What Ruined The Mummy? Bad Decisions

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Nearly every decision made regarding Alex Kurtzman’s THE MUMMY was the result of bad decisions, mostly on the part of executives. And those bad decisions are Legion, for they are many.

1. MAKING A MUMMY MOVIE

You can actually reverse-engineer the decision disturbingly easily.

EXEC 1: We want to make a shared continuity universe like Marvel has, because those make money. Let’s use our old-school monsters. Who’s our most popular one?

EXEC 2: Dracula!

EXEC 1: Yeah! But nobody liked DRACULA UNTOLD (2014), and we jumped the gun on making that our shared continuity movie.

EXEC 2: Frankenstein!

EXEC 1: But other companies made I, FRANKENSTEIN (2014) and VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN (2015), and nobody liked those.

EXEC 2: Ummm… The Wolfman?

EXEC 1: WOLFMAN (2010). Nobody liked that either.

EXEC 2: Creature from the Black Lagoon? Invisible Man?

EXEC 1: Too small.

EXEC 2: The Mummy?

EXEC 1: Yeah! We could blow around sandstorms, destroy cities, and do all kinds of crazy stuff!

EXEC 3, who has been silent all this time: But won’t audiences just compare that with the popular MUMMY 1999 franchise?

EXEC 1: NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOPE!

Spoilers: EVERYONE has done that, and THE MUMMY hasn’t looked good because of it.

There’s nothing wrong on paper with making a Mummy movie, but in the age of reboots, you have to be especially careful about audience burnout and the optics of sullying a fan favorite. THE MUMMY (1999) IS a fan favorite, and if Universal doesn’t have enough evidence of this from its box office success and continued DVD sales, it certainly does from the fact that The Mummy is STILL a major ride at their theme parks.

It’s not been that long since THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR (2008), which came out 7 years following THE MUMMY RETURNS (2001). Audiences had plenty of reason to wonder if MUMMY (2017) was a sequel or reboot or wonder why Brendan Fraser didn’t return.

2. MAKING THIS AN ACTION MOVIE

Regardless of my love for the action-horror genre and my unpopular opinion that MUMMY (2017)’s horror scenes were among the few things it got right, horror is enjoying a renaissance, with movies like GET OUT (2017), IT FOLLOWS (2015), THE CONJURING SERIES, and THE PURGE SERIES showing how very much is possible within it. Universal’s “Dark Universe” could’ve truly stood out if only it’d fully committed to its horror. While its original movies were horror-dramas, they eventually evolved into action-horror movies. That gave audiences plenty of time to fall in love with the characters to care about their slugfests. Audiences today are clambering for the next big, exciting horror movie. There’s no reason why Universal couldn’t have started with a mid-budgeted horror movie and worked its way up from there.

By that same token, the UNDERWORLD and RESIDENT EVIL movie franchises have demonstrated that with a mid-level budget, you can make exciting movies that are consistently both action & horror without betraying either. THE MUMMY (2017) was initially slated to be directed by Len Wiseman of UNDERWORLD fame, and probably would’ve been a more appropriate movie for that.

3. FORCING THE SHARED CONTINUITY

I’m all for Universal’s “Dark Universe” of classic monsters. I love gothic horror, and I believe that there’s a place for it in a modern setting. By the same token, I respect anyone who has “shared universe burnout,” especially when MUMMY (2017) shits the bed with it.

IRON MAN (2008), only establishes its shared continuity status in its post-credits scene with Nick Fury, which is nothing more than, “We’d like to put more superheroes together. Whaddya think?” In THE MUMMY, Russell Crowe’s Dr. Jekyll commandeers the movie with his monster-hunting organization, Prodigium. It effectively becomes HIS movie, undercutting whatever interest you probably hadn’t been building for Tom Cruise’s Nick, Annabelle Wallis’ Jenny, or Sofia Boutella’s Ahmanet. Nearly the entire second act takes place in Prodigium’s headquarters, where you’re treated to shots of a vampire and werewolf skull, the Creature from the Black Lagoon’s arm, THE MUMMY (1999)’s book of the dead, and Dr. Jekyll’s transformation into Mr. Hyde. It’d feel random as hell if those scenes –Nick’s heart to heart with Jenny, Ahmanet’s schemes in captivity, and Mr. Hyde’s Hulk-inspired fight- weren’t lifted directly from THE AVENGERS (2012).

