Indiana Jones might be the worst hero of all time. I adore the movies — what kind of killjoy doesn’t love the non-stop action and over-the-top adventure? People bitched and moaned when Indiana Jones “nuked the fridge” in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but I reveled in it. How can you hold the atomic fridge against him? Ridiculous action sequences are exactly why we fell in love with Indiana Jones in the first place. And yet, there’s something unsettling wrong about the series.
The big issue for me is that there are not actually four Indiana Jones movies. There are only two. Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Last Crusade, and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull are actually the same movie made three different times. Think about how they end. Indiana Jones loses and the bad guys get what they came for, but the thing they came for turns out to be a horribly ironic punishment. The ark kills all the Nazis, the holy grail kills all the Nazis, and the crystal skull kills all the Communists. The only way Jones beats the bad guys in the end is by being just a little bit crap and failing to save the day. He gets saved in each movie by some bit of deus ex machina.
We loved that ending once. We even loved it twice. But I suspect the reason people came away from Crystal Skull feeling let down was not because it was a bad movie, but because they’d seen it two times already. If you’re inclined to let George Lucas get away with this bit of hoodoo, consider the fact that the movies would have ended the exact same way if Indiana Jones had not even been in them. In fact if Jones had let the Nazis have the ark in Raiders, Hitler would have been killed before the Second World War even started. Thanks a bundle, Indy. But this is a big issue. If your protagonist is essentially useless, you have a very serious narrative problem.
Because the other movies are stuck with sucky endings, I have to give credit to The Temple of Doom for being what it is — the second and last new Indiana Jones movie. It is the only one where Jones actually saves the day. The movie ends with him and Mola Ram, the sacrificial priest, dangling over a precipice and fighting over the three magic stones. Jones casts an incantation that makes the stones red hot, sending two of them tumbling into the gorge. Mola Ram attempts to grab the last one, but it burns him and he falls, leaving Indy to snatch up the last stone and return it to its owners. Hooray for Indy! It’s the first and last time he actually beats the bad guys.
The endings aren’t the only thing amiss in the Indiana Jones movies — and I hate to say it, but the bulk of these problems have to be laid at George Lucas’ feet. Lucas loves a comic relief character, but is monumentally crap at doing them. He got away with it once with C-3PO as the much-loved comic relief character from the Star Wars movies. But give C-3PO a lick of fresh paint and suddenly you have Jar Jar Binks, one of the most reviled characters in modern cinema. Nobody could stand just how annoying he was. Give him another lick of paint and you have Willie, the ditzy night-club singer from Temple of Doom. George Lucas, nobody likes your complainy, prissy, slapstick characters. Please stop doing them.
Perhaps more seriously, though, Lucas also has a real problem with racism. Every foreign character in Indiana Jones movies falls into some kind of horrible colonial stereotype, most often being shown as bad guys but also fulfilling the roles of comedy or mystical characters. The French, Germans, and Russians are common bogeys, but we’ve also got Chinese gangsters and devil-worshiping Indians in Temple of Doom, and some generically nasty fez-wearing Middle Eastern types in Last Crusade. The only nice foreigners in these movies are the starving Indian villagers in Temple of Doom, who slot neatly into the role of wise mystics (because all old, white-haired Indian men are wise and mystical), and Jones’ Chinese sidekick Short Round, who only seems to be there because of his comedy accent. The same kinds of accusations were leveled against Lucas over the new Star Wars movies. Read a book on Post-Colonialism, George Lucas. You can’t keep saying this kind of thing.
Much as I dislike Willie and Short Round, the sidekicks in Temple of Doom, they actually count in the narrative’s favor. They might suck as characters, but both Willie and Short Round actually do stuff in this movie, like saving Jones’ life and helping defeat the bad guys. They’re not just window dressing, and Lucas deserves some credit for giving them real things to do. This is the only Indiana Jones movie where the characters influence the outcome, which means that technically it’s the best of the four.
But is Temple of Doom really the best Indiana Jones movie? It’s a tough call. I’m not sure I could even name my own favorite, let alone decide that one movie is better than all the others. Because we don’t watch Indiana Jones for the narrative. God knows, you’d have to be brain-dead to think that any of the movies has any plot. The reason we watch Indiana Jones is because of the action and the adventure. They are fun movies, but that doesn’t mean the fun can stand alone. If it could, people would have loved Crystal Skull. Even if they’re not the main features of a movie, you have to have a foundation of plot and character to support the rest. You might get away with it once or twice, but sooner or later you get stuck in a rut, making the same movie over and over again. Even after a 20-year break Lucas couldn’t come up with a new story for Indiana Jones. He’s playing our favorite song, but he’s been playing it for 30 years now. It’s getting old.
I would never want to retire Indiana Jones because I love the movies so much. But how about we give him something new to do, huh?