In this scene near the end of Mission: Impossible-Fallout (2018), protagonist Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) lies in a field hospital bed, recovering from injuries sustained in the course of forestalling nuclear disaster, when he receives a visit from his ex-wife, Julia (Michelle Monaghan). Ethan tries to apologize for his previous missteps as a husband and agent—including having so narrowly averted apocalypse—but Julia will have none of it. “Nothing happened,” she says, “because you were here. And I sleep better at night knowing you always will be.”
Julia’s statement is clearly counterfactual. However intensely the then-56-year-old Cruise would like you to believe otherwise, his lined countenance serves as a visual reminder that the aging Hunt will not “always” be there. Yet her comment speaks to a fantasy at the heart of the Mission: Impossible franchise, as well as Cruise’s celebrity persona, which itself relies on the perception of his unceasing vigor and physical prowess. In brief, the franchise—in which Cruise famously continues to perform his own stunts—trades on the fairy tale that its star will live forever (as Cruise, an avowed Scientologist, effectively believes he will.) As early as 2012, commentators were already noting the improbability of Cruise’s continued presence in the series; in Film Comment, for instance, Scott Foundas, in the course of speculating about digital futures, imagined “going to see Mission: Impossible XXVII, starring a forever-young Tom Cruise, who, by every other measurable standard, will by this point have been dead for decades.”
In the years since seeing Fallout in the theater, however, I’ve begun to wonder if this scene might also express a broader cultural fantasy, what might be called the myth of white male permanence. In its almost hysterical commitment to Cruise/Hunt’s undiminished potency, the MI films do undertake an “impossible mission,” by insisting on the unwavering centrality of cis-het white men within a diversifying world (and among alternating casts). Unlike, say, Lee Edelman’s concept of reproductive futurism, this prospect of patriarchal omni-presentism seems to vest hope for the future not in unborn children, but in the myth of ageless men.