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Why “Mission: Impossible” Is The Best-Directed Film Franchise

A lot of film franchises cycle through high-profile directors–but here’s why Mission: Impossible is number one.

It’s the end of an era. Last week, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation director Christopher McQuarrie announced that he will be returning to oversee the next (almost) impossible mission, marking the first time any director has double-dipped in the franchise’s history. Coming off the invigorating financial and critical success of Rogue Nation, the choice might seem natural if the Mission: Impossible series weren’t famous for tapping different high-profile directors each time out.

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Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, 2015 directed by Christopher McQuarriePhoto: courtesy of Paramount Pictures

When McQuarrie sky-dove into Tom Cruise’s long-running action anthology, after the two worked together on both Jack Reacher and Edge of Tomorrow, he joined a lineage that includes Brad Bird, J.J. Abrams, John Woo, and Brian DePalma. It’s a diverse group of directorial talent where each member brings something else to the table beyond the ability to stage a hell of a set piece. (A Mission:Impossible movie is only as good as its set pieces.) Together, these individuals form The Avengers of action movie directors–even more so than the bunch behind the series that includes The Avengers movies.

Mission: Impossible franchise directors, Brian DePalma (M: I 1), John Woo (M:I 2), J. J. Abrams (M:I 3), Brad Bird (M: I 4), and Christopher McQuarrie (M:I 5-6)Photos: via Wikipedia

So take a look at Co.Create’s roundup of nine major film series that shuffled between high-profile directors, and see why Mission: Impossible flurry-punches above everybody else’s weight.

Mission: Impossible, 1996 directed by Brian DePalmaPhoto: courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Mission: Impossible

Movies: Mission: Impossible, Mission: Impossible 2, Mission: Impossible III, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
Directors: Brian DePalma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams, Brad Bird, Christopher McQuarrie
Box office: $180.9M, $215.4M, $134M, $209.4M, $195M
Rotten Tomatoes score: 62%, 58%, 70%, 93%, 92%

Verdict: What’s amazing, beyond just the pedigree of talent here, is that each director is able to put a distinct stamp on his movie while staying within the parameters of the franchise. All they have in common is hard-core action and people revealing they’ve been wearing improbable face-masks of other people. DePalma’s gritty, paranoid thriller aesthetic gave the first film its tension and stakes–not to mention that iconic hanging wire scene in the vault. John Woo brought his blend of beautifully choreographed, nuanced hand-to-hand combat and gunfighting. J.J. Abrams emphasized story and wrung a fiery, villainous performance out of a stride-hitting Philip Seymour Hoffman. Brad Bird delivered on the promise of Incredibles-style action set within the real world. And Christopher McQuarrie’s contribution was as smart and sleek as his writing on Edge of Tomorrow and direction on the underrated Jack Reacher would suggest. Much like Ethan Hunt riding a motorcycle into a volcano or whatever, everybody here is firing on all cylinders.

Prometheus, 2012 directed by Ridley ScottPhoto: courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Alien

Movies: Alien, Aliens, Alien 3, Alien: Resurrection, Prometheus
Directors: Ridley Scott, James Cameron, David Fincher, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Ridley Scott
Box office: $80.9M, $85.1M, $55.4M, $47.8M, $126.4
Rotten Tomatoes score: 97%, 98%, 44%, 54%, 73%

Verdict: While the first two films are masterpieces of the genre, everything sort of fell apart after that, commercially and artistically. The David Fincher of Alien 3 isn’t the same David Fincher who would start a brilliant feature film career with Se7en a few years later. Although Jeunet is capable of making magic–see The City of Lost Children and Amelie–the less said about Alien Resurrection the better (maybe he missed frequent co-director Marc Caro?). Prometheus may have technically revived the series and launched Ridley Scott down the path of a new trilogy, nothing in it matched the spare but maximally effective scares of the original. Oh, and if you’re wondering, the Alien vs Predator movies don’t count. For anything.

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X-Men: Days of Future Past, 2014 directed by Bryan SingerPhoto: courtesy of 20th Century Fox

X-Men

Movies: X-Men, X2 X-Men United, X-Men The Last Stand, X-Men Origins – Wolverine, X-Men: First Class, The Wolverine, X-Men Days of Future Past
Directors: Bryan Singer, Bryan Singer, Brett Ratner, Gavin Hood, Matthew Vaughn, James Mangold, Bryan Singer
Box office: $157.2M, $214.9M, $234.3M, $179.8M, $146.4M, $132.5M $233.9M
Rotten Tomatoes score: 81%, 86%, 58%, 38%, 87%, 70%, 91%

Verdict: Interestingly, the most commercially successful entry in the X-Men franchise–Brett Ratner’s X-Men The Last Stand–was also the least loved by a wide margin. Well, not too many people liked that first Wolverine movie either. In any case, this series is too defined by Bryan Singer’s vision to rank among the better showcases for a plurality of directing talent.

