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Mission: Impossible: Ethan Hunt's Entire Backstory, Explained

Watching the (sometimes literally) death-defying stunts that Tom Cruise performs as Ethan Hunt in the "Mission: Impossible" movies can lead us to believe that the character — and the actor — is a superhero. But any fan who's seen all seven films, especially  "Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One," will know that Ethan is a fallible human. Like all of us, he has real flaws and weaknesses. And as with real people, Ethan has a deep psychology. Many of his strengths and weaknesses can be explained and unpacked by digging into the super spy's backstory. 

Over the nearly three decades since Cruise made his debut as Hunt in 1996's "Mission: Impossible," there has been a veritable number of details and backstory information dropped about the man, the myth, and the legend. In the wake of information given in "Dead Reckoning Part One," some of these bits of info even contradict one another. In the world of "Mission: Impossible," these contradictions don't stick out like major retcons. Instead, they add a layer of mystery and misinformation that you would expect in this world of espionage.

From childhood to Impossible Missions Force team leader, this is the entire backstory of "Mission: Impossible" main character Ethan Hunt. 

Early life and military service

We find out from a peek at his dossier in "Mission: Impossible — Fallout" that Ethan Hunt was born in Madison, Wisconsin to mother Margaret Hunt on August 18, 1964. After his childhood, Ethan attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied Engineering and International Relations. It was only after getting an education that he decided to join the U.S. military. He eventually attended the Ranger Indoctrination Program and graduated to become an Army Ranger.

Ethan served for five years total until he was discharged from the service. It wasn't until the end of his time as a Ranger that he saw major combat. Looking at the timeline, Ethan would have joined around 1986 given his age. He didn't end up fighting in a war until Operation Desert Storm in 1990, the main campaign of the brief but deadly Gulf War. Following his time seeing combat, Ethan was returned to civilian life with an honorable discharge from the Army.

CIA training

There are conflicting reports of how Ethan spent his time after being honorably discharged from the service. At one point, it was believed that the future spy went directly to the Central Intelligence Agency, but this doesn't square fully with everything we know about Ethan after watching "Dead Reckoning Part One." The man's past, like the rest of his identity, is shrouded in mystery. That's the way Ethan wants it to be. 

According to previous supplemental materials from the original movie's DVD release and the novelization of the 1996 film, Ethan's backstory following his time in the Army is fairly simple. He sought out a job at the CIA and was put through rounds of rigorous tests and background checks. It was only after these were complete that Ethan could join the Agency. This is where he met Colonel Briggs, who is said to be the CIA operative who recruited Hunt into the IMF — although we've also heard about things going a little bit differently.

A life of crime

There is a gap of time between fighting in the Gulf War and joining the IMF that Ethan was supposedly also living a life of crime. As a thief or gun for hire — it's unclear — he lived on the run moving from job to job. But according to the information we get in "Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One," Ethan's luck ran out sooner rather than later and he soon found himself in very deep trouble.

It's unclear how much time Ethan Hunt spent as a professional criminal on the run, but we know that it was between one to five years. We also know that his lifestyle ultimately caught up with him. He eventually reached a point where his crimes were enough to land him in prison for an extended sentence. Luckily, he caught the attention of the Impossible Mission Force and his life was forever changed when he was forced to answer one question. The choice Ethan made was a choice he would continue to make time and time again, as he rose to the status of legendary IMF team leader. 

Marie and Gabriel

Shortly before Ethan joined the IMF, he was mixed up with a dangerous man named Gabriel (Esai Morales) and a woman named Marie (Mariela Garriga). Ethan had fallen in love with Marie, but she was killed by Gabriel. This moment forever changed Ethan, and pushed him to join the IMF.

The exact nature of Ethan's relationship to Gabriel is less clear, but at one point Gabriel was clearly a mentor figure to Ethan. It is implied, in "Dead Reckoning Part One," that he taught Ethan much of the combat and espionage skills he knows today. Ethan most likely worked for Gabriel during the years he spent as a criminal. Eventually, though, Gabriel went on to betray him, which led to Ethan's change of heart and return to government service.

