The Mission: Impossible series separates itself from other action franchises by including clever antagonists who rival Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and the IMF team. Some have been more intelligent than others, and the series features certain baddies who have lasted in fans’ memories across the 25 years the franchise has been active.
With the seventh and eighth movies to follow in 2022 and 2023, it’s worth rounding up all the cleverest plans that the villains have come up with. It’s interesting to see that a few secondary antagonists have fared better than certain main villains, and it also reveals who is the most diabolical of the lot.
10 Sean Ambrose (Mission: Impossible 2)
Ambrose was a relatively stereotypical villain who mainly relied on his mooks to get the job done. His plan of using the Chimera virus didn’t have any inherent genius to it, while Ambrose wasn’t smart enough to realize that Nyah was playing him by joining his ranks.
Ambrose made the nonsensical decision to release Nyah in hopes that she would cause a pandemic due to her infection with the virus, not realizing she might just take her own life. It came back to bite him when Ethan found Nyah to cure her while outsmarting Ambrose to kill him.
9 Sabine Moreau (Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol)
Killing off Sabine was a mistake by the Mission: Impossible series because she had the potential to be a main villain. She was smart enough to get the drop on Trevor Hanaway even after the latter had fought numerous enemies, with Sabine then successfully claiming the nuclear launch codes that kicked off the plot.
She was perceptive to the point where she realized Ethan Hunt’s team was tricking her to hand over the codes to ruin their plans. However, Sabine wasn’t too smart to actually come up with a place that couldn’t easily be infiltrated to pass the codes, as Ethan’s team tracked her down and Sabine eventually lost her life.
8 Kurt Hendricks (Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol)
Although Hendricks had a fairly simplistic plan of starting a war between the US and Russia using Sabine’s nuclear launch codes, he had an intelligent way to go about it. He bombed the Kremlin just so he could cover up his theft of the launch control device, which also ended up disavowing Ethan and his team.
Hendricks’ use of Brij Nath to control an obsolete satellite was something that couldn’t have been revealed had Ethan not diligently followed him. Still, he didn’t have any backup plans in place and was completely exposed once his main strategy was destroyed, which makes Hendricks a dubious diabolical mind.
7 Owen Davian (Mission: Impossible 3)
Davian wasn’t the main brains behind Mission: Impossible III’s conflict but he was the primary villain because he directly challenged Ethan. Unlike most villains, Davian did have contingency plans, as he made sure to escape after he was caught by Ethan, kidnapped his wife, and then implanted the exploding device on Ethan.
On the downside, Davian didn’t really have the tools to bring down the IMF on his own and had to rely on John Musgraves as the inside man to do so. Davian basically needed a backer to craft the overarching plans and was witty enough to complete the quick-thinking aspect of things.
6 Atlee (Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation)
Atlee appeared as an unassuming MI6 handler of Ilsa Fault, only to be revealed as one of the founders of the Syndicate. Moreover, he managed to put Ethan Hunt into question and the latter had to capture the prime minister while posing as Atlee to reveal the villain’s true nature.
He simultaneously strung Ilsa around as his weapon to use against Ethan, which was intelligent on paper but Atlee didn’t account for Ethan’s ability to take charge and turn Ilsa’s loyalties around. Atlee was a good strategist, yet he couldn’t think up things on the fly and was ultimately caught red-handed.
5 John Musgrave (Mission: Impossible 3)
Many fans don’t remember John Musgrave because he wasn’t promoted as a villain, but he turned out to be the brains behind the whole plot in the third movie. Musgrave manipulated his position in the IMF to hand intel to Owen Davian and made Ethan think Julia had been killed while slyly placing someone else in her place.
Musgrave was a master tactician, in that he planned far ahead to dupe the IMF as its traitor to be in cahoots with Davian to profit from the Rabbit’s foot. He was something of an opposite to Davian, as Musgrave wasn’t good at thinking on his feet and was easily killed by Julia after Ethan outsmarted him in their final fight.
4 August Walker/John Lark (Mission: Impossible — Fallout)
The sixth movie is generally considered among Tom Cruise’s greatest action films because it keeps viewers guessing. August Walker simultaneously had the identity of John Lark and played everyone from the CIA, IMF, to Ethan Hunt as he convinced them he was on their side while actually being the partner of Solomon Lane.
Walker successfully manipulated Erika Sloane to target Ethan Hunt’s team while gathering the nuclear bombs he needed to threaten the Siachen Glacier. It was an ingenious plan but the main brains was still Lane rather than Walker, who was responsible for the manipulating aspect of things.
3 Claire Phelps (Mission: Impossible)
Claire was simply following the orders of her husband during the first movie’s conflict, yet she might be the most dastardly villain there is. After all, she strung Ethan Hunt around the whole time by using his feelings for her to inadvertently carry out Jim Phelps’ plan.
While the IMF figured out there was a mole within their ranks, they didn’t catch on that Claire was another one, which attests to her level of cunning. She managed to carve out a sympathetic figure for herself while her husband carried out their evil ongoings, making Claire a true conspirator in every sense of the word.
2 Jim Phelps (Mission: Impossible)
Phelps may be one of the most intelligent Mission: Impossible characters overall, having fooled his entire team by framing Ethan as the mole and killing off most agents. He successfully got the names of the agents he wanted to sell to arms dealers while faking his demise to ensure he didn’t get implicated.
Of course, it ended up literally blowing up in his face when Ethan deduced the whole plan to reveal Phelps’ living status and expose him as the mole. Phelps was far more intelligent than the majority of the villains due to his clever planning but he wasn’t equipped to handle Ethan’s mastery.
1 Solomon Lane (Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, Mission: Impossible — Fallout)
A villain so diabolically brilliant that he was brought back a second time with another plan to enact, Solomon Lane has been the antagonistic equal to Ethan Hunt. Lane used moles in the government like Atlee and August Walker to string everyone along, while having many backup plans in place.
Lane made use of the Syndicate and the Apostles to cover up his identity and used tactics like capturing Ethan’s team members to intimidate the latter because he knew his weaknesses. Lane has largely only lost due to the incompetence of his partners and subordinates, apart from which he has been an evil genius all around.
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