Making the case for no-win situations.
In Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) has to deal with the fallout of his well-intentioned decisions.
At least, that’s the supposed premise.
Can you feel that? It’s ‘Mission: Impossible – Fallout’ spoilers. They’re headed this way.
If you’ve spent any time in the film-related corner of the web recently, you might be aware that The Dark Knight recently celebrated its tenth anniversary. As such, considering Fallout is easily one of the strongest entries in the Mission: Impossible franchise to date, with some truly stunning stunts and action sequences, it is unsurprising that certain comparisons have started being made.
That said, there is one fundamental component that links them in premise but ultimately separates them in practice—and that is the concept of fallout itself, and what it means for a hero.
When it comes to action narratives, it’s the villain who usually drives the narrative forward. The reason the heroes have the opportunity to be heroic is that said bad guy has concocted some evil plot that needs stopping or imperiled some innocent civilians who need saving. Of course, there are some exceptions, particularly films that don’t have a villain in the traditional sense (e.g. The Martian), but these are indeed exceptions. The general rule remains.
And on the subject of rules, within the world of big-budget franchise fare, there are a few other standard operating procedures. For one, the hero is not going to die while there are still sequels to be made. For another, the nuclear bomb is not going to detonate—or at least it’s not going to blow up New York City as intended.
Now, keeping in mind that maintaining a certain degree of suspense is key to the making of a good action film, these standard operating procedures present some challenges—i.e. how do you make things sufficiently tense when most viewers over the age of 7 understand that the hero’s “mortal peril” situation won’t actually end in mortality?
There are several ways various films have attempted to go about this, but one of the most successful has to do with the kind of choices heroes have to make. Putting heroes into situations where they are forced to make difficult decisions—particularly those in which one choice is not clearly ethically superior to the other, and where both present decided consequences—serves multiple purposes. First, it makes the narrative more dynamic—a push-pull situation instead of just the villain doing stuff and the hero reacting, which is both dull and decidedly static. Second, a hero choosing between two not-great options, as opposed to a succeed-or-fail situation, restores a degree of suspense to the narrative, as in the latter scenario one possibility defies the standard operating procedures of the action blockbuster, making it more of a one-way street than a fork in the road.
Fallout, like all the Mission: Impossible installments before it, plays with the idea of no-win situations—and it does it well enough that, for a few moments here and there, you can almost believe that Ethan Hunt will have to face a fallout from all his well-intentioned decisions, to paraphrase anarchist mastermind Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). From the opening showdown, in which Ethan prioritizes saving friend and colleague Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and accidentally lets three plutonium cores fall into the hands of a terrorist group known as The Apostles in the process, to his lingering guilt over ex-wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan), the film returns to this theme with enough consistency for a viewer to believe in the possibility that there just might be a follow-through.
Ultimately, there isn’t—the bombs are safely disarmed, Ethan and company save the day, and Julia returns to tackle Ethan’s guilt and assure him that she doesn’t regret their relationship and is happy with the way her life has turned out. It’s less “fallout” and more “everybody lived happily ever after, except for Alec Baldwin.”
This is less of a criticism than it might sound like. As mentioned, the film convinces the viewer of at least some possibility of fallout, which is sufficient to generate suspense—and at the end of the day, that’s the most important thing.
But there was a point to bringing up The Dark Knight earlier, so let’s get to it: as claimed at the start of this article, the thing that truly separates The Dark Knight from the crowd—including Fallout—has to do with the notion of “fallout” itself. The thing that made Heath Ledger’s Joker such an incredible antagonist wasn’t just Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance or his clever and disturbing one-liners, but the sorts of choices he forces Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and others into making, and the twisty kind of narrative that enabled. The film contains some of the best examples of no-win scenarios of any Hollywood blockbuster franchise film.
Just take a moment to consider the Harvey-Rachel gambit. Yes, it plays into the whole “body in the fridge”/dead girlfriends’ club trope, which I generally hate with a burning passion, but this particular example is so well done I admire it nonetheless.
The set-up is ultimately simple and far from groundbreaking: the Joker has district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and assistant D.A. and Bruce’s first love Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) rigged up to explode in different parts of the city, and Bruce only has time to save one. Of course, the police will valiantly attempt to save the other person, but they have cop cars instead of a souped-up motorcycle (and are also not Batman), so expectations are low. Not only is the “pick who to save” gambit relatively common fare, Harvey and Rachel as the two options represent a popular pattern: Harvey, a beloved public figure working wonders for fighting organized crime in daylight and without a mask, is the more “logical,” “for the greater good” choice, while Rachel is a lot more important to Bruce personally.
It is, in this fundamental sense, the same sort of choice presented to Ethan Hunt at the beginning of Fallout: secure the plutonium (the greater good) or save Luther (personal significance)? Both Bruce and Ethan end up prioritizing the people they care about over their greater missions—but here is where the paths diverge. What Fallout does is present this “no-win” situation, have Ethan make his choice, and then present what appears to be the consequences of that choice. But in reality, it’s a bait-and-switch, the narrative doubles back. Thanks to impossibly convincing face masks and other previously unrevealed information, it wasn’t a no-win situation after all. The team has saved the day again.
To be fair, this is basically the entire premise of the Mission: Impossible franchise—the impossible mission isn’t actually impossible (but only for Tom Cruise); the no-win scenario isn’t actually a no-win scenario. And even outside of the Mission: Impossible franchise, this is frequently how the story goes in these kinds of action movies.
But then there’s what happens with Harvey and Rachel in The Dark Knight. The Joker switches the addresses when he tells Bruce about his “game”—and even alludes to doing so, in a hindsight-is-20/20 sort of way (“Never start with the head, the victim gets all… fuzzy”). So Harvey gets rescued and Rachel gets blown up. Now, it’s clear in the film that the Joker expected Bruce to go for Rachel, but the evil genius of the setup would have worked either way: not only does Bruce have to live with the guilt of having chosen between two lives, but also deal with facing the person he didn’t choose.
The Dark Knight keeps its promise of a no-win situation, and that’s what makes it special. A magical third option doesn’t appear; the cops, in spite of their best efforts, don’t get to the second location in time. The film operates within the standard operating procedures of huge budget franchise fare (e.g. hero lives, villain gets caught), but just barely, and with a decidedly bittersweet finish. It stuns because it’s a familiar premise played out in an unusual way, keeping a promise that audiences are accustomed to seeing films break.
For an action film to be good, it has to convince viewers of the possibility of a fallout for the hero—which Fallout does—because that is a prerequisite for building suspense. But the greatest Hollywood action franchise films, from The Dark Knight to Mad Max: Fury Road to Logan, the ones that truly leave viewers stunned, don’t just threaten a fallout—they follow through.