These scenes work for monster nerds like me, but for everyone else, they feel like a marketing plan. “This is how we plan to make billions of dollars. We don’t care if the story makes sense, just that you know that we’re going to keep making these things until the money stops rolling in.”

4. HIRING ALEX KURTZMAN

Alex Kurtzman, the critically-panned writer of TRANSFORMERS 1-3, STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS (2013), and AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 (2014) was hired to shepherd in Universal’s “Dark Universe” clearly not out of talent, but because those movies had been BANKABLE. Well, except ASM2. Kurtzman’s gotten lucky in being attached to sturdy franchises and bankable directors like Michael Bay and J.J. Abrams, making his own success cloudy at best. The man isn’t tested with an original property, which THE MUMMY half-is, at least for audiences in their teens & twenties.

Considering those above movies, Kurtzman is an awful idea as a creative head: He’s a lazy writer. To be clear, his work ethic is fine, but he doesn’t care about the craft of storytelling, and holy shit, does it show. INTO DARKNESS, ASM2, and THE MUMMY highlight a writer who arranges scenes in any order without tonal flow or a clear cause-and-effect. He only seems to know how to write lame banter for 14 year-old douchebags, making everyone sound like an idiot. He routinely writes himself into dead ends, and his ONLY solution is Deus Ex Machina (THE MUMMY features about FIVE instances where outside forces inexplicably stop The Mummy from stabbing major characters). Kutzman doesn’t care about internal logic (The Mummy wants to stab Tom Cruise with a magic knife, but the movie is never clear if that’s a good thing or a bad thing and what the consequences truly are). Finally, Kurtzman is a writer with a DEEPLY traditional view of sexual politics. If the Mummy’s relentlessly sucking-out-men’s souls doesn’t convince you, check out the male gaze in TRANSFORMERS 1-3 and INTO DARKNESS, and the fridging of Gwen Stacy in ASM2.

This is not a guy you want anywhere near your mass-appeal summer blockbuster designed to herald in a sprawling shared continuity. He’s going to set a bad tone.

5. $125 MILLION PRODUCTION BUDGET

For fun, let’s run some numbers.

-Universal’s WOLFMAN (2010): $150 mil. budget, $61.9 mil. domestic, $139.7 mil. worldwide.

-Lionsgate’s I, FRANKENSTEIN (2014): $65 mil. budget, $19 mil. domestic, $71.1. mil. worldwide.

-Universal’s DRACULA UNTOLD (2014): $70 mil. budget, $56.2 domestic, $217 mil. worldwide.

-Fox’s VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN (2015): $40 mil. budget, $ 5 mil. domestic, $34.2 mil. worldwide.

Things to note, none of these movies, even the two enjoying Universal’s marketing, were able to break $70 million domestic. All four of these movies took a domestic loss for whatever reason (all four of them are bad-or-iffy movies). Only DRACULA UNTOLD was profitable worldwide, owing almost exclusively to the widest distribution and the emerging global market.

Conclusions: There IS a market for classic horror monsters, but a nascent one. It needs to be developed, not expected. Budgets over $100 million are, at this stage, untenable, when you can only expect an average (of the Universal brand horror movies) of $59.05 million domestic at best (for bad movies). The worldwide box office is a lifesaver, but that doesn’t exactly build excitement for franchises.

A safe budget is probably in the $70-$90 million range. DRACULA UNTOLD (2014) had a reported budget of $70 million, and it’s a good-looking movie with decent talent. Bummer that the movie itself was mediocre.

6. HIRING TOM CRUISE

Tom Cruise is a legendary actor who probably starred in one of your favorite movies, but when’s the last time he hasn’t coasted on just playing an idealized version of himself? In the last 7 years, he hasn’t. His star his dimmed, and if you hire Tom Cruise, the 55 year-old is going to act as if he was 30, and damned if that isn’t out of place.

