"Mission: Impossible" is one of the most interesting franchises at any studio right now, and not necessarily for the films that already exist in the series, but for the potential inherent to the material.
Most franchises are built around a central character, and because stars so frequently get intimately identified with those characters, it's hard to extend a series once your star leaves. Sure, there are options. The "reboot" has become fairly commonplace these days, and before that, there was always the James Bond option of recasting and hoping for the best. But for the most part, the appeal of a series is about a specific character or a specific star.
The exceptions are the franchises that studios should value most, and that's one of the reasons I've been so vocal in calling Fox out on their epic, stunning, near-criminal mismanagement of the "X-Men" franchise. When you're dealing with a series that has a huge sprawling cast of characters and a built-in excuse to rotate them in and out of the series depending on the availability of actors, it's like having the world's biggest toychest for a studio. You can tell story after story after story, and change is part of the franchise, not the enemy of it.
So far, "Mission: Impossible" has been the Tom Cruise show, which is a bit of a mistake. I get that he's the producer and the star, but if Tom was thinking more as a producer and less as an actor, he would have build up a strong ensemble around himself. That's what made the series in the '60s so great. It wasn't just a James Bond knockoff. Instead, it was about a team, and the make-up of that team depended largely on which mission they were asked to accomplish each week. Just like with "X-Men," a well-built "Mission: Impossible" franchise on film could run forever, gradually shuffling the line-up over the years so there's continuity from film to film, but no reliance on just one actor to keep things going.
JJ Abrams is a very smart guy when it comes to worldbuilding, and I thought his "Mission: Impossible 3" was a lot of fun, and it emphasized the team side of things more than the first two films did. Yes, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise's character) was still front and center, and yes, the last act of the film was just basically "Run, Tom Cruise, run!" Even so, Abrams and his writers seemed to understand that part of the fun of the series is putting a team together and then watching them play their strengths off of each other. Abrams has been working with writers to develop "Mission: Impossible 4" for a while now, but he's not going to be directing the film. Instead, they're out to other directors, according to Borys Kit at the HeatVision Blog, and they met with Edgar Wright (who is still so buried in "Scott Pilgrim" post-production that there's no way he'd be free to start work on the film when Paramount would need him to), Ruben Fleischer (who seems to be on every short list for every film in town right now), and Brad Bird.
I'm fascinated by the Brad Bird choice. Ideally, Bird would be making "1906" right now, the epic film about the San Francisco earthquake that he's been trying to get made at Warner Bros. for a few years, but that doesn't look like it's happening any time soon, so instead, Bird's looking at this as his first live-action project. It's not a choice I would have made, simply because it would have never occurred to me. But anyone who saw "The Incredibles" knows how great an action scene Bird is capable of staging, and he's got an amazing sense of story, so the franchise would be lucky to get him.
I'm guessing there are other names in the mix, too, but for now, it's intriguing to mull over the notion of Bird being the second Pixar alumnus to move into live-action, as Andrew Stanton works on his "John Carter Of Mars" on London soundstages as you read this.
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