Indiana Jones turned its pulp hero into an American icon, then had the grace to end (2024)

With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.

Try to picture an American James Bond. It might seem like a redundant exercise today; Americans make plenty of movies about globetrotting superheroes and superspies—a surplus, even—and anyway, Bond movies are so big and so international that their Britishness is more a matter of rigorously upheld tradition than precious national resource. But the American Bond concept is exactly what Steven Spielberg had in mind when he and George Lucas started discussing Lucas’ idea for a globetrotting, graverobbing adventurer called Indiana Smith. (The name change came a little later.) Spielberg wanted to direct a 007 film and, presumably unable to break through the Lewis Gilbert/John Glen stranglehold on that series, he decided maybe this could be his Bond.

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It didn’t exactly work out that way. Bond movies appeared near-annually for their first decade of existence, and eventually started shuffling their lead actors in and out of the role; the first burst of Indiana Jones activity only resulted in three movies. (Bond was at a low ebb during the same time period and still cranked out five movies with two different Bonds.) Two more sequels followed with even bigger gaps, and in 2023, it became the rare modern franchise to actually end. James Bond might remind us to never say never again, of course, but Indiana Jones And The Dial Of Destiny seems like just the right confluence of factors: A star who has since passed 80, original creators no longer directly involved, a story specifically designed to send off the character, and a surprisingly middling box office indicating that audiences are sated for now, thanks, on this character. There may yet be future iterations of Indiana Jones—it is once-valuable IP that Disney owns, after all—but if so, it’ll be pretty far removed from the quintet of movies we have now.

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So how did Indiana Jones become both bigger and scarcer than James Bond—and then still finish out the series making hundreds of millions less than Bond’s own quasi-finale, from which some form of the British spy will return?

The answer may be that Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981) is a perfect movie. God, it feels so cheesy just writing that out, because Raiders has long since been canonized, alongside a number of Spielberg and/or Lucas-related 1980s blockbusters, that the natural instinct for a film buff might be to resist this characterization, or the idea of perfect movies in general. Plus, among some other candidates for perfect pop movies of this approximate era, Jaws has a little more elemental wrath-of-nature grit, and Back To The Future turns on a magical what-if about children and parents (and a now-thorny Reagan-era notion of success!). They’re both probably richer texts beneath their abundant surface pleasures. As far as surface pleasures go, though, yes, Raiders Of The Lost Ark is pretty much perfect. It’s perfect in a way that’s not matched by any James Bond movie, however iconic Goldfinger or Casino Royale or From Russia With Love turned out to be.

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Even more than the first Star Wars, a movie whose world-building and imagination makes it ever-so-slightly (and charmingly!) ragged, Raiders distills a certain type of cliffhanging adventure movie—only it’s a bigger, sleeker version that had previously only existed in the viewer’s imagination. How strange it is that a generation or two grew up actually just picturing Raiders, an actual movie Spielberg, Lucas, and their collaborators dreamed up, instead of an amalgamation. How strange, too, that in the first movie ever made about Indiana Jones, he casts an iconic shadow on the wall when he walks back into the bar owned by Marion (Karen Allen). So many action-adventure movies today arrive predigested, whether through IP-based lore or simply the soft, grayish craft of the films themselves; Spielberg’s camera makes Raiders stay thrillingly alive between the big action scenes as well as during them.

With the first Indiana Jones adventure established as an impeccably crafted bit of entertainment—arguably the single best summer movie of all time—the series could only fall off, quite unlike Bond. (Even hard-line Connery-only partisans might be hard to convince that Dr. No is the absolute peak of the series.) Despite Spielberg’s technical talents arguably only becoming more tightly honed and impressive over the years, the Indiana Jones sequels follow a pattern so classical it’s almost extinct: Each follow-up is somewhat worse than the one before it.

This does not appear to be the consensus opinion, especially regarding Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom (1984) versus Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade (1989). It’s hard to resist, after all, the genius move of casting the original Bond himself, Sean Connery, as Henry Jones Sr. in the latter—and connecting him to Junior via his tweedily officious college-prof background, rather than the two-fisted heroics the audience might expect from a still-robust Connery (who is younger in Last Crusade than Ford is in two out of five Indy movies). Last Crusade also has great puzzles, an absolutely cracking opening flashback that now doubles as a lovely tribute to the charm of the late River Phoenix, and some zaniness on a blimp. It’s a good picture.