Just like he’s fallen into niche roles, Tom Cruise has fallen into niche MOVIES. He stars in glossy action movies where he can banter and show off his physicality. His supporting female love interests are always tech/lore/intellectually savvy and play foible to him. He doesn’t have character arcs, but he grows in power throughout. When you see Tom Cruise in a starring role, you know you’re getting “a Tom Cruise movie,” not whatever else a movie might want to be. Thanks to Tom Cruise, THE MUMMY was branded as “a Tom Cruise movie,” which I have to believe hurt it.

7. HIRING TOM CRUISE

Bear with me, because this speaks to another bad executive decision. Why would you hire Tom Cruise? Outside of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, his movies don’t consistently clear $100 million domestically and are routinely saved by the foreign market. At best, audiences show tepid interest to his work.

Chances are, he was hired because he’s Tom Cruise, a name that was huge a decade or two ago. Remember that picture of the actors hired for Universal’s Dark Universe? Russell Crowe, Johnny Depp, Tom Cruise… these are men who were gigantic a decade ago, but now… aren’t. Their personal reputations and box office performances have ruined their brand. There’s much to be made about how the star system is defunct, but the big actors and actresses now are people like Ryan Gosling, Bryan Cranston, Tom Hardy, Emma Stone, Jennifer Lawrence, and Scarlet Johansson. THOSE are the kinds of people you want to hire to usher in a new era.

Even then, look at Marvel’s approach: they hired people JUST on the verge of popping. People who could be defined by their MCU roles, not the reverse. Sofia Boutella as Ahmanet is this kind of excellent casting so OF COURSE…

8. THE MUMMY RUINS AHMANET

In the age of EVERYONE clambering for diversity and positive representation in roles, especially after the success of THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015) and ROGUE ONE (2016), it seemed like a great idea to make Sofia Boutella Ahmanet, the Mummy. An Egyptian princess out for revenge because her kingdom was stolen from her? BRILLIANT. Sounds like a great way to attack the idea of the glass ceiling and those who enforce it.

Except Alex Kurtzman has an extremely traditional view of sexual politics and gender roles. As an example, when we’re introduced to Annabelle Wallis’ Jenny, we’re immediately told that Tom Cruise’s Nick bedded her to steal information. Our supporting female lead is introduced as a sex object.

Ahmanet fairs little better. Her intro in ancient Egypt is heavily exoticized and eroticized, but things nosedive when Nick falls under her curse. Ahmanet’s curse basically means you have waking wet dreams about her, most of which confusingly end with undead sexual assault. Ahmanet grows her powers by sucking the life-force of men, and attempts to sexually manipulate others into doing her bidding. Ahmanet’s, a brunette, actions run counter to Jenny’s, a blonde, who continually calls Nick to the high path, confident that there’s some good in him, despite all evidence to the contrary.

So much for a feminist character.

Worse, Nick’s solution to killing Ahmanet is to suck out HER life-force, which is undeniably coded on the screen as rape. Then it’s heavily implied that Cruise will become the next Mummy.

Nicely done, Kurtzman.

9. PREMIERING THE WEEKEND AFTER WONDER WOMAN

Snarky point, but it highlights executive bad decision-making. It nearly says EVERYTHING about what went wrong during every phase of THE MUMMY’s production.

Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman was the ONLY character who emerged unscathed from BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016), and Jenkins’ titular movie was getting strong buzz throughout its development. Wonder Woman is an established brand, not to mention THE most widely-known female superhero in western comics. Even if the DCEU was a three-movie failing brand, people WERE going to see Wonder Woman just BECAUSE IT’S WONDER WOMAN.

This should’ve behind why it’s hard for a Superman or Batman movie to fail, but…

…executives commonly think that since movies like CATWOMAN (2004), ELEKTRA (2005), and SUPERGIRL (1984) failed, female-led superhero movies flat cannot be successful. It’s pitifully reductive thinking that ignores every more relevant detail of those projects, and it’s nakedly misogynistic. Boiling it down, the execs behind THE MUMMY thought that WONDER WOMAN, a movie all about the positivity of women, their representation, and their role in the world, couldn’t be successful.

