for the revolution: not only does she return, another former M:I girl returns as well. Michelle Monaghan, Hunt’s wife that disappeared after the third film to allow him to keep saving the world. Yet Monaghan’s character has a real life on her own, saving the world in her own fashion. The two even meet and seem to have the potential to form a friendship if they weren’t too busy saving the world. This is a nice change from female leads that are either forgotten or die in order to make the hero angry, sad or broken in the next instalment. Having said that, this has to be done better. Ferguson doesn’t manage to be as interesting as in the last film, they are still learning to actually develop female characters instead of just intrudicing a new one in every film.
A black and white world
The villains and the politics are much more traditional however. It almost feels like a blast from the past, while the heroes of the Marvel and Star Wars keep mirroring current events to some degree. In that regard, those two get pretty close to be pure escapism, where the bad guys are simply bad for rather vague non-political reasons. There’s no spectre of Trump around, the highest ranks present are Angelu Bassett’s underused CIA chief and a well-meaning politician we learn almost nothing about in Incredibles 2.
Yes, there is the constant thread of supers becoming illegal and Ethan Hunt’s spy outlet being closed down, but it’s always like that these days and the prosecution of superheroes just a faint echo of the X-Men franchise, in its better days (I’m trying my best to forget Apocalypse). Still, one anarchist baddie asks Cruise if he trusts his superiors – and thereby the government – blindly? Yet there is no real attempt at answering that question – and possibly the little politics we can read out of those films is that nothing should be changed (Mission: Impossible) or in fact that we must change things (Incredibles 2). There’s also some ideas about the value of a single life when your saving millions, you know, like in Avengers and Schindler‘s List.
Yet the Mission: Impossible films are of course in the end really just about one thing: to watch Tom Cruise run. Or jump or climb. The best of those scenes brings out the vertigo in the audience, like when the mountains of Norway do their best Kashmir impression while Cruise has a mad helicopter fight.
Those films are simply the personal work-out space of the last big Hollywood star, where he defies both age and CGI. He’s the actor as athlete, always going for the next record. In a time when superheroes are brought to life through CGI Tom Cruise is the superhero that is still human. Here he even conquers Superman himself, as Henry Cavill plays a younger and taller secret agent that is put in place as sort of a nanny to Cruise – although of course he never stands a chance when push comes to shove. Finally you just hope Cruise doesn’t literally kill himself while doing his stunts for the seventh and eighth instalments in his sixties, since we all crave all those walker action set pieces in number sixteen.
Text: Ásgeir H Ingólfsson