This article contains spoilers for Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part 1, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, John Wick 4, and James Bond: No Time to Die.

On paper, the three aforementioned sagas belong to different genres (adventure and action/spy thriller) and have had widely diverging lifespans on screen. While James Bond has been present since 1962, played by seven different actors, American spy Ethan Hunt has always had the face of Tom Cruise. Mission: Impossible did exist as a TV series, but Hunt’s on-screen adventures only began in 1996. The Mission: Impossible cinematic saga has not known any hiatuses yet, and is now onto its seventh episode.

As for the world’s best-known archeologist, Indiana Jones, he has been played by Harrison Ford since 1981 in five films, though the saga has known two hiatuses: the first, nearly thirty years long, between the third and fourth episodes, and the second between the fourth and the fifth movie, which was released a few weeks ago. Despite these apparent differences, all three franchises have achieved worldwide fame and global success at the box office, but they also have another point in common. All three feature aging male leads and must deal with the end of character arcs as actors retire.

On the surface, it seems unfair to compare James Bond with the other two sagas: 007 never ages, and his face only changes when needed. Yet the latest installment in the saga, No Time to Die (2021), has proven to us that Bond can – and does – die, as Daniel Craig’s 007 agent meets his end, blown by bombs on an island. This death was met with skepticism from the fans, who struggled to see how it allowed the saga to continue beyond Craig.

High On Films in collaboration with Avanté

No such dramatic death happens at the end of Dial of Destiny, but we see Indy nearing his demise after being shot, and he is only brought back to life by his goddaughter Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge). Though Indiana Jones 5 does not feature the titular character’s death, it does focus on his end: Indiana retires during the movie and seemingly settles down for a quiet life with his forever love, Marion (Karen Allen), at the end.

Mission: Impossible’s Ethan Hunt seems further away from retirement – or death – than his two heroic counterparts, but Dead Reckoning still shows Ethan being haunted by an enemy from his far past, and for the first time, the film mentions that he is an older man. Dead Reckoning Part 1 will have a direct follow-up next year, and it will allegedly mark the end of Cruise’s time as Hunt (though the actor has recently mentioned being inspired by Harrison Ford and possibly continuing to star in more M: I movies). It is thus not likely that Hunt will die in Dead Reckoning Part 2, but it will mark the end of Hunt’s character arc, and some fans even suspect that Ethan might retire following the eighth film.

On the one hand, all of these ends could seem like a coincidence. After all, no franchise can live on forever and keep recycling the same heroes and plot lines. On the other hand, these “deaths,” whether physical or allegorical, continue a trend: other heroes, like Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, have also met their end on the big screen.

These changes and demises can be explained by the age of former leads, of course, who are not able to reprise their roles any longer, but have also been interpreted by many fans as a will to make room for new and more diverse heroes on-screen (after all, all of those evoked in this article until now are white men). The will to change is understandable, and including more diverse heroes is an excellent idea. Still, these creative decisions do not account for botched endings (No Time to Die’s finale reflected creative fatigue more than anything else).

Besides, Hollywood’s “good intentions” often do not resist the box-office call; here, the cinematic industry traps itself in a paradox. It wants some of the old heroes out but still capitalizes on its big names and franchises to ensure revenues in an era where films are ever more costly to make. The recent flop of Dial of Destiny and the relatively disappointing performance of Dead Reckoning Part 1 at the US box office indicates that even the public might have caught up on this trick.

Offering an unnecessary ending to a beloved hero is closer to corpse-digging than a poignant homage. Indeed, if they keep stretching their conclusions, the films risk feeling unnecessary – this is especially true for Indiana Jones 5, which was met with little fan anticipation. At the same time, No Time to Die was called too similar to the saga’s previous installment, SPECTRE (2015).

The End of Heroes? Discussing the Possible Conclusions of the Indiana Jones, James Bond, and Mission: Impossible Franchises

This might seem like a stretch, but a geopolitics essay reasonably reflects the current situation of dying Hollywood blockbuster heroes. In the early 1990s, scholar Francis Fukuyama argued that the “end of History” was near. According to him, liberal democracies had become so numerous and stable that wars and conflicts would almost disappear. Of course, Fukuyama’s theory was hyperbolic – and recent global conflicts prove it. Yet somehow, the idea that old wars – and the heroes who used to fight them – are not welcome and relevant anymore permeates the end of franchises like Indiana Jones, Mission: Impossible, and even James Bond.

The Craig era has been questioning 007’s relevance since its beginning, while Mission: Impossible acknowledges this by directly interrogating the significance of a handful of spies going rogue every month. In Dial of Destiny, Indy’s goddaughter downright questions his motivations – getting Indiana to confess that he is also in it for the thrills – and the archeologist feels like his research has not amounted to much. This pessimistic tone is reflected in the character arcs of old heroes, who face new threats they are not always adequately prepared for – Hunt fights an all-powerful AI in Dead Reckoning, and Bond battles some nanobots.

Questioning the relevance of these heroes is definitely not a bad thing, but it should not lead to dull endings that cut short their adventures or to tepid on-screen deaths – Bond’s one felt like a cheap way out of an unescapable climax, while Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part 1, the death of super spy Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), one of Ethan’s best allies, has almost no impact on the plot.

Ending a classic franchise is just as tricky as beginning one, but what matters is closing the narrative arcs of our beloved heroes properly, taking into account what makes them unique and special: many fans struggled to see a man as detached as Bond sacrificing himself – even for his family -, and some found Indiana Jones’ lack of passion for his work in the final film as incoherent. Finding an adequate ending for an iconic character is challenging but not impossible: John Wick 4, an action masterpiece, perfectly shows how a protagonist can meet an end that suits his story. Wick dies at the end of the final film of his franchise, but his death feels neither forced nor vain: he has what he wanted – peace and freedom – and is finally reunited with his beloved wife.

The end of sagas, thus, does not have to equate to a bad ending for our beloved heroes. What it does require is careful character arc planning and an honest assessment of the necessity of a final movie.

High On Films in collaboration with Avanté

Related to Possible Conclusions of the Indiana Jones, James Bond, and Mission: Impossible Franchises:

How Teamwork On and Off the Screen Transformed the Mission: Impossible Franchise 

You Only Live Once? How Creative Fatigue Plagued the End of the Bond Eras of Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig

Barbenheimer: How ‘Barbie’ and ‘Oppenheimer’ Critiques Our Flawed World In Their Own Ways


 

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