Oops.

There are a myriad of other nitpicks for THE MUMMY. Jake Johnson’s ghost corpse clearly rips off AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. Nearly all the dialogue. A host of logical and continuity errors. But these aren’t isolated things that spell doom for movies –after all, look at Michael Bay and J.J. Abrams’ ongoing success.

The bigger failing is in the executive decisions that made THE MUMMY feel like a movie of the early 90s instead of the late 10s. It feels like a throwback, ignoring all the progess cinema has made since MUMMY 1999, except for the shallow sequel-delivery vehicle of cinematic universes. Audiences don’t want to see business models; they want to see good movies, and that didn’t happen here.

Personally, I have hope for Bill Condon’s BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (2019). Condon’s a strong director with an undying passion for the original movie, and he’s clearly got things to say about untraditional gender roles, romance, and dysfunction. It’ll probably be a good movie.

But will audiences care? I’ve already heard people wondering why it should be made before Frankenstein, or just how badly THE MUMMY would’ve ruined its brand.

Maybe executives will learn the right lesson here, back off, and let Condon do his crazy thing. Or maybe they’ll make him bend over backwards to get a cameo with Johnny Depp’s Invisible Man.

They probably will.

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Should The Mummy Be a Horror Movie?

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Even though I’m excited for THE MUMMY (2016), I’m waiting for it to bomb, critically and financially.

The conversation leading up to this movie has been fascinating. Those in the critic community have pointed out the blandness of the trailers; that the movie seemingly can’t decide on a tone; and that it seems like a cynical, Marvel-inspired cash grab. Time will tell how accurate those thoughts are.

More interestingly, others have stated that they don’t want an action-horror Mummy movie, and would prefer a straight horror movie. While I respect that impulse as a horror fan, I’m not sure I buy it. Not when THE MUMMY (1999) -action horror with comedy elements- is still highly regarded.

From there, I’m having trouble parsing out the expectations for THE MUMMY (2016) and Universal’s “Dark Universe.” If it’s a wish for it not to be a cynical cash grab, I understand, respect, and agree with that argument, and can only hold out hope that THE MUMMY holds together despite its iffy trailers. If it’s “we only want this as a horror movie,” well… doesn’t that seem unreasonable?

Put simply, “only if it’s horror” is “I don’t want X to be Y.” and it’s an overly simplistic sentiment that has bedeviled horror for decades.

In a genre closely related to comedy, horror is all about eliciting physical reactions in viewers. That’s the point of the jump scare. That’s the point of dread and suspense. But what about when horror isn’t trying to scare you? The latter Freddy and Jason movies are trying to make you squirm and laugh with the absurdity of the gore. ALIEN COVENANT generally doesn’t use suspense and prominently displays its creatures. Is that scary? No. Is it horror? Yes.

SLITHER is a fantastic creature feature with heart, but it’s more funny than scary. CABIN IN THE WOODS starts as an effective, self-aware slasher, but it’s more interested in satirizing a subgenre than scaring. THEY LIVE is sort of an action comedy, but its implications about corporate and political control are the stuff of paranoid nightmares. Horror represents a broad range of subgenres (hauntings, slashers, body horror, etc.), but why do we keep trying to police what horror can/can’t be? Psychological horror and zombie movies aren’t alike, but both are valid. Both explore different kinds of horror, some that might not rely on big scares. Hell, ALIENS is one of the greatest movies ever made, but it toes the line between action and horror.

My point is that the Universal Monsters don’t need to be pure horror movies to be good or important. Yes, their original movies were horror, but as their titular characters shared sequels, they became horror-dramas, and ultimately horror-action movies. What else do you call it when the Wolf-Man wrestles the Frankenstein Monster?

