A good action franchise like Mission: Impossible needs not only one, but many memorable villains to make us feel like the threat persists over several movies. The upcoming Dead Reckoning will be featuring Esai Morales as Gabriel, a mysterious antagonist who has no qualms about putting Ethan Hunt and all of his teammates in danger. Morales’ fans were thrilled to see him land the role, and should Gabriel live up to the hype, he will be one more interesting villain in a saga full of cool antagonists. As we await the seventh installment, here is a ranking of Mission: Impossible’s five best villains. This list doesn’t include the sidekicks and secondary antagonists (they deserve their own ranking), or morally ambiguous characters like the White Widow – only the unabashedly evil masterminds belong here!
5) Kurt Hendricks – Ghost Protocol (2011)
Kicking off the list is Ghost Protocol’s Kurt Hendricks, an over-the-top terrorist played by Michael Nyqvist: the perfect villain in what is arguably the franchise’s funniest episode (so far). The Swedish man known as Cobalt is a genius nuclear scientist, who also proves quite apt at designing complex plans. When he isn’t framing the IMF for his misdeeds, Kendricks enjoys negotiating his way out of any situation and dreaming about a worldwide nuclear conflict. Cobalt’s final fight against Ethan solidifies him as a strong antagonist, and it is only Ghost Protocol’s villainous overload which prevents Kurt Hendricks from being ranked higher on this top 5.
4) August Walker/John Lark – Fallout (2018)
Having two main antagonists – a villainous hydra, if you will – in just one action film is no small challenge, and Fallout’s duo of bad guys deserves specific praise. Its first half is the traitorous anarchist August Walker, who was off to a good start with an actor like Henry Cavill. This moustachioed villain totally delivered: Cavill is excellent as Hunt’s doppelgänger, and his charisma and fighting skills make him a really unforgettable antagonist. His climatic fight against Ethan on the edge of a cliff, which involves machine guns, helicopters, and acid, is brutal perfection. Walker is even a great source of inspiration for memes (type “Fallout arms reload” in Google and see for yourself), and the only reason why he isn’t higher up on the list is because his betrayal seemed a tad too obvious.
3) Owen Davian – Mission Impossible III (2006)
Entering the top 3 with a bang is Owen Davian (the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman), an arms dealer with a sadistic streak, who faces Ethan in the third movie. Davian’s ruthlessness earns him a place in the pantheon of M: I villains: while he isn’t the only cold-hearted murderer of the franchise, he is definitely the one who takes the most pleasure in toying with his victims – and he enjoys taunting Hunt about the pain inflicted. Davian’s introductory scene is simply iconic, as he threatens Ethan’s wife Julia and categorically refuses to negotiate. While there is an even darker villain at the top of this list, Owen Davian still takes the cake as the most sadistic mastermind of the franchise, owing to his unmatched love of psychological torture.
2) Jim Phelps/Job – Mission Impossible (1996)
Some great villains are even cooler in context: putting the first evil mastermind of the franchise high up on the list might seem obvious, but it is well-deserved. Turning Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) into a bad guy was an extremely bold move on the screenwriters’ part. Once the hero of the beloved series, Phelps was revealed to have offed his own teammates and even his wife after the end of the Cold War pushed him over the edge. Job’s real identity remains obscure for the two-thirds of the film, but Phelps’ final showdown against Hunt is worth the wait. Job isn’t the franchise’s most badass or impressive villain, but the extent of his betrayal and his former role as Ethan’s mentor make their brawl a lot more personal and interesting to watch. Phelps’ double-crossing is still iconic twenty-seven years after the film’s release, and since it’s unlikely that Cruise will betray the IMF in M: I Dead Reckoning, it remains the coolest plot twist in the franchise.
1) Solomon Lane – Rogue Nation (2015) and Fallout (2018)
Unsurprisingly, the only returning antagonist of the franchise tops this list: Sean Harris, an actor mostly known for his roles in TV shows (and who had explicitly asked for his character to die in Rogue Nation!) is evil mastermind Solomon Lane, a deformed reflection of Ethan Hunt and leader of crime organisation The Syndicate. From a screenwriting perspective, a good villain needs to have a unique relationship with the hero: looking for the same MacGuffin is fine enough, but truly great antagonists are the ones who force heroes to question their own beliefs and perspectives.
As a former MI6 agent, Lane’s anarchist tendencies and his lack of respect for human life perfectly mirror Ethan’s blind dedication to his cause. His nihilistic views almost drive Hunt to madness, and their relationship in Fallout gets even more interesting: the mirror effect is reversed, and this time, it is Lane who has a personal grudge against the super spy who locked him up. Solomon Lane’s intelligence and ability to design plans which easily outmatch the IMF already made him worthy of the top 5. Coupled with Sean Harris’ creepy behaviour and sarcastic politeness, they really make Lane the franchise’s most memorable bad guy.