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[This story contains spoilers for Mission: Impossible — Fallout]
Action heroes have a great deal of emotional baggage, and Ethan Hunt certainly has his share. Tom Cruise’s lead character in the Mission: Impossible franchise has plenty of fallen allies in his past, not to mention an endless amount of betrayals and a whole lot of world-saving stress by the time Mission: Impossible — Fallout begins.
One thing that he doesn’t have on his conscience, however, is a slain loved one. Yes, he has one particular ghost in his life: his wife, Julia Meade (Michelle Monaghan), as introduced in 2006’s Mission: Impossible III. But she’s not dead; she’s just in a hiding. It’s his biggest weakness, one that the villains of Fallout try to exploit in the film’s third act, but that relationship is also one of the most progressive and refreshing elements about the Mission: Impossible franchise.
The act of a love interest being killed to embolden a male hero, sometimes to inspire vengeance or just make him appear even more tragic, is called “fridging,” coined by noted comic-book writer Gail Simone (based on a Green Lantern comic in which the superhero finds his girlfriend’s dead body in the refrigerator). It’s such a common trope for male film heroes that it’s become almost routine. Look no further than Batman (Rachel Dawes in The Dark Knight), James Bond (his short-lived romances with Tracy Bond or Vesper Lynd, take your pick) and Liam Neeson’s Bryan Mills (his ex-wife Lenore, who is killed early in Taken 3).
Deadpool 2 has two examples of this trope. Not only does its lead character, Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds), have his plot revolve around the death of his girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), but Cable (Josh Brolin) also loses his wife (and their child).
Why is it so common? Perhaps it’s just become ingrained in the hero-scripting formula.
“I know it wasn’t consciously sexist,” Deadpool 2 co-writer Paul Wernick told Vulture in May when asked about film’s female deaths. “It may appear that way as the film progresses and Cable loses his family as well, but again, the desire was to give a motivation to both Cable and to Deadpool and have it be a parallel motivation that they both lost their family, and they’re both trying to kind of find their way in the world without them.”
The Mission: Impossible movies have successfully bucked the fridging trend, recognizing that, aside from there being no inherent need to kill off women to slap more grit onto its heroes’ lives, there are plenty of dramatic possibilities in a hero experiencing a different kind of loss and heartache than death.
Ethan parted ways with Julia at the end of Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, when he faked her death, but she has remained a placeholder love interest for him. Since Ethan was already involved with someone else, Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) was introduced in 2015’s Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation as an equal to Hunt when it comes to the spy game. She was allowed to be a character in her own right, rather than being defined as a love interest. This makes for a refreshing, truly platonic dynamic, like a workplace comedy in which the two leads don’t get together in the end.
Removing romantic expectations allows the franchise to feel streamlined and focus on what it does best: showing Cruise performing one death-defying stunt after the next, and orchestrating plenty of double-crosses. In the third act of Fallout, Ethan and his crew learn that Julia has been located in Kashmir, where she is working in humanitarian aid and married to Patrick (Wes Bentley). Instead of the script acting as if she was waiting for Ethan to return, she assures him that she’s where she should be, and so is he.
Sure, it’s possible Ethan and Ilsa’s relationship could become more than platonic in future installments. But director Christopher McQuarrie cut a kiss from the film, and there’s no doubt that was the right decision.
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