The real strength of the Universal Monsters, to me, is less in outright terror, but in our own empathy. We can see ourselves in them. Who hasn’t felt like the Frankenstein monster, struggling for purpose and identity in a world that can seem hostile and alienating? Who hasn’t been attracted to the idea of Dracula’s seductiveness and power? Who isn’t scared of losing control of their base instincts like the Wolf-Man? The Universal Monsters are veritable Jungian archetypes for our understanding of the world, which has led to them enduring as Halloween costumes and symbols for all these years. We may not have had a true theatrical Dracula, Frankenstein, and Wolf-Man movies for ages, but their derivatives are ubiquitous.

To that end, a successful Universal Monster movie doesn’t need to be a horror move in the jump-scare-gore-fest-high-tension-sense; it needs to explore a part of ourselves that’s simultaneously horrifying… and alluring. Whatever mode it takes -action, horror, drama, even comedy- it just has to be honest with itself and to the audience.

Does that mean that “The Mummy” (2017) will be a good movie just for being emotionally honest? No. It could still have poor characters, bland action, lame horror, and little overall merit. Hell, if it’s as paint-by-the-numbers as its trailer looks, it could be a snooze. But it WON’T fail by virtue of its genre.

So yeah. Action-horror. Time for everybody to start reappraising VAN HELSING.

Because that movie rules.

The Powerful Sexuality of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION’s Ilsa Faust

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I liked Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, but I wasn’t blown away by it.

Yeah, the setpieces were cool, and while I appreciated their groundedness (except for the water tank, which felt too constructed & comic booky even for me), I had trouble getting past how stock the characters seemed. Ethan/Cruise was Tom Cruise: action spy; Benji/Pegg was a stereotypical video game-playing hacker; Luthor/Rhames played Ving Rhames: hardware guy; Brandt/Renner was Jeremy Renner. Even the villain, Solomon Lane/Harris –whose complex scheme was always two steps ahead of the IMF (Ethan’s team, the Impossible Mission Force)- just doesn’t seem like an enduring character.

There was, however, Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust.

The spy/assassin Ilsa stole every scene with her ice-cold demeanor, unpredictability, badassery, and visceral sexuality. Her enigmatic agenda and raw presence tipped the balance from stock character to a sexy, third-wave character bordering on Imperator Furiosa-level groundbreaking.

So let’s talk about that!

1. PROBLEMATIC?

Let’s get one thing out of the way. Ilsa’s sexual presence is undeniable, from her leggy opera dress, to emerging from her pool like a bikini-clad Venus, Rogue Nation jumps at every opportunity to undress her. While in many cases, her sexuality is filtered through Ethan’s gaze –easily intuited as a calculated manipulation on her part- there are plenty of instances where the camera is the sole arbitrator of male gaze, which is intended specifically for the audience’s titillation.

Typically, this kind of male gaze is utterly objectifying. See Black Widow in Iron Man 2, who is objectified from her earliest scene. Ilsa, however, subverts this at every turn, providing 1. A narrative excuse, 2. A character excuse, and 3. A representation excuse (we’ll come back to this) for each shot emphasizing her physique.

From here on out, SPOILERS abound.

No two scenes spell out this three-part subversion like the torture scene and the opera-house assassination attempt.

A. THE TORTURE SCENE

We’re introduced to Ilsa in the torture scene, where, without speaking a word to the captive (topless) Ethan, she preps a series of vials for interrogation. Ignoring Ethan, she calmly places her high-heels on the table and unbuttons her blouse.

When she finally turns around to face him, her face –and intentions- are unreadable. The coding, however, is clear on several levels: SHE has the power; whatever happens is by HER demand and for HER pleasure; and SHE is playing a far larger game.

Almost immediately, the scene transforms into a brutal fight scene with Ilsa assisting in Ethan’s escape, the motivations for her undress becoming instantly apparent: she’s loosening up to kick nine kinds of ass. This “dressing-down” beat is echoed later in the opera-house assassination attempt, when Ethan (I keep wanting to call him Cruise; the character did nothing to differentiate him from Cruise’s other roles) yanks off his tie and unbuttons his shirt to fight an assassin.

ELBOW DROP!!!

