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My 12 for ’18: Holding Out for a Hero in “Mission: Impossible – Fallout”

It’s that time of year. I’ll counting down my top twelve films of the year daily on the blog between now and New Year. I’ll also be discussing my top ten on the Scannain podcast. This is number ten.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout was released around the tenth anniversary of The Dark Knight.

In fact, the week after I caught the preview of Fallout, I attended a tenth anniversary screening of The Dark Knight. This is important, because Christopher McQuarrie’s second Mission: Impossible film undeniably exists in conversation with Christopher Nolan’s epoch-defining blockbuster. It is impossible to watch Fallout without thinking of The Dark Knight, from Lorne Balfe’s propulsive score to the sight of an armoured truck sinking slowly into a river.

However, McQuarrie does something interesting with Fallout, in relation to The Dark Knight. Too many of the films influenced by that iconic piece of cinema opted for shallow and superficial homage. Thor: The Dark World and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows and Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Transformers: The Last Knight settled for borrowing influence from the title. Law Abiding Citizen tried to embrace moral ambiguity. Man of Steel attempted to emulate that serious grounded approach to other properties.

In contrast, Fallout understands that the best thing that most films could learn from The Dark Knight is simple craft and professionalism. Fallout understands that top-notch production, an emphasis on in-camera effects and a propulsive sense of momentum are the most applicable lessons that most films could take from The Dark Knight. As such, Fallout takes those lessons and applies to them to Mission: Impossible, leading to the year’s most impressive embrace of the concept of heroism.

Heroism is a very strange concept in terms of modern cinema. Superhero cinema may have a lot to answer for, in this respect. Almost certainly, the highly polarised political environment has made studios anxious about engaging too aggressively with big ideas. Modern films have moved away from broad questions about the greater good and higher ideals, instead tending to focus on individualism and self-determination. In modern blockbusters, heroism is often measured by the good that the hero does for the characters that they already know and care about.

This is most obvious in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Captain America: Civil War was nominally a movie about a big political question; does the responsibility to act flow from having the power to act, or is it better to have checks and balances. There are any number of interesting allegories to explore; the role of the United States as a world leader, the debates around gun rights and ownership, even broader questions about the authority of the state to make decisions for the individual.

Civil War completely rejects any of these big ideas in favour of a much simpler and more personal story. Captain America and Iron Man do not fight because they actually have a meaningful philosophical disagreement. Tony doesn’t even believe in the side of the debate on which he finds himself. Captain America and Iron Man fight because Steve doesn’t want to see his best friend imprisoned and because Tony discovers that Steve’s best friend killed his mother.

This very personal motivation carries over to other films. In Avengers: Infinity War, half of the universe dies but the film only cares about the people wearing tights. San Andreas is a disaster film that eschews the traditional ensemble for hero worship, in which the lead character steals a search and rescue helicopter that could be helping civilians, instead searching for his daughter. Skyscraper is effective Die Hard meets The Great Inferno, but without any hostages  or broader context; it is largely a man trying to rescue his family.

All of this is very disconcerting. It feels jarring, particularly when juxtaposed with more traditional cinematic portrayals of heroism, where the idea was to do the right thing in a dangerous situation. This belief has been increasingly discarded in modern cinema. Michael Symonds has argued that the major arc of modern superhero films is not about characters learning humility or doing the right thing, but instead about them teaching the world how right they always were. Again, there is a sense that this reflects the increasingly polarised times.

In this context, the morality of Fallout is refreshingly (and hearteningly) old-fashioned. The Dark Knight is a movie that is famed and well-regarded for its moral uncertainty and ambiguity, for asking the audience to determine whether Batman and Gordon did the right thing at the very end. Many movies have tried to emulate that sense of ambiguity, but few successfully. Indeed, for what it’s worth, The Dark Knight Rises spends a not-insignificant portion of its runtime condemning that moral compromise.

McQuarrie doesn’t try to emulate that moral ambiguity, instead almost completely rejecting it. Fallout repeatedly teases its audience with the possibility of taking a more cynical turn. The teaser features the destruction of three major cities and a death toll that must be approaching the millions, while Ethan is taunted with “the fallout of all your good intentions” and wracked with guilt over the idea that his choices have resulted in bad things happening – both in the world at large and to the people that he cares about.

Fallout very quickly reveals all of these to be a feint. The destruction of those cities was faked, a ridiculous ruse featuring those delightfully goofy masks. The “darker and edgier” CIA agent designed to shadow Ethan Hunt is quickly revealed to be a moral and then a villain. Ethan is repeatedly assured that the people who were affected by his decisions all ended up where they were meant to be. At every point that Ethan is confronted with a terrible choice – repeatedly, challenged to kill an innocent – he comes up with a smart way of getting around it.

This is the morality of Fallout. Ethan’s moral philosophy amounts to little more than “do the right thing in the moment”, with the film repeatedly stressing how little forethought Ethan has put into his plans. However, things always work out. There is always another way. As long as Ethan is willing to commit to doing the right thing, and as long as Ethan never gives up, everything will work out fine in the end.

Of course, the real world doesn’t work like that. The last few years have attested to that. However, cinema is not reality, and it should not attempt to be. There is something to be said for the idea of a good old-fashioned hero with a plan that consists of nothing more elaborate than “do the right thing in the moment.” It is both surprising and disappointing that this sort of heroism seems so rare in contemporary cinema.

Fallout takes the sheer craft of The Dark Knight, both in terms of film-making and plotting. Fallout is the first Mission: Impossible that consciously and aggressively heightens across its runtime, with the showstopping sequence positioned at the end rather than the middle. More than that, Fallout features what might be the best blockbuster third act in recent memory, an extended death-defying forty-minute helicopter chase. However, it applies that approach to a much more straightforward story.

Fallout is a story of old-fashioned heroism, just told exceedingly well. There are certainly films less suited to 2018.


2 Responses

  1. Perfect analysis of a perfect film. This film really is the closest i’ve come to seeing a ballet on film by which I mean the emphasis is on spectacle and acrobatics rather than a tight story. Despite this, the story is engaging enough and the supporting cast is truly top notch and imbue each of their characters with so much personality. Though I did see it on the big screen, Wish I could have seen it on IMAX

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