The loss of Marie is important to establishing a pattern (problematic as it may be) of Ethan letting women die and feeling guilty about it. She was the first one of a series of women Ethan would feel responsible for, leading to their deaths.

Joining the IMF

These conflicting stories of his past make it tricky to pin down just how Ethan joined the IMF, even if we now know why. In "Dead Reckoning Part One," we see Grace (Hayley Atwell) being confronted with a choice by the IMF crew. She can either join up or go to jail for life. And as Luther, Benji (Simon Pegg), and Ethan explain to her, they were all made the same offer at one point. This establishes that in order to join the IMF, Ethan had to be invited in by another agent. Currently, it's a mystery as to who that could be, unless "Dead Reckoning Part Two" addresses the question.

It was once thought that Colonel Briggs (a reference to the protagonist of the original "Mission: Impossible" TV show) was the one who snagged Ethan up once he tried to join the CIA. It could also be true that he was the one who gave Ethan this choice. Since this Briggs could very well be one and the same as Steven Hill's character in the 1966 show, this doesn't necessarily contradict the new information. If Briggs was an IMF agent, he would technically be one of the only people with the power and authority to recruit new members in the first place.

Reckoning with the timeline

In "Dead Reckoning Part One," Ethan notes that the incident with Marie happened 30 years earlier. This would place his joining up with the IMF around 1993, a few years before the events of the first "Mission: Impossible." This little bit of continuity not lining up needs reckoning with. It's certainly believable that Ethan was just giving an estimate, rounding up to 30 years from 27 (not implausible), but there are other explanations that make just as much sense.

Since we now can say with some certainty that Ethan joined the IMF around 1993, we must address how in "Mission: Impossible," he was only a few months into being an agent. This was one of his first missions. So what did he do for over two years?

The answer is likely a bit simple: training. It clearly takes a lot of physical and mental conditioning for Ethan to be a field agent. Between learning the ropes and the IMF not wanting to send out an agent until they're absolutely ready, it makes sense that it may have taken years for Ethan to see action.

Sole survivor

Years of training could not have prepared Ethan for just how brutal the life of an IMF agent could be. Brutal and short — at least for most agents, especially those who don't have Ethan Hunt's years of combat training and superhuman stealth skills.

For one of his first missions, in the first "Mission: Impossible," Ethan goes to Prague in 1996 and comes back a changed man. There, he works with a team of IMF agents to prevent the Non-Official Cover (NOC) list of all undercover agents in Europe from falling into the wrong hands. But in a tragic (but pre-orchestrated) chain of events, he becomes the only survivor after the mission goes wrong.

The experience of having his entire team killed in the first movie is a defining moment for Ethan's psychology. The loss of his squad, especially his partner Sarah Davies (Kristen Scott Thomas), places him on a trajectory of survivor's guilt. This marks the start of his transformation into a man who would go on to value the lives of friends and family over his own.

Promotion to team leader

After surviving the massacre in Prague, Ethan Hunt takes it as his duty to complete the mission he was assigned by any means necessary. Through more trials and betrayal, he recovers and returns the NOC list. Ethan's first major mission proves to be a success, but it also happens to rid the IMF of one of its best agents — Ethan's mentor Jim Phelps (Jon Voight), who eventually turns out to be a traitor.

At the end of the events of the first "Mission: Impossible," Ethan is given an offer to lead a team on the next mission. Ethan is prepared to take a step up in the organization in his mentor's place, but on his own terms. When he returns to the IMF, he also insists that disavowed agent Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) also be reinstated. From here on out, Ethan Hunt is a team leader and Luther is his right hand man, with these two becoming part of the core team of the entire IMF.

Meeting Julia and early retirement

Ethan carries out missions for a number of years, but a spy always has to come in from the cold eventually. Despite not telling her the truth about his job, Ethan falls in love with Julia Meade (Michelle Monaghan), and by 2006 they're settled down and engaged to be married. To attempt to maintain a family life, Ethan decides to retire from field work. In "Mission: Impossible III," it's indicated by Musgrave (Billy Crudup) that Ethan spends at least some of this time training younger agents.