The beauty of this scene is complex. 1. It establishes that every time we see Ilsa, she’s playing a larger game that’s just outside of our understanding. 2. It establishes that Ilsa’s dress, however sexual, is her choice and is in many respects her weapon. 3. It establishes that her sexuality is not “for” anyone but herself. 4. Her constant positioning to weapons, tools, and plot-foreshadowing elements establishes that she is always prepared or preparing. 5. It establishes Ethan’s sexual confusion about her. 6: It establishes that Ethan is under her control and that he is only a pawn. 7. And by virtue of 5 & 6, because the story is largely filtered through Ethan’s obsession and biases, it establishes sexual confusion and enigma in the audience’s mind about her purpose. These seven points reverberate throughout the entire movie.

B. THE OPERA HOUSE ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT

No sequence so obviously showcases Ilsa’s figure as the Opera House Assassination attempt. In short, Ethan attempts to prevent the assassination of the Austrian Prime Minister while three assassins -Ilsa-included- converge. In the ensuing struggle, the Prime Minister escapes, shot through the arm by Ethan and Ilsa escapes with Ethan only to escape again. It’s a fascinating, elegant, character-driven sequence, but Ilsa’s role, before, throughout, and after it is super interesting.

With the opera in full sway, Ilsa sashays into the opera house. The camera positions itself to maximize the full-leg slit in her dress, very nearly reaching the heights of up-skirt shots. Positioning her sniper nest in theater scenery, the camera continues to emphasize her legs as she assembles her sniper rifle and readies herself. Gratuitous? Perhaps. Enabling Ethan’s escape from torture, Ilsa only says, “We’re on the same side,” which neither Ethan or the audience can discern as a lie or not. Given Ilsa’s apparent goal of assassinating the Austrian Prime Minister, it’s hard to tell, and her sexuality being associated with danger –to the point of being positioned with weapons nearly all the time- prevents the audience from finding balance. At this point, one could call Ilsa a ‘femme fatale,’ but that’s oversimplistic, given her larger goals and inscrutability.

During the escape from the opera house, Ilsa pauses, midway sliding down a rooftop with Ethan to ask him to take off her high heels. She insists that he does this, even though they slide off easily. Why? Because this creates a false connection between her and Ethan, tying him to her sexuality. While there’s chemistry here, it’s not romantic; it’s a very subtle manipulation.

Finally, after ‘escaping’ from Ethan, Ilsa returns to Solomon Lane. Threatened by one of his goons, Ilsa takes him down in one powerful movement –one that provides a detailed look up her dress. However, male gaze as the shot is, there’s no denying that it marries Ilsa’s sexuality to power and domination, and that’s where the aforementioned “representation excuse” comes into play.

The theatrical version is shot from the front!

With respect to all body types, because everything can be beautiful, Hollywood loves its waifish female characters. They’re girlish and often aren’t connected to any kind of real physicality. In cases of employing curvy actresses like Scarlett Johansson, their figures are often downplayed. Look no further than the hilariously airbrushed poster of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, where Johansson’s waist is preposterously synched.

Rebecca Ferguson is no waif. She’s got a curvy, athletic body whose every movement conveys power and poise. Even when removing a wet shirt after the water-tank dive (more on that soon!), the camera highlights her muscular back and powerful build, just as much as reminding us that, yes, this is a topless woman. While there’s an pronounces air of having one’s cake and eating it with the male gaze (not to mention the fridged woman early in the script), there are clear elements of “different body types are sexy,” “sexuality does not negate agency,” and “sexy can mean strength.” Sure, the camera’s male-gaze-y at times, but it’s operating at a higher level than “here’s a sexy lady, boys!”

It’d be easy to call Ilsa a femme fatale and walk away, but that undercuts her character. Her sexuality is a function of her strength and ability, not the other way around.

And her strength doesn’t end there.

2. A POWERFUL WOMAN

I’ve used the word “power” repeatedly to describe Ilsa Faust because it’s accurate on so many levels. Not only is she a physical combatant to be reckoned with, but she controls Ethan as much as she negotiates the balance of power between herself her “boss,” Solomon Lane. The IMF are her pawns as much as she is Lane’s pawn –but she’s playing a different game.