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But if we’re being honest, is anything in Last Crusade really best-in-show for Lucas, Spielberg, Ford, or Connery? Lucas and Spielberg have both given us more interestingly fraught father-son dynamics (Lucas in Return Of The Jedi; Spielberg, well, often; particularly Catch Me If You Can and The Fabelmans). Even sticking just to action-adventure mechanics of this series, there isn’t a Last Crusade set piece that’s as terrific as that truck chase in Raiders or the last 30 minutes of Doom. (The Yale chase in the fourth movie might also have everything in Last Crusade beat, too.) Ford’s mounting frustration and insecurities in Last Crusade are certainly new notes for him to play as Indy, but it’s nearly impossible to top his first performance as the character in Raiders. As for Connery, maybe it tops the specialized category of his best performance of the 1980s, though Sick Boy and Renton of Trainspotting might point to The Name Of The Rose and The Untouchables.

Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom, meanwhile, doesn’t retread as much from the original film, more or less wills the PG-13 rating into existence in the process, and, most importantly, has one of the all-time great marathons of action-movie breathlessness for its climax. For that matter, the movie’s nightclub-set opening sequence is the closest the series would come to Bond, while still possessing a brilliant extra Spielbergian kick: one of his many close calls with making a musical years before his West Side Story. It is also, regrettably, the most racist Indiana Jones movie, other-ing its Indian characters (whether grotesquely evil or in desperate need of a white savior). Adding that unpleasantness and subtracting Karen Allen are the basic math that leads to a sequel that isn’t on the level of Raiders. Yet this nastier dispatch from the heart of divorce—Lucas was going through one at the time—also functions as a glimpse at how Indiana Jones might have worked as a film hero allowed to land in more distinctive and less frequently Nazi-inclusive adventures.

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Despite its half-shameless desire to recreate Raiders, Last Crusade does mark a turning point in the series attempting to maybe kind of be about something. It’s possible to read meaning into Raiders and Temple Of Doom, of course, but they’re expressions of pulp-fictional joy first and foremost. For all of Last Crusade’s imitations of Raiders, it feels like its successors in the series were most fervently hoping to recapture the emotional component of Last Crusade. Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull (2008) has a father-son element, only now Indy is the dad to Brando-styled Mutt (Shia LaBeouf), while Indiana Jones And The Dial Of Destiny (2023) opens with a flashback to younger Indy, which both structurally resembles Last Crusade and attempts a kind of spiritual sequel—because now the flashback jumps to a digitally de-aged Harrison Ford playing Indy just a few years after the events of the 1989 film.

It’s all a bit…strenuous. The crispness of that Last Crusade flashback, where even silly prequel-y ideas come across more like playful winks than story-dragging lore, is replaced with a more generic sense of spectacle. It’s not necessarily the heavily digital-looking effects that the sequence employs—it’s more the overblown scale they’re used to create, and how it threatens to let Ford, now himself a digitally augmented effect, blend in with the scenery. James Mangold is a fine director; in fact, his The Wolverine is the very model of a standalone, non-finale superhero adventure, equally steeped in character and cool action sequences. But if it was a given that almost any replacement director would have trouble replicating Spielberg’s shot designs, Mangold’s movie also lacks his predecessor’s fleetness. In Last Crusade, that perfect match-cut from young Indy getting the hat from his grown-up rival to adult Indy raising his hat-covered head happens just shy of the 12-minute mark. In Dial Of Destiny, the transition from past to movie’s present happens after nearly 22 minutes, and cuts from one less-memorable image (a wide shot of de-aged Harrison Ford walking with Toby Jones toward a train bridge) to another less-memorable image (a shot of Indy’s socks hanging out to dry from his Manhattan apartment window).

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This doesn’t mean that Dial Of Destiny is a complete wash. Just moments later, Mangold makes the inspired decision to jolt an elderly Indy awake with the sounds of “Magical Mystery Tour,” and the material dealing with the hero’s advanced age is sometimes poignant, going deeper into an area that Crystal Skull touched upon. On a more base level, a mid-movie chase through Tangier is pretty decent; really, if it had appeared in just about any other action movie in 2023, it probably would have been praised for its clear geography and adept mixing of practical and digital effects. And that time-skipping finale! It was probably a bridge too far for Indiana Jones originalists, who prefer the grounded realism of face-melting ghosts. To hell with them! The time travel conceit lends the movie both surprise and dimension, helping to compensate for Mangold’s inability to become Steven Spielberg.

