Mission: Impossible's villains ranked – who is Ethan Hunt's greatest nemesis?

Every Mission: Impossible movie deserves a great villain. And the latest entry in the series, Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One, boasts two antagonists to keep Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt up at night. The first of these is Esai Morales' icy Gabriel, the human representative of an all-encompassing artificial intelligence known as 'the entity', which stands to shape the global information war as we know it. (Gabriel also has a unique connection to Ethan's pre-IMF past.)

Gabriel will stop at nothing to harness the entity's power and attain influence over any threat that stands in his way; luckily for him, he's paired with ferocious assassin Paris (Pom Klementieff) to help realise his goals. This conflict instigates another spectacular volley of stunts and globe-trotting, all marshalled by Cruise and returning writer-director Christopher McQuarrie whose commitment to the big-screen experience ensures a thrilling rollercoaster ride.

Want to catch up with all of Ethan's feared enemies to date? Scroll down to discover our ranked list of all the primary Mission: Impossible bad guys who've given the IMF a spot of bother.


6. Kurt Hendricks/Cobalt (Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol)

Despite being played by the late, great Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist, the elusive Cobalt simply doesn't get enough screen time to make his mark as a great baddie. While Brad Bird's Mission movie excels in its playful set-pieces (all hail the terrifying Burj Khalifa climb) and witty team dynamic, the villain ends up being significantly marginalised.

In a way, this makes sense: Hendricks is, appropriately enough, a ghost-like presence who is orchestrating nuclear winter from behind the scenes, exerting a deadly influence without us even knowing it. In a pivotal sandstorm foot/car chase sequence, he's even adopted a face mask of his henchman Wistrom. Only at the end of the scene does Ethan realise that it's Hendricks he's been chasing all along.

Still, despite giving Ethan a run for his money in a physical sense during the climactic car park battle, Hendricks remains little more than a chess piece moved around the storyline at will.



5. Sean Ambrose (Mission: Impossible II)

Rest assured, rogue IMF agent Sean is the only villain in history to yell, "Put a sock in it." Still, if you want your villain to be angry, be sure to cast Scottish, right? Dougray Scott tries his best as the dark yin to Ethan Hunt's grinning, abseiling yang, which results in some self-reflexive amusement when Sean decries having to wear Ethan's face as a mask: "That was the hardest part of having to portray you... Grinning like an idiot every 15 minutes."

However, while Sean's plan is appropriately nefarious, exploiting a devastating live virus and planning to make a profit from the eventual cure, he never really possesss the physical or psychological chops to make us truly scared of him. In the climactic beach-off with Ethan, he holds forth with an impressive array of physical moves, another indication that Sean and Ethan are essentially one and the same, trained by the same organisation but with opposing ideologies.

It's an intriguing idea that feels somewhat undercooked and also overshadowed by John Woo's operatic, dove-flying tendencies. Interestingly, Scott had initially been cast as Wolverine in X-Men and lost out on the role when reshoots for M:I 2 overran. Hugh Jackman then stepped in at the last minute and history was made.



4. Jim Phelps (Mission: Impossible)

Brian De Palma's trend-setting Mission: Impossible movie, the first in the series, had a few audacious tricks up its sleeve. The most audacious was the decision to rework TV series stalwart and IMF chief Jim Phelps as the main bad guy, played here by the Oscar-winning Jon Voight. 

In keeping with De Palma's characteristically slippery and unpredictable approach, we believe Phelps to have been killed during the opening Prague slaughter that eliminates most of Ethan's crew. Phelps then resurfaces in London, conjuring his own explanation as to how he survived. Ethan, of course, is on to him, leading to the climactic stand-off inside the Channel Tunnel atop the Eurostar, during which time Phelps is sent to an explosive death.

The creative liberties didn't go down well with original Jim Phelps actor Peter Graves who blasted the decision to sculpt the beloved character as the antagonist.



