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Paramount Pictures
Tom Cruise reprises his role as Ethan Hunt in a scene from "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol."

On Wednesday, “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” hits screens across the country, making it the fourth feature-length film in a franchise that has existed in movie theaters and on TV for nearly 50 years.

Up until now, each film in the franchise — taking a cue from the original 1966 TV series’ mission-of-the-week format — has been meant as a standalone adventure. No prior knowledge was ever required to enjoy the continued exploits of Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise’s James Bond-like superspy) or the other agents in the Impossible Mission Force (“IMF” for short).

“Ghost Protocol,” though, changes things slightly. While not as confusing as wandering into “Breaking Dawn, Part 1” without knowing anything about the other “Twilight” movies, it may nevertheless be a good idea to brush up on the ever-evolving “Mission: Impossible” franchise, as well as its storied history from Cold War-era espionage series to modern-day action blockbuster, before you see the new movie.

With that in mind, here is a brief rundown of “Mission: Impossible” to get you up to speed for “Ghost Protocol.”

‘Mission: Impossible’ (TV series)

Lasting a total of five seasons (1966-70), the original TV show established a lot of the elements people still think about whenever they hear Lalo Schiffrin’s 5/4 theme song or the classic line, “Your mission, should you choose to accept it …” that was repeated at the beginning of almost every episode right before the tape self-destructed in a puff of smoke.

The original series focused on a constantly changing group of IMF agents, portrayed by notable actors like Martin Landau (“Ed Wood”) and a pre-“Star Trek” Leonard Nimoy, as they faced off against various evil organizations and generic stand-ins for communist Europe.

Beginning in the second season, Jim Phelps (Peter Graves) emerged as the team leader and the show’s main character. Only Phelps returned for a brief revival series that aired from 1988-90.

“Mission: Impossible” differed from some of its contemporaries because of series creator Bruce Geller’s decision to emphasize the complexity and precision of the missions over things like character development and continuous story lines. As a result, the episodes gradually locked in to a ritualized structure that still influences the franchise today.

‘Mission: Impossible’ (1996)

The first of Tom Cruise’s highly successful spy films introduced audiences to a new IMF agent, Ethan Hunt. After his entire team — including his mentor, an older Jim Phelps (here played by Jon Voight) — is killed off during an assignment in Prague, Ethan becomes the primary suspect in an IMF “mole hunt” and is forced to recruit a makeshift team of fellow “disavowed” agents (Jean Reno, Ving Rhames) to clear his name.

Cruise’s first outing as Hunt is the closest spiritual descendent of the original TV show. It even mimics the old episodes’ formulaic structure and pays homage to small but significant details like the latex disguises and dramatic “peel-off” scenes that became classic elements of the 1966 series.

Like Geller, director Brian De Palma (“Scarface,” “The Untouchables”) focuses his energy on elaborately conceived missions and the clockwork precision required to pull them off — such as the iconic Langley break-in where Cruise dangles inches from a pressure-sensitive floor.

‘Mission: Impossible II’ (2000)

For better or worse, “Mission: Impossible II” is a stylistic 180 from the first movie, eschewing the 1996 film’s subtlety in favor of exploding sunglasses, perfectly coiffed shoulder-length hair, motorcycle jousting and slow-motion doves — all courtesy of legendary action director John Woo.

The story follows Ethan’s globe-trotting efforts to destroy a recombinant virus known as Chimera — basically a monster strain of flu — before a rogue IMF agent played by Dougray Scott (the original actor cast as Wolverine in Bryan Singer’s “X-Men”) releases it in downtown Sydney.

Complicating the situation is the involvement of a civilian love interest named Nyah (Thandie Newton), a master thief recruited to spy on Scott’s character, Sean Ambrose, who happens to have been her former lover.

More than any of the other films, “Mission: Impossible II” ditches the team aspect of the franchise and instead tries to position Hunt as the American James Bond. Other than Cruise, the only returning character is Rhames, once again portraying the prodigious hacker Luther Stickell. (Both he and Cruise appear in all four “Mission” films.)

‘Mission: Impossible III’ (2006)

“Mission: Impossible III” explores the repercussions of being a secret agent. Now semi-retired as a trainer for potential IMF recruits and about to be married to an unsuspecting civilian named Julia (Michelle Monaghan), Ethan accepts one last field assignment to rescue a former student (Keri Russell, star of “M:I-III” director J.J. Abrams’ TV series “Felicity”). In the process, he inadvertently puts his new wife in danger.

“Mission: Impossible III” manages to reground the franchise after the self-indulgent “M:I-II” while still tipping its hat to some of the more far-fetched elements of the series. It also introduces a couple significant characters that make appearances in “Ghost Protocol,” including IMF tech analyst Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg, “Star Trek”—another Abrams film).

If nothing else, though, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s cold, calculating Owen Davian deserves to go down as one of the great spy movie bad guys.

‘Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol’

For the first time in franchise history, “Ghost Protocol” picks up the story a few years after the events of the last film. With jaw-dropping, instantly iconic action sequences, a subtle blend of old and new elements, and one of the best stories to date, “Ghost Protocol” (directed by Brad Bird, “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille”) could easily be the best of Tom Cruise’s “Mission: Impossible” movies. “Ghost Protocol” opens Dec. 16 in limited IMAX release and everywhere Dec. 21.

A native of Utah Valley and a devoted cinephile, Jeff Peterson is currently studying humanities and history at Brigham Young University.