In a lot of ways, especially its beguilingly loopy final act, Dial Of Destiny plays like an attempt to rewrite and focus-group its predecessor, Indiana Jones And The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, into a more suitable crowdpleaser; maybe that’s why the fifth movie feels as if it’s an amalgam of at least 10 different screenplay drafts. Crystal Skull isn’t immune to that either, particularly the way it accumulates side characters until the final stretch starts to resemble a clunky family vacation rather than the rip-roaring alien encounter that it should. That final stretch also has a weird, fake-looking haze around even the images that were captured on location. (This section may represent the only semi-dud in the 30-year collaboration between Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski.

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This slack and visually underwhelming ending, in conjunction with originalist griping about nuking the fridge (delightful) and introducing interdimensional beings (fine) has sadly obscured that for its first half or so, Crystal Skull is about on par with any other Indiana Jones sequel: Less novel than Raiders, while still providing ample opportunities for Spielberg to have tremendous fun knocking Harrison Ford around. If it’s less overtly about the wistful regrets of old age than Dial Of Destiny, it’s more in tune with the world’s shifting mysteries in the years following World War II, using pulp obsessions to power an archeologist’s relationship with history.

Crystal Skull is also intriguing because so much of that history belongs to Indy’s home country, at least compared to the other four movies. Between its Area 51 opening and extended section set at Yale, a full third of the movie takes place in the United States, before the movie finally busts out those red dots and lines to indicate major plane travel. If Bond at least partially traffics in the fantasy of Britain spreading their immaculate tastes, manners, and style across the globe, Indiana Jones makes a canny stand-in for American culture: riding to the rescue when Nazis are involved, sure, but engaging in plenty of international sketchiness that conflicts, with a self-image composed equally of rugged individualism and deference to patriotic authority (“I like Ike!” he barks to the commies in Crystal Skull). Given that, it’s both self-reflexive and appropriate to see him running around his own country later in life, which probably also accounts for why the New York section of Dial Of Destiny jolts that movie to life, if more for shots of Indy riding a crowded subway than riding a horse through its tunnels. Seeing Indy feel out of place in New York City, and later tempted to remain in ancient Syracuse, does add a layer of poignancy, given how contemporary his past heroics felt, even in their period settings.

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So if the later two movies aren’t quite as good as their predecessors, consider how they bear the burden of attempting to wind the series down, something that even No Time To Die was allowed to treat as temporary, an experiment before the next James Bond recast/respawn. It seemed possible, at various points during those long between-sequel gaps, that Indy might follow suit and become a multi-actor character. (Point in fact, it happened multiple times in the early ‘90s with The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, which anticipated the phenomenon of the disappointing yet worthwhile Disney+ series.) The idea of a replacement big-screen Indy never progressed beyond the rumor stage, because even more so than Han Solo, Indiana Jones became Harrison Ford’s signature role. He didn’t want to give it up, and the audience didn’t particularly want him to, either. At the same time, Dial Of Destiny failed to uncover an appetite for watching an elderly Ford endanger himself, whether across the globe or in front of a green screen.

Given how much audiences of a certain age seem to desire a degree of nostalgic pandering to their bygone youths, it’s hard to frame middling levels of audience interest in Dial Of Destiny (or middling reactions to Crystal Skull, big a hit as it was) as some noble sense of propriety. If anything, it’s arguable that some of its biggest fans helped to entomb the series in nostalgia for its past glories—and what’s more American than that? Yet there is some nobility, however accidental, that Indiana Jones could come to an end, even if the series wasn’t limited to the neater confines of a trilogy released over the course of a single decade. Dial Of Destiny leaves Indy off in 1969—right around the moon landing, as the movie points out, but also the year of the first non-Connery actor playing James Bond. George Lazenby didn’t stick, but neither did Connery’s return a year later. Since then, multiple Bond movies have attempted to update and refine the character, sometimes alongside jokes about 007 being a relic of the past. That Indiana Jones has finally become one, during an era of forever franchises at that, may be the braver adventure.

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Final ranking:

1. Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)

2. Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom (1984)

3. Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade (1989)

4. Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull (2008)

5. Indiana Jones And The Dial Of Destiny (2023)

Indiana Jones turned its pulp hero into an American icon, then had the grace to end (2024)

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