Despite making it work for a short period, it's only a matter of time before the IMF needs Ethan's help again. When they do, he's not sure what the future holds, so he and Julia have an impromptu wedding and officially tie the knot. But despite how much he tries to shield Julia from the truth about his line of work, all Ethan ultimately does is put her in danger.

Returning to the field and losing Lindsey

When Ethan is brought back to the IMF after his retirement, he is sent on a recovery operation. His mission, should he choose to accept it, is to rescue agent Lindsey Farris (Keri Russell), who was abducted by men working for arms dealer Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Sent to Berlin, Ethan's return to the field is an unhappy one that mirrors the tragedies of his past.

After recovering Lindsey and the intel, Ethan realizes all too late that Davian has implanted an explosive device in her head. While he's trying to disable it, the device is detonated remotely and Lindsey is killed instantly.

This is another defining loss for Ethan, who is now marked by the number of women who have died on his watch. In the moment, he will do anything to make sure it won't happen again. What he doesn't know is that Davian is one step ahead of him and it isn't long until another woman's life is on the line.

Rescuing Julia from Davian

Shortly after the death of Agent Farris, the IMF infiltrates the Vatican to capture Davian, but it turns out he's the type of villain who likes to keep his enemies close. When in captivity, Davian learns Ethan's name and promises to hurt those he cares about the most. The arms dealer is rescued by a group of hired guns and, with his vast network, he finds and kidnaps Julia from her shift at the hospital. Ethan is thrust into his most personal mission yet.

In order to rescue Julia, Ethan has to bring Davian the Rabbit's Foot, a hazardous MacGuffin. When he delivers it, Davian places an explosive charge in his head. By the time our hero reaches his wife, the charge is activated but Ethan kills Davian and deactivates it before it can kill him. To pull off this trick, he finally needs to trust and rely on Julia, who fends off Davian's henchman and resuscitates Ethan with a defibrillator.

Once they are safe, Ethan finally tells Julia the truth before they run away together on their honeymoon. Sadly the romance doesn't last long.

Separation and faking Julia's death

After the dust settles on the events of "Mission: Impossible III," Ethan comes to realize that there is nothing he can do to prevent something similar from happening again. And the next time he might not be able to save Julia — just like he didn't save Marie or Lindsey. So, seeing no other options, Ethan and Julia fake her death and send her halfway across the world with a new identity.

In an attempt to keep the truth from even his closest friends, Ethan devises a scheme where IMF agent William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) is sent on a detail to protect Julia. Ethan manipulates the situation to make it seem like he failed by faking Julia's assassination. Not even Brandt can know, as evidenced by how personally he takes the loss. His guilt over the failure causes Brandt to retire from the IMF for a time. After joining Ethan's crew for the infiltration of the Kremlin in "Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol," he is eventually told the truth and rejoins the Agency officially.

Ilsa Faust and Ethan's final failure

On his mission to take down the Syndicate, Ethan Hunt first meets Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson). The MI6 agent is a deep cover operative and similar to Ethan in many other ways. Naturally, as the two work together more, they become romantically attached to one another.

When Ilsa reunites with Ethan to take down Gabriel and the highly advanced A.I. known as "The Entity," Ethan finds himself reliving the same dilemma that has defined his tragic love life. In a scheme devised by Gabriel, Ethan is separated from Grace and Ilsa and given a choice by Gabriel as to which one he can save. In his attempt to do everything and save everyone — Ethan's fatal flaw — Ilsa ends up facing off against Gabriel one on one. Unfortunately, she's no match for him and Ethan shows up far too late to help. By the time he reaches her, Ilsa is already bleeding out. As she dies, Ethan's backstory comes full circle, with his past coming back to haunt him one last time.   

How exactly Ethan Hunt comes to grips with the fallout of his actions will more than likely be further explored when "Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part Two" arrives. Currently, the theatrical release of the second half of the two-part blockbuster is slated for June 28, 2024 — although the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes could change that.