The Entire Mission: Impossible Timeline Explained

Tom Cruise has been portraying Impossible Missions Force (IMF) agent Ethan Hunt in the "Mission: Impossible" franchise for decades — and he's not done yet.

"Mission: Impossible" was originally a television series that aired on CBS between 1966 to 1973 for seven seasons. As a result of a writer's strike, ABC brought the series back in 1988, but it was short-lived, ending once more after two short seasons. Created by Bruce Geller, the series follows the top-secret missions that are assigned to high-level IMF agents. The main agent for most of the series is Jim Phelps (Peter Graves), a character played in the first "Mission: Impossible" film in 1996 by Jon Voight, who is the leading IMF member on Ethan Hunt's team. By the time the 1996 film came around, this Jim Phelps has become married to the much younger Claire Phelps (Emmanuelle Béart), also a member of the IMF. He's the only character that seemingly connects Ethan Hunt's story to the original TV series.

After six films, what may or may not be the final two installments are underway. Beginning with 2023's "Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One," this two-part adventure is set to conclude in June 2024 with a spectacular finish. In anticipation of what might be the end of Ethan Hunt's story, let's take a look at his entire journey, all the impossible missions he's managed to get through, and just what else is in store for this super spy.

Ethan Hunt joins the IMF

In 1996, the "Mission: Impossible" franchise was brought to the big screen with leading man Tom Cruise at the helm. His character's name is Ethan Hunt, and he works at the IMF under the leadership of his mentor Jim Phelps. In the film, audiences discover that Phelps recruited and trained Ethan into the IMF. Under his watchful eye, Ethan has become one of the finest field agents to grace the agency — with his career trajectory seemingly limitless if he continues down this path with Phelps leading the way.

During his time working under Phelps, Ethan has a regular team that he runs missions with: Phelps' wife Claire, Sarah Davies (Kristin Scott Thomas), Jack Harmon (Emilio Estevez), and Hannah Williams (Ingeborga Dapkūnaitė). Ethan and Phelps's IMF team work together during the years of the Cold War between the US and the USSR. It's likely because of this timeline that Ethan gains various contacts within the Soviet Union — as he's been shown to connect with them throughout the "Mission: Impossible" franchise.

While Ethan is an incredibly skilled agent during this time, he's unable to let himself truly blossom until he's taken out from the shadow of his mentor and friend Phelps. Ethan is very comfortable working with this team, so it's unclear if he would drive himself to become a leader if not for the events of the embassy mission in the first "Mission: Impossible" film.

The embassy mission

As "Mission: Impossible" begins, Ethan and his team prep for the embassy mission. The object of the mission is to prevent the Non-Official Covert Agents list from falling into the wrong hands. This list holds all of the codenames and true identities of American secret agents currently spread out around Europe. If the list gets into the wrong hands, it could lead to the potential death of all those agents, not to mention the failure of their individual missions.

While the agents prepare for the mission, it's apparent that they all respect one another and are comfortable around each other. They're a well-oiled machine and this is clearly not their first rodeo. It's also made abundantly clear that there's a deep respect and admiration between Ethan and his mentor Phelps. 

Unfortunately, once the mission starts, things quickly turn bad. Ethan's entire team is murdered and betrayed, with only Ethan left alive. When the IMF sends an agent to debrief Ethan, he learns that the entire operation was a set-up that the agency initiated in order to suss out a mole. Since Ethan's the last one standing (at the moment), they assume that it's him. Ethan manages to escape the IMF and begins his own investigation to uncover who betrayed him, why his team was murdered, and stop the list from being distributed. Talk about an impossible task.

Ethan rejoins the IMF

By the end of "Mission: Impossible," Ethan discovers that his mentor Phelps set him up all along. With the help of his wife, he was betraying the agency after becoming disillusioned with the IMF after the Cold War. Unfortunately for Phelps, he trained Ethan too well, and his plan is thwarted by the young spy, as he sends proof back to the IMF of his innocence.

Following the events of the embassy mission, Ethan becomes jaded and develops serious trust issues after his mentor and agency's betrayal. When audiences meet Ethan Hunt again in "Mission: Impossible 2," he's returned to IMF, but no longer works with a set team. This time, his mission is to stop a rogue IMF agent named Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott) from unleashing a bio-weapon called Chimera. 

Ethan opts to recruit his own specialized team to ensure that no one has potential ties that might betray him. The IMF concedes to his request, with the exception of using the thief Nyah Nordoff-Hall (Thandiwe Newton), as her romantic past with Ambrose might greatly benefit the team. With her placement secure, Ethan brings in helicopter pilot Billy Baird (John Polson) and his trusted friend, computer hacker Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), to complete the team. One of the people Ethan relied on when the IMF branded him a traitor, Luther is the only person that Ethan feels he can truly trust. He's also the only character that's been in every "Mission: Impossible" film alongside Ethan.

