When last afternoon brought the news of a fourth Mission: Impossible film, I only felt a tepid sort of interest. I enjoyed the third one and all, but I'd be hard pressed to really remember anything about it other than Keri Russell's hideously brilliant death scene. For me, the answer is simple -- it's because Ethan Hunt is the most boring character to lead a franchise. The reason I remember Keri Russell's character is because I felt some level of empathy for her (and a "How did they do that to her eyes?"), but I can't really feel anything for Hunt. So why should I sit through the impressive action sequences? It doesn't really matter if he lives or dies, because he's not really there in any appreciable way.
By now, someone out there is violently disagreeing with me, and that's cool. But I ask those people to tell me something really significant about Ethan Hunt. I know he had a fiancee in Mission: Impossible 3, so that doesn't count. Tell me something else. His favorite weapon, perhaps, or his biggest fear. What does he do in his off time? What does he feel about his job, and the body count it requires? If you can answer any of these questions, I will give you a gold star. (Well, figuratively.)
But Ethan Hunt isn't the only tepid culprit. This decade seems to be the one full of the bland action heroes who are inexplicably given franchises when they don't have anything but a name. I feel the same way about John Connor in Terminator: Salvation (and, sadly, in its short-lived "companion" The Sarah Connor Chronicles). I can't remember one significant thing about Jack Ryan beyond that he was a nice guy, and had a "cover" as a historian (and that was only thanks to his last "reboot", The Sum of All Fears) so I can't understand why he's a viable property. The only thing all these guys have in common is that they have cool names.
But James Bond, John Rambo, Martin Riggs, Harry Callahan, Paul Kersey, Mad Max Rockatansky, Jason Bourne, Indiana Jones, John McClane, and Snake Plissken all have cool names too. But they're not just a name or a cool jacket. There was a reason people kept going back to them again and again, and keep clamoring for their return. You knew who they were. You knew Riggs had a dog named Sam, liked The Three Stooges, and couldn't cook anything but chili. You knew Indiana Jones hated snakes, and John McClane was two steps away from being an alcoholic. You can tell me something significant about every character on this list, and how it informs their actions.
At this point, I'd happily settle for a rip-off of any of the above if it would give our franchises some flavor. Say what you will about Jason Statham's films, but at least I know that Frank Martin of The Transporter has Rules, served in the military, and has tastes for finer things. (I did, however, have to look up his name so he loses major points there.) I don't know if Ethan Hunt has rules, although the films tell me he is a good guy. But how do I know, really? I'm still not even clear who he works for. At least I know Martin works for himself.
This is why people experience such powerful nostalgia for the action films of the 1970s and 1980s. It's not that they were particularly good or rich in character development, but John Rambo looks like King Lear in comparison to John Connor -- and that's despite giving Connor overblown speeches about the Resistance. This is why people can't be sated when it comes to superhero films or Jack Sparrow installments. They can rattle off character facts and appreciate where they are going. Who can say that about any of the so-called "marketable" franchises that are being flogged into fourth and fifth installments today?