Over 20 years, the Mission: Impossible series has snuck its way past superheroes and spaceships to become one of the most reliably solid franchises we have going. It has car chases, brilliant action setpieces, and Tom Cruise reminding us why we love Tom Cruise in spite of all the Xenu nonsense. I’ll add my voice to the chorus: Rogue Nation is a damn good film. However, one of the main reasons I liked it isn’t for something it does have, but for something it doesn’t.
Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation doesn’t have a goddamned romance subplot.
Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol didn’t, either; the closest it got was Paula Patton raging about her dear fridged lover, Josh Holloway, which is a gender reversal I am A-OK with. Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt didn’t get horizontal with anyone, the result of him having a wife (Michelle Monaghan) who’s still kicking around out there somewhere. Cheat on Michelle Monaghan? Who would ever?
Rogue Nation’s main female character is Ilsa Faust, played by the enormously classy Rebecca Ferguson, who was excellent (and Golden Globe-nominated) in 2013’s The White Queen. Ilsa, like Ethan, is a spy, working to infiltrate the bizarro world version of IMF, known as the “Syndicate.” She also doesn’t sleep with anyone.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying that romance subplots are, by necessity, a bad thing, and I’m definitely not saying that they inherently invalidate or lessen a female character’s worth. They can be done well. But, often, they’re not. They’re just shoehorned in there, because… dudebros are bringing their girlfriends, so there has to be something for the ladies, who like romance and not explosions and fight scenes, I guess?
Look at Thor, where the Thor/Jane Foster romance was painfully tacked-on: “I was a self-involved asshole until I kissed Natalie Portman. Three days later, I’m a hero! Huzzah!” You can have a slow burn and only hook them up in the second movie. I swear. And then there’s the controversial Black Widow/Hulk romance in Ultron. Personally, I liked their dynamic, and I think Scarlett Johansson and Mark Ruffalo have good chemistry, but that romance came out of nowhere and could easily have been left out. Ditto Ant-Man, where the script might as well have read “and then Scott and Hope kiss, because they’re our leads, and that has to happen, I guess.”
I don’t mean to pick on the MCU here, because they do have some amazing female characters (though don’t sprain something patting yourself on the back about it, Kevin Feige), and shoehorning in an unnecessary romance—and, in the process, reducing otherwise complex female characters to the role of “love interest”—is something that Hollywood does a lot in general. It’s a subset of the all-too-common Trinity Syndrome, expertly laid out in an essay on The Dissolve (RIP), where a movie introduces a Strong Female Character (TM) (“Look how strong she is, she kicks butt and don’t need no man ZOMG!”) only to completely subsume her character arc within the plotline of a male character. She might wield a weapon and do well in a fight, and she might start out with her own independent motivations (find The One, throw off our robot overlords), but at a certain point her own agency begins to take a backseat, until by the end of the movie her only real narrative purpose is to support the male lead (and, in cases where she’s the love interest, to look sexy doing it).
Trinity Syndrome has no place in Rogue Nation. Ilsa doesn’t give a steaming fuck about Ethan Hunt for a good chunk of the movie. Don’t get me wrong: They become friends by the end, and there’s even some sexual tension there, but her own impossible mission always comes first. When his goal coincides with hers, fine, they’ll work together, but she has her own shit to deal with, both in terms of her literal mission (infiltrate the Syndicate) and her core character conflict (“Do I really want to devote my life to a government that keeps fucking me over, even if it’s for the greater good?”). She’s actually a more complex character than Ethan, whose character development after five movies has basically settled him into RUN RUN YELL AT SOMEONE CAR CHASE EXPLODEY RUN RUN RUN.
She spends the bulk of the movie one step ahead of Ethan, enlisting him and Benji (Simon Pegg) as support staff in her mission when she needs them and BAMFing off to get shit done when she doesn’t. Ilsa, not Ethan, drives much of the plot. She’s more Imperator Furiosa than Bond Girl. In fact, her relationship is quite similar to Furiosa’s with Max, characterized as it is more by mutual respect than romance.
On the Bond Girl side, there’s a definite eye candy element, as in the scene where a bikini-clad Ilsa slow-mo steps out of a swimming pool. She’s sexualized in a way none of the male characters are; though Simon Pegg’s criticisms of Rogue Nation’s character posters is justified, said posters are also representative of the male gaze/female gaze ratio in the film itself. As always, my problem is less with the sexualization than the imbalance thereof. This is something the MCU has gotten right, with their panning shots of various superhero abs (not to mention CapAss). Hell, even the Bond series dipped their toe into female gaze territory with a certain Casino Royale scene. I’m not necessarily saying I want to eye up Tom Cruise’s naked torso (no, cut the “necessarily” there—I do not want that. I’m sure it’s fine, but no.), but it is an area where the Mission: Impossible franchise has room for improvement in subsequent movies. Simon Pegg, hit the gym. For equality.
And Rogue Nation has the same problem that Pacific Rim did: There may be an awesome female character, but there’s only one of them. Ilsa may pass the Mako Mori test, but let’s see if we can’t even the cast gender ratio out a bit next time, hmm?
Those criticisms aside, Rogue Nation’s treatment of Ilsa is stellar. She has her own agenda. She’s competent as fuck. She and Ethan grow to trust each other. They each recognize the other is hot, but they’re not going to do anything about it, you know? They’re bros. They’re hot, platonic bros. It’s almost like…
And “this movie reminded me of Winter Soldier” is some pretty damn high praise.