Time off for Ethan and Nyah

Although "Mission: Impossible 2" is considered to be the worst film of the franchise, it still holds significant weight for Ethan's character. Once Ethan is able to stop Ambrose from unleashing the Chimera virus, he decides to take a vacation with Nyah. While their relationship doesn't last, she's the first new person that Ethan opens himself up to trust since the betrayal he experienced in the first film.

On paper, Nyah is the exact opposite from Ethan, as she's a criminal who's driven by money, whereas Ethan is a man driven by loyalty to serve and save the innocent. The only true thing they have in common is that both characters are risk-takers, so it makes sense that they're drawn to each other for a while. However, while it's never clearly stated why their relationship fizzles out, it's likely that they are moths to each other's flames — eventually, someone's going to get burned. 

When the allure of their relationship wears off, we can surmise that Nyah goes back to her thieving ways while Ethan returns back to the IMF. But his time with Nyah allows Ethan to open himself up again, which is an important step in his journey, as his next stop sees him fall in love.

Julia comes into Ethan's life

At Lake Wanaka, Ethan meets and falls in love with Julia Meade (Michelle Monaghan), a hospital nurse who lives in Virginia. She is completely outside of Ethan's world, a civilian who has never heard of the IMF or super spies. However, the two make it work, with Ethan moving to Norfolk, Virginia to be with her and asking Julia to be his wife. While she might not seem like a match for this superspy, Julia gives Ethan exactly what he needs: a home.

It's around this time that Ethan decides to scale back on those impossible missions and become a trainer rather than an active agent. Ethan is incredibly hard on his recruits, with no one seemingly impressing him until he comes across Lindsey Farris (Keri Russell). Ethan sees something of himself in Lindsey, taking special interest in her training. 

While some people around the IMF insinuate that there is something romantic going on between the two, Ethan is simply impressed by her resolve, believing that he's found another agent he can relate to and trust — outside of Luther, that is. It would likely be easy for Ethan and Farris to become a deadly IMF couple, but that's not what Ethan needs at this time. He's concentrating on building a home with Julia, who he eventually marries in a quick ceremony because they don't want to wait any longer. Ethan finally experiences peace once more — if only for a short while.

Back in the game

"Mission: Impossible III" starts with Ethan being told that Farris has been captured. Due to his close relationship with her, he decides to lead a team to rescue her. In typical Ethan fashion, he selects Luther to accompany him, but he does allow the IMF to assign two other field agents to join them, as his trust issues aren't as bad anymore.

Unfortunately, the agents are unsuccessful and Farris is killed in Ethan's arms. He decides to finish Farris's mission, which results in a deadly game against arms dealer Owen Davian (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman). Davian escapes IMF custody and goes after that which Ethan holds most dear: Julia. He captures her, forcing Ethan to do his bidding and steal a mysterious object called the rabbit's foot. 

The IMF no longer trusts Ethan (again) because they blame him for letting Davian escape, so Ethan takes things into his own hands in order to rescue Julia. He and his team steal the rabbit's foot and find Julia. Unfortunately for Ethan, Davian is one step ahead of him, as he's placed a bomb inside Ethan's head, similar to the device that killed Lindsey. Luckily for Ethan, Julia is a nurse and manages to save him. Ethan and Julia return to the IMF (who realize they've made a mistake in blaming Ethan) and he tells her the truth about his job. He and Julia walk away hand in hand, with Ethan deciding it's time for them to take their honeymoon.

Ethan and Julia part ways

Unfortunately for Ethan and Julia, things don't go so well on their honeymoon in Croatia. For some reason, Ethan is being hunted by a group of terrorists, so the IMF assigns a security detail under the supervision of Agent William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) to keep them safe. However, Brandt is mortified to learn that he's failed in his mission, as Julia is murdered. In retaliation, Ethan kills six Serbian nationalists who are linked to her murder and is sent to prison.

Luckily, this is all a ruse that Ethan, Julia, and the IMF have set up to keep her safe, as Ethan realizes that she never would be if she stays married to him. So they fake her death and separate the two from each other. Ethan's "retaliation" is just to get him into that specific prison to gain information regarding a terrorist named Cobalt.

For a brief period of time, Ethan and Julia had each other. But it was fleeting, as Ethan realized that a civilian has no place in his world. Unfortunately for Ethan, being an IMF agent is not something that he's able to let go of. Julia has her way of saving the world, and Ethan has his. While it's clear that the two still love each other, they'll never be able to be together.

The IMF gets its field agent back

"Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol" sees Ethan back as a field agent with the IMF. The movie opens with Ethan in prison and an IMF team assigned to break him out, so that the IMF can retrieve the information he's collected on Cobalt. The IMF extraction team consists of newly assigned field agents Benji (Simon Pegg) and Jane Carter (Paula Patton). 

