Indiana Jones is a great character played by a terrific actor and resonates with a lot of people for many different reasons. But what I want to address today is what the character can teach us about our culture if we pluck him up and lay him down across different kinds of media like a leather jacket wearing yardstick.
It’s been said a couple of different times that the creators of Indiana Jones were making a love letter to the old Republic movie serials they used to watch as kids. The kind of chapter plays that I talked about here. Indiana Jones is a character firmly rooted in the late 1930’s or early 1940’s. And his swashbuckling heroic adventures are very similar to the serials and movies of the time. But the execution is vastly different. The creators of Indiana Jones, director Steven Spielberg and writer George Lucas, came up with something that could never have been filmed in the era that it depicts, or pays homage to.
Usually because of budget restrictions, the old movie serials would have ‘flat’ action, where a very well choreographed fight scene would take place without the camera moving and without any sort of special effects other than breakaway tables and loud punching sounds. The Indiana Jones movies are painted on a much bigger canvas, showing us what can be done with an old idea presented in a new way. Nazis and lost Amazon tribes and Thuggee cult members come alive as real menaces even as Indiana battles them in decidedly unreal ways. The soundtrack is magnificent, and the style of the movie and the character have become timeless classics.
To me, it’s the best example of something I end up thinking about a lot. Why throw out old characters and ideas just because they’re from a past decade? When you can breathe new life into the concept and turn out thrilling entertainment.
The Hollywood idea is called ‘the franchise’. Older ideas get recycled with a new take. I’m not talking about a re-make of a beloved favorite or yet another sequel. I’m talking about franchise projects like Star Trek, Mission Impossible, Sherlock Holmes and James Bond. James Bond was very much a Cold War hero of the 1960’s, and yet has a brand new movie coming out this summer, fifty years later. Some characters are too good to die.
Indiana Jones is a franchise all by itself. But more than that, it’s a modern interpretation of a form of entertainment popular fifty years before it’s time, breathing new life into old ideas. It’s the concept Julie Schwartz used to revive the Flash in 1956. The idea was that kids who bought comics today were too young to remember the cancellation of the first Flash in 1949.
The old movie serials of the 1930’s can’t possibly compare to the Indiana Jones movies of the 1980’s. Budget, film technique and technology, passion and concept are all on a much bigger scale by the decade that Indiana Jones rolls around. The character was devised to be an imitation of old movie serial heroes, but end ups being no pale imitation at all. But a larger than life hero that film-makers of the 1930’s definitely imagined but could never have created.
That right there has always been the power of comic books. The tableau of action in a comic book is only limited by the artist’s imagination, and with creators like Jack Kirby that’s just no limitation at all. For the longest time, the comics were able to depict things that Hollywood never could. All the super-hero movies, as glorious as some of them were, just weren’t enough to fill the bill. The 1978 Superman movie came the closest. Until today, that is. When Marvel studios is easily able to give us a movie with aliens invading New York City and the Avengers coming to the rescue. Suddenly, the special effects gap between movies and comics seems much smaller.
Once again, Indiana Jones comes in to teach us some things about the difference in media. There have been several attempts to make Indiana Jones comic books, beginning with Marvel starting an ongoing Indiana Jones series in 1983 even before 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The problem is that they’re just not that exciting. At least in my opinion. There’s something missing from the experience to make them fully a part of the Indiana Jones story.
Music, acting, pacing, and even car chases can’t be handled the same in comic books. But comics have their areas where they make up for that. The real problem is character. Someone so larger than life on the big screen like Indiana Jones seems small in a domain ruled by Superman. When you have characters than can fly, swim, run, swing, punch, shoot energy bolts, and dialogue literally like nothing that can happen in the real world, then a two-fisted archeologist in a stylish hat seems small in comparison.
The 1980’s Indiana Jones movies make the serials from the 1930’s seem flat. But the American medium of comics born in the 1930’s make Indiana Jones seem flat. It’s dizzying if you think about it too much.
Which I do.
I wonder how he would fair as a radio drama...