Avengers: Age Of Ultron, 2015 directed by Joss WhedonPhoto: courtesy of Marvel & Walt Disney Studios

Marvel Cinematic Universe

Movies: Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, The Avengers, Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man
Directors: Jon Favreau, Louis Leterrier, Jon Favreau, Kenneth Branagh, Joe Johnston, Joss Whedon, Shane Black, Alan Taylor, Russo Brothers, James Gunn, Joss Whedon, Peyton Reed
Box office: $318.4M, $134.8M, $312.4, $181M, $176.6M, $623.3M, $409M, $206.3M, $259.7M, $333M, $459M, $180M
Rotten Tomatoes score: 94%, 67%, 72%, 77%, 79%, 92%, 79%, 66%, 89%, 91%, 74%, 79%

Verdict: A lot of heavy hitters here, obviously, and by reaching out to unexpected genre-y choices like James Gunn with Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel is proving less risk-averse lately. But all in all, the direction on some of these films feels too samey and too hemmed in by the constrictive demands of building out the universe further. Reading about how Edgar Wright chafed against the system when he was attached to Ant-Man makes this case further.

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, 2016 directed by Zack SnyderPhoto: courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Batman

Movies: Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Forever, Batman & Robin, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises
Directors: Tim Burton, Tim Burton, Joel Schumacher, Joel Schumacher, Christopher Nolan, Christopher Nolan, Christopher Nolan
Box office: 72%, 80%, 41%, 11%, 85%, 94%, 87%
Rotten Tomatoes score: $251M, $162M, $184M, $107M, $206.9M, $534.8M, $448.1M

Verdict: With the 90s Batman series, the director only changed once, but the star changed three times. The Burton films are beloved, but the candy-colored latter half of that quadrilogy, under the stewardship of Joel Schumacher, is among the most derided filmmaking chunks in comic book movie history. The highly caffeinated goofiness of these films is what made Nolan’s grim realism so welcome at first. (And at second, especially.) Of course, 2016 will see what promises (or threatens?) to be another new start for Gotham’s Dark Knight when director Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and David Ayer’s Suicide Squad put Ben Affleck in the cowl.

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Furious 7, 2015 directed by James WanPhoto: courtesy of Universal Pictures

Fast and Furious

Movies: The Fast and The Furious, 2 Fast 2 Furious, The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift, Fast & Furious, Fast Five, Fast & Furious 6, Furious 7
Directors: Rob Cohen, John Singleton, Justin Lin, Justin Lin, Justin Lin, Justin Lin, James Wan
Box office: $144.5M, $127.1M, $62.5M, $155M, $209.8M, $238.6M, $352.7M
Rotten Tomatoes score: 53%, 36%, 37%, 28%, 78%, 69%, 81%

Verdict: While admittedly a distinguished group, Justin Lin is the one who shepherded these films in their transition from racing/heisting flicks to superhero-caliber feats of derring-do. It’s his formula, even if the first post-Lin director, James Wan, has appeared to improve on it–going so over the top that the old top now feels like the bottom. The world eagerly awaits seeing where Straight Outta Compton director F. Gary Gray will take it next.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2, 2011 directed by David YatesPhoto: courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Harry Potter

Movies: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2
Directors: Chris Columbus, Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuarón, Mike Newell, David Yates, David Yates, David Yates, David Yates
Box office: $317.6M, $261.8M, $249.4M, $290M, $292M, $301.9M, $295M, $381M
Rotten Tomatoes score: 80%, 82%, 91%, 88%, 79%, 83%, 78%, 96%

Verdict: Alfonso Cuarón was brought in for one movie, which is often cited among fans as the best (many derided Columbus for being too slavishly faithful to the source material). Beyond that, David Yates looms large over the series list, and his work seems mostly about preserving the series tone, whereas Cuarón tested what he could get away with doing within it.

Terminator Genisys, 2015 directed by Alan TaylorPhoto: courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Terminator

Movies: The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Terminator Salvation, Terminator Genisys
Directors: James Cameron, James Cameron, Jonathan Mostow, McG, Alan Taylor
Box office: $38.3M, $204.8M $150.3M, $125.3M, $89.7M
Rotten Tomatoes score: 100%, 93%, 70%, 33%, 25%

Verdict: There’s a reason there’s been a steady decline in fan appreciation and box office receipts for this series since the 10-years-too-late Terminator 3. There’s been no consistency, no vision, too much devotion to mythology, and an apparent case of amnesia regarding what made these movies great to begin with.

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Jurassic World, 2015 directed by Colin TrevorrowPhoto: courtesy of Universal Pictures

Jurassic Park

Movies: Jurassic Park, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Jurassic Park 3, Jurassic World
Directors: Steven Spielberg, Steven Spielberg, Joe Johnston, Colin Trevorrow
Box office: $402.4M, $229M, $181.1M, $652M
Rotten Tomatoes score: 93%, 51%, 50%, 71%

Verdict: The original Jurassic Park is a high-water mark in the distinguished career of Steven Spielberg and the latest entry reestablished the thrill of seeing dinosaurs in action, but the two films in the middle were so, well, middling, as to take this series out of contention in the pantheon of best-directed series.