Once they break Ethan out, they must travel to Moscow to infiltrate the Kremlin. Unfortunately for them, the Kremlin is attacked during their mission and the team is blamed and betrayed — honestly, at this point, it's just another day for Ethan. The President initiates "Ghost Protocol," meaning that the entire IMF division is to be disavowed. Therefore, the only way to stop Cobalt is with Ethan's team, who now has no backup from the IMF. In fact, they're the only hope for bringing the IMF back.

In order to complete their mission, they team up with William Brandt, who now works as an analyst (until his character is forgotten by the franchise entirely) as he believes he's responsible for Julia's death. Thankfully, Ethan tells him the truth about Julia and the team is successful in stopping Cobalt and bringing the IMF back. By the end of the film, the team has a drink with Luther as they catch him up on all that's happened. Ethan sees Julia in the distance and the two share a knowing smile before he starts getting intel on his next mission: the Syndicate.

Ethan meets the Syndicate

The Syndicate is an extremely powerful terrorist organization and the main antagonist for the next two films in the "Mission: Impossible" series, starting with "Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation." The group is originally proposed to the British government as a way to recruit covert agents from around the globe, providing them with new identities and having them take part in missions outside the law. Without the oversight of the Prime Minister, these agents could act as judge, jury, and executioner without the government getting its hands dirty. This proposal is rejected by the British Prime Minister, but that doesn't stop terrorist Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) from enacting it anyway.z

The Syndicate is likely inspired by the organization of the same name that appeared in the original "Mission: Impossible" TV series. At the time, the Syndicate was merely an organized crime operation that was just beginning to dip its toes into the government. By the time Ethan meets them, they are a formidable force who are able to turn Ethan's own government against him for a while (again).

It's during this time that Ethan meets an undercover MI6 agent named Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson). Faust hates the Syndicate, as she's been embedded with them for years, and decides to work with Ethan, Benji, Luther, and Brandt to help take them down. While it's clear that there's romantic interest brewing between her and Ethan, nothing comes of it ... yet. But outside of flirting with Jane in "Ghost Protocol," she is the first woman that Ethan's seemingly interested in since his wife Julia.

Surprise, Ethan is betrayed again

Another "Mission: Impossible" film, another betrayal of Ethan. Two years after Ethan managed to arrest Solomon Lane, the Syndicate has disbanded and renamed themselves the Apostles. In "Mission: Impossible — Fallout," Ethan, Luther, and Benji are assigned to retrieve three stolen plutonium cores from the Apostles. Unfortunately, they fumble the mission, and because of this mistake, the CIA gets involved. They assign August Walker (Henry Cavill) to accompany Ethan for the rest of his mission to ensure that there are no more problems.

Turns out this is a bad call, as August is actually John Lark, leader of the Apostles. He arranges to break Solomon Lane out of prison, causing Ilsa to come seeking her revenge against him. She eventually teams up with Ethan to help his team take down the Apostles once and for all. 

By the end of the film, Ethan bumps into Julia once more as she's working at a medical camp in the Kashmir region, which just so happens to be the target location of the Apostles. She helps Ethan and his team stop Solomon and John Lark, and while it's clear that the two still have love for each other, she's now happily married to someone else. This gives Ethan the all-clear to accept his feelings for Ilsa, something he seemingly couldn't do with the thought of Julia still lingering in the back of his mind.

Ethan Hunt's secret origin

In "Dead Reckoning Part One," it's revealed that before Ethan worked for the IMF, he was somehow involved with a woman named Marie (Mariela Garriga). While she isn't named in "Part One," we know that she was mighty important to Ethan back in his pre-IMF days, and instrumental to his eventual involvement with the Impossible Missions Force.

At some point in Ethan's past, he and Marie got involved with a man named Gabriel (Esai Morales), who eventually killed Marie in cold blood. Ethan, trapped behind a barred door, was powerless to stop the assassin from killing his partner and has been haunted by this moment ever since. Though Ethan never reveals much about his past from before we meet him in the original "Mission: Impossible" film, he later tells his "Dead Reckoning" team that, in a very real sense, Gabriel is the one directly responsible for who Ethan Hunt is today.

Whatever else "Dead Reckoning Part Two" will reveal about this event, and about who Marie may really be to Ethan, remains to be seen, but given how far digital de-aging has progressed since the franchise first ignited, it wouldn't be surprising if we see a bit more of Ethan's pre-IMF adventures the next time around.

Ethan gets his toughest mission yet

The advent of artificial intelligence has changed everything, and "Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning" gets in on the action. In "Part One," Ethan hunts for a mysterious two-part key said to unlock the power to destroy the world. After a rogue A.I. named "the Entity" begins sabotaging foreign military vessels, the American intelligence community pools its resources together to try and attain the key before any foreign powers (even their allies) can do so.

