March 24th, 2015
Got a couple slightly skeptical emails about this Mission: Impossible post, so I thought it might be worth unpacking my claim a little bit.
When we talk about action-movie franchises, what’s even in the running? Here’s a short, and incomplete, list:
Fast and Furious
There’s lots of gray zone here. I wouldn’t include the Nolan Batman movies as an “action franchise” because I view them as a self-contained trilogy, telling a single, distinct story. (In the same way I wouldn’t count Lord of the Rings, or Hunger Games, as a “franchise.”) I would, however, count the non-Nolan Batman flicks. To me, a franchise is a series where they make movies not to fit a contained narrative arc, but to fit the demands of the marketplace. Make sense? And it needs to have at least three entries.
And when we talk about action-movie franchises, I’m not entirely certain if it’s fair to commingle science-fiction with straight action. Can we look put the Lethal Weapon movies and the Terminator movies under the same category header? I can see it both ways. But for the purposes of this discussion, let’s say yes.
This list–and again, I’m sure you have entries I’ve left out (does “Marvel” count as its own franchise? How about just “X-Men”?)–is made up of mostly superior franchises. Just about every franchise listed has at least one classic movie in it. After all, that’s typically how a franchise starts: The studio strikes gold with a great movie and then milks it for as long as the good will lasts with audiences while the product quality diminishes.
I’d argue, for instance, that Raiders and Die Hard are both seriously great and seriously important and influential films, both better than any of the Mission: Impossible movies. If you’re making a list of the 50 greatest movies of the last 40 years, it would be very hard leave either of them off of it. But the rest of those franchises were not so great. Terrible, even. Because the cool kids all obsess about Shia and nuking the fridge, they’ve forgotten about Short Round. We must never forget Short Round.
For my money, what makes the M:I movies so great is the following:
* The original M:I is an amazing piece of work; one of the best grown-up action movies ever made.
* The series has the highest consistent level of quality of any of the franchises.
* Yet it achieves this quality control under very different regimes. The Brad Bird M:I is a very different animal from the De Palma M:I which is very different from the Abrams M:I. It’s a sign of how variegated they are that there’s not “M:I thing” that audiences enter the theaters looking for. There’s no trope–a Bond girl, or a Rocky come back–that audiences expect from an M:I movie. (Except, maybe, that they damn well better see Tom Cruise running.)
* The delta between the series high and the series low in M:I is relatively small. On our list, the smallest deltas would be for Lethal Weapon (because the series low, 4, wasn’t all that terrible) and for Transformers (because the series high, the original, wasn’t great to begin with). M:I 2 is a dud, but not offensively so. It’s not Die Hard 2. It’s not Live and Let Die.
So, resolved: Pound-for-pound, Mission: Impossible is the best action-movie franchise of all time.
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