3. August Walker (Mission: Impossible - Fallout)

Ethan Hunt makes another fatal mistake in trusting someone assigned to his team. Apparent CIA agent August Walker is tasked with shadowing Hunt as he infiltrates the Apostles, a secretive network seeking access to deadly nuclear technology. It just so happens that Walker is the very man for whom Hunt has been searching, Apostles leader John Lark, who's performed the Jim Phelps gambit of hiding in plain sight until choosing to reveal himself at the opportune moment.

Actor Henry Cavill is a valuable addition to this terrific entry in the Mission: Impossible series, capable of conveying both brawny physicality and implacable, calculating evil when Lark's true plan is revealed. He's one of the most slippery of the Mission villains, pairing with Hunt to take down an assassin during the bruising bathroom fight sequence, and later attempting to kill him during the vertiginous cliff-top showdown.

The act of unveiling Lark is one of the most devious gambits in the entire series. Hunt's close ally Benji (Simon Pegg) adopts the face of the villainous Solomon Lane (more on whom below), causing Lane's ally Lark to reveal his hand and confirm the IMF's suspicions. When he later threatens Hunt's ex-wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan), things get really personal.



2. Solomon Lane (Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation and Mission: Impossible - Fallout)

Ethan Hunt's enemies love to work in the shadows, and they don't come more shadowy than the sinister Solomon Lane. Effectively played in raspy-voiced fashion by British scene-stealer Sean Harris, Lane has exerted a global web of deadly anarchists known as the Syndicate. Well aware that Ethan Hunt is onto him, Lane achieves the rare goal of ensnaring Hunt and kidnapping him, although it doesn't take long for our hero to escape with the help of compromised agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson).

Harris' sheer presence, quiet, methodical and intimidating, raises the character above B-grade James Bond tropes. Even when he's not physically present, his forces act as a stand-in, putting Hunt through his paces in blistering sequences involving car chases, motorbike chases and more. Lane makes it especially personal when he straps Benji to a bomb vest, initiating the dramatic end game and the perfect revenge coda scenario: "Mr. Lane, meet the IMF."

In an atypical move for the series, Lane survives to fight another day in the next movie, Fallout, where he shows an altogether different side to his personality. During the nail-biting helicopter stand-off between Hunt and Walker, we intercut with the ferocious hand-to-hand battle between Lane, Ilsa and Benji, as Lane reveals has the physical abilities as well as the psychological acumen to back up his sense of threat. Given he survives yet again, can we hope for one final appearance in the series?



1. Owen Davian (Mission: Impossible III)

No other M:I villain has topped Owen Davian, flawlessly played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, for sheer implacable sadism. The third movie in the series is helmed by J.J. Abrams, at this stage hot from Lost and Alias, and it has a careering sense of energy that propels Ethan Hunt from the Vatican to Shanghai. Even while we're questioning the logic of it all, Hoffman's calculating nemesis does a tremendous job of bringing things (relatively) down to Earth, cutting through Hunt's seeming imperviousness with a genuine sense of menace.

The key to Hoffman's performance resides in how understated it is. He was rarely an actor to chew the scenery and that's entirely to his advantage here: he brings chillingly nonchalant plausibility to a movie that doesn't necessarily invite it, causing Ethan to sweat and panic more than an imminent base jump from a Shanghai skyscraper. It's a performance that single-handedly darkens and elevates the entire movie.

Hoffman's perfect vocal modulations are matched with his dead-eyed stare as Davian coerces Ethan into seeking the 'rabbit's foot', the Macguffin of choice that does... something or other. That hardly matters anyway. What does matter is that Davian has kidnapped Ethan's beloved wife Julia and won't hesitate to kill her should he fail to get what he wants. The opening flash-forward sequence expertly distills Davian's ruthless personality, reminding us that the scariest villains aren't necessarily those who are physically imposing.



Where will Gabriel rank on the list of Mission: Impossible villains? It's now time to find out. Click the link below to get your tickets for Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One, on release now at Cineworld.