Naturally, Ethan believes that the Entity holds too much power for anyone to wield, as it can hack into any system, erase one from digital existence, create life-like deep fakes, and thrust the world into chaos. So, doing what he always does, Ethan and his team go rogue once more, turning his back on former IMF director Eugene Kittridge (Henry Czerny), who hasn't been seen since the first film. In doing this, Ethan fakes Ilsa's death and joins up with Luther and Benji in Abu Dhabi to attain the key from a foreign dignitary — except it's intercepted.

Hayley Atwell makes her "Mission: Impossible" debut as Grace, a thief who wants to sell her half of the extremely valuable key to returning "Fallout" character Alanna Mitsopolis, aka the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby), the daughter of arms dealer Max (Vanessa Redgrave) from the first film. Nevertheless, crossing paths with Ethan gets Grace in serious trouble (the IMF agent is being hunted by the CIA) and nearly killed in the crossfire.

Another love lost

Of course, Ethan and Grace make it out alive, though Grace unsurprisingly betrays Ethan, takes the key, and runs. Thankfully, Ethan's team knows where she's headed, and after arriving in Venice, Ethan is reunited with Ilsa. Though he'd hoped she'd stay away after he previously helped fake her death, she can't let Ethan do this alone. No wonder these two have a thing for each other. Being the first time in Venice for both of them, they share a romantic evening on the town before crashing the White Widow's party to intercept Grace. A spy's dream.

Unfortunately for Ethan and Ilsa, Gabriel is there too and promises Ethan that either Ilsa or Grace will die. Unsuccessful in convincing the White Widow to give him the key, Ethan tells Ilsa to run as far as she can as Grace escapes with the key. Unfortunately for Ethan, the Entity foresaw this and tricked our hero so that he isn't around when Grace runs into Gabriel. What's worse is that Ilsa returns, hoping to stop Gabriel once and for all, but the fight doesn't go as well as she planned.

Ethan arrives too late as he stumbles upon Ilsa's corpse. As Gabriel predicted, Ilsa died trying to save the world, and though Grace was saved, Ethan has unceremoniously lost another love of his life. The poor guy can't catch a break, and sadly has no time to grieve either.

The mission has just begun

Repentant of her role in Ilsa's death, Grace joins Ethan's IMF team as they infiltrate the meeting between the White Widow and her buyer, who turns out to be Kittridge himself. Using one of the trademark "Mission: Impossible" mask tricks, Grace pretends to be the Widow while Ethan parachutes onto the train in an amazing stunt sequence that you can't believe is actually real. Of course, Gabriel and the CIA are also on the train, making things especially difficult for the IMF agent. Nevertheless, the plan mostly works, and Ethan and Grace end up with the complete key.

But it's not all that easy. Gabriel sabotages the train, resulting in a devastating crash, but not before a reunion with Ethan, who nearly kills his nemesis before Gabriel escapes. Though they save the passengers, Ethan and Grace almost die in the crash before being saved by Gabriel's former lackey Paris (Pom Klementieff), whose life Ethan had spared earlier. With her dying breaths, Paris reveals the secret location of the Entity's source code. Turns out, it's aboard a sunken Russian submarine called the Sevastopol.

As they learn to finally trust one another, Ethan leaves Grace with Kittridge, recommending her for the IMF, and escapes his CIA pursuers to reunite with Benji. With the completed key and a new mission in hand, the adventure continues into 2024's "Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part Two," which will hopefully be just as explosive as the first installment.

Dead Reckoning Part Two will bring back Ethan and more

With the seventh "Mission: Impossible" film, "Dead Reckoning Part One," released in July 2023, the eighth installment is set to arrive in June 2024. While not much is known about "Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part Two," we do know that the film is bringing back many familiar faces.

Tom Cruise, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, and Hayley Atwell will all reprise their roles of Ethan, Luther, Benji, and Grace, while Vanessa Kirby's character, Alanna Mitsopolis, looks to be returning for this installment as well. Sadly, after their respective deaths in "Part One," Rebecca Ferguson's Ilsa Faust and "Guardians of the Galaxy" star Pom Klementieff's Paris are unlikely to return. Esai Morales will also return as Gabriel, making him the second primary "Mission: Impossible" antagonist to return for a sequel after Sean Harris' Solomon Lane in "Fallout." 

Henry Czerny reprises his role as Eugene Kittridge from "Part One," and will be joined by Rolf Saxon, who returns after nearly 30 years as CIA analyst William Donloe from the original film. Additionally, newcomers Shea Whigham and Greg Tarzan Davis will return as CIA agents Briggs and Degas, as will Mariela Garriga's Marie, hopefully in a larger capacity.

This chapter will no doubt test Ethan in ways he's never been before. With so much on the line, let's hope that the IMF will give this man the benefit of the doubt and stop betraying him this time around. There's only so much a man can take.