As highlighted in the above section, Ilsa controls Ethan –past the point of compromising him emotionally and logically- via her sexuality and intelligence. Nearly every situation Ethan finds himself in is arbitrated by her and for her own goals. While there’s a sexual tension between the characters, there’s never a sense of a building tryst. She is not showing off for him; she’s dressing in a way that suits her. She is not his to earn (as even Ant-Man failed to circumvent with its out-of-nowhere makeout beat); he is hers to wield.

The wrinkle in this is the number of times Ilsa saves him when it’s seemingly against her better interests. She saves Ethan from torture when it might mean compromising her deep cover; she saves Ethan from drowning in the water tank when she could die in the process; and she allows Ethan to live when Lane gives her express orders to kill him. These are powerful actions in their own right, positing that a woman is every bit as capable as a man. Some might read them as romantic impulses by a woman who can’t hide her affections, but the underlying reasoning is deeper –and more powerful (there’s that word again)- than that.

Ilsa is a double agent in the employ of Britain’s MI6, and her handler, Simon McBurney’s Atlee, has charged her with infiltrating Lane’s terrorist network. To this end, Atlee implies that Ilsa is the definition of expendable and that her life doesn’t matter outside of Britain’s interests. He also suggests that she ought to stop compromising her cover by saving Ethan. However, as a disposable pawn, the last thing Ilsa wants is to make someone else a disposable pawn.

As mentioned, Ilsa’s power is also conveyed in more straightforward ways, the most interesting of this being a brutal knife fight during ROGUE NATION’s climax. It’s a small but significant thing to point out, but it’s generally uncommon to see heroic women physically fight villainous men in movies. Furious 7 is an obvious example, giving Michelle Rodriguez’s character a throwaway fight with all-female palace guards in Dubai. Not so in Rogue Nation. To give Ethan time to confront and ensnare Lane, Ilsa knife-fights “The Bone Doctor,” the movie’s heavy fighter and infamous torturer. Beyond being an absolutely vicious fight with both combatants taking slash wounds, the fight operates with the two as equals; Ilsa’s gender doesn’t factor into it. Moreover, this is THE final fight scene of the movie, leaving Ilsa with the most ass-kicking battle and Ethan the honor of out-thinking Lane.

Rogue Nation subverts typical action movie endings with Ilsa & Ethan’ closing beat. After beating Lane at his own game, Ilsa & Ethan could very well share a trope ‘smooch of victory’ (or sex of victory, we’re all adults, here), but the movie opts for a hug. Not one of sexual intimacy, but one of thanks, relief, and apology. It’s a complex action communicating Ilsa’s deep admiration and appreciation for Ethan’s role in her mission and her role in his mission (as both of their stories were important throughout this). The message here is progressive: despite her enticing dress and their mission together, Ethan is not “entitled” to her. Her body is not a given.

Finally, as she prepares to drive away from him, she simply says, “You know where to find me.” A fun callback to her previous lines in the movie where Ilsa’s left clues to her whereabouts and the next phase of the mission, it could be a reprise of that just as much as it could be an invitation for sex. The point is that her sexual favors aren’t tied to Ethan’s success, but to her agency and interest.

3. OTHER ARGUMENTS

Despite all this, I could understand anyone telling me I’m making too much of a female double-agent. I DID write that article about Marvel’s Sexy Spy/Assassin afterall, and it IS a known trope. That said, I feel like the biggest separator between Ilsa and others of her trope is her agency. Rogue Nation is every bit her story as it Ethan’s, and her agenda is very much her own. All she does in service of Ethan is repeatedly save his life. She just as often hampers him from interfering in her mission.

It all comes back to a central idea in screenwriting that every character thinks the movie is their story, but in plot-driven action movies, that can all be lost in the shuffle. It’s a testament to Rogue Nation that it doesn’t forget that notion and that it also doesn’t let Ilsa’s story overpower the narrative like Ant-Man arguably did with Hope Van Dyne.

So maybe I didn’t love Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, but it’s still a damn fine movie and more than worth your dollar.