Major spoilers ahead for Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One.
The Mission: Impossible franchise hasn’t always been kind to its female characters. Granted, spy films on the whole are still trying to account for a world that sees women as capable, even formidable, adversaries. The women of the genre typically fall into three categories — the damsel, the “honeypot,” and the femme fatale — and Mission: Impossible rarely strays from that blueprint, either. It took five attempts, and almost 20 years, for the franchise to introduce a heroine that could hold her own alongside Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise). Unfortunately, it didn’t take them too long to undo all the progress they’d made in Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning.
Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) felt like the answer to decades of diminishing returns. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation established her as a true match for Ethan: despite her shifting allegiances and unsavory past as an undercover agent, she shares Ethan’s desire to do what’s right and protect the innocent. She’s little more than a femme fatale — albeit a really, really cool one — in Rogue Nation, but the franchise pulled a rare feat in bringing Ilsa back for its sequel. Her role in Mission: Impossible – Fallout only fleshed out her character more, and quickly established her as a fan favorite.
That Ilsa would return, once again, in the franchise’s seventh film felt like a miracle. Mission: Impossible had finally managed to fix its most glaring problem, and appease a big swath of its audience. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t take the franchise very long to fumble all that goodwill. Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning does bring Ilsa back for an unprecedented third round, and she’s not the only female character this time, either. In fact, Dead Reckoning might just have more women in major roles than any Mission: Impossible film ... ever. Still, it’s not enough to just feature women, especially not if you’re going to kill one off just to replace her with another.
That’s right: Ilsa is the one big casualty in Dead Reckoning. The love interest in question is Hayley Atwell’s Grace, a professional pickpocket under Ethan’s protection. She’s also a target of Gabriel (Esai Morales), the film’s main antagonist. Grace has something Gabriel wants — one half of a cruciform key that controls an all-knowing AI — and Gabriel won’t hesitate to kill for it. Ilsa steps in to protect Grace while Ethan is otherwise occupied, but she eventually dies by his hand.
Ilsa’s death is clearly designed to devastate, and it doesn’t fail on that front. But it’s not only a harsh blow to those who cared about her; it sucks just as much for the fans who felt validated by her character. If we want to get technical, she wasn’t exactly “fridged” — that is, killed to further a man’s emotional arc. That’s mostly because Ethan, the main person that’s supposed to be wracked by this death, doesn’t seem too phased by it. Ilsa also chooses to duel Gabriel and protect Grace ... it’s just the one duel that she happens to lose. Comments on her competence aside, fans are still, understandably, blindsided. And it’s not because it’s sad to see her go, but because her death drags the Mission: Impossible franchise back to the Dark Ages.
Though Ilsa was pretty entrenched in the “sexy, morally-dubious” archetype upon her introduction, the franchise quickly peeled away the layers to reveal a complicated, compelling character. Her dynamic with Ethan transcends the well-trodden path that Mission: Impossible frequently tried (and failed) to emulate. Their bond was occasionally romantic, but never sexual; more often than not, it reflected an immense respect and reverence — and that’s a rare thing to find in any film.
Unfortunately, mutual respect doesn’t sit comfortably in a franchise that runs on paranoia and peril. Ilsa’s conflicting directives used to create tension for Ethan, but the closer they got, the less Ilsa was able to grow or develop. She’s even given less to do in Dead Reckoning, while newcomer Grace is the one learning and growing after stumbling into the world of espionage. On paper, it’s just more interesting to watch someone at the dawn of their journey than it is to see someone at the top of their game. Maybe the Mission: Impossible team realize that too. Maybe they wanted to pit Ethan against some new challenges this time, and that’s fine — but they’re still exploring new dynamics at the expense of the old. Given all that Ilsa’s brought to the franchise, she deserved better than the fate she got.