The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Indiana Jones: Why the Fantastic?

Written by: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer

In this throwback piece, CC2K’s Rob Van Winkle examines the supernatural and fantastic elements that have crept into all of the Indiana Jones movies and asks, “Why?” 

I found myself wrapped up in the Indiana Jones franchise a bit later than most other people my age (the same statement is also true for Star Wars, Superman, E.T., Ghostbusters, Gremlins, Terminator, and every other movie that defined our generation in youth). To this day, I don’t know whether it was due to some kind of parental restriction, or merely a result of the fact that I grew up in a town with only one two-screen theater within reasonable driving distance from my house, but movies just were not a part of my early childhood. I was aware of them – in fact, I distinctly remember having a mental list of all the movies I couldn’t wait to see – but trips to the theater were rare occurrences centered more around the event, and less around what was there.

I point this out because, by the time I finally gained some autonomy and started seeing all these movies, I did so with a pre-conceived notion that they all were perfect pieces of entertaining art. Movies were not to be criticized, because they were as indelible as the Mona Lisa to me. Not only would it be akin to questioning the work of a master, but doing so would surely just bring to light my inadequacies as a film-watcher.

This overlong introduction was all to lead up to the following confession: it has taken me literally years of faithful (if late-blooming) devotion to the Indiana Jones franchise to be able to admit to a facet that frustrates me about them. It is a cross I have had to bear for a long time, but only now can I feel comfortable enough in myself and my opinions to share it now.

The Indiana Jones movies are all captivating and enthralling stories based around a real-ish guy having extraordinary adventures – so why do they have to muck up each story with elements of fantasy and the supernatural? Let’s consider:

1. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy deciphers long-buried clues and defeats hordes of bad guys with a whip and his wits (and, in one supposedly dysentery-inspired scene, a gun) to find the Ark of the Covenant. However, when he finds himself surrounded by Nazis at the end of the film, he opens the ark to unleash a legion of ghosts to kill everyone around him and save the day.
2. In Temple of Doom, when a town has all of its children stolen from them, Indy must recover them, along with a set of magic rocks that town elders credit with their prosperity. Along the way, he encounters a man who can rip a man’s heart out of his chest, a skull that produces brainwashing blood and a voodoo doll that all but cripples him, and in the end, those rocks turn out to be magic after all!
3. In The Last Crusade, Indy finds himself on a mission with his father to recover the Holy Grail before Hitler can use it to advance his war effort. After working through the tricks and traps in the ancient catacomb, he discovers a 700-year-old man guarding a cup that grants immortality.

By looking at these summaries in this way, it becomes clear (especially with Temple of Doom) that elements of fantasy were always intended to be a part of the Indiana Jones mythos, and not last-second choices thrown in to get the hero out of a tight spot. So why then does it rankle me so much?

Before I answer that, let me talk for a minute about the fantasy genre itself.

In my experience, fantasy stories can be lumped into two separate categories, which I’ll call “Not us” and “Us Plus.” In “Not Us” fantasy, the reader/viewer is treated to a completely different world. The characters might be of a type unlike any we see on Earth, and their understanding of life is wholly different. These are the stories where little Halflings travel into the realm of the Dark Lord to destroy an evil magical ring, or time-traveling dragon tamers battle to save their world from alien threads bent on destruction, or a weak young boy with hourglass eyes grows into a powerful mage wreaking vengeance on those who once wronged him.

The joy of these stories is in their ability to swallow us whole. When we enter into them, we not only get to follow the characters on their respective journeys, but we also get to explore their worlds from the ground up. We are like literary or cinematic tourists, dropping into a foreign land to soak up their culture.

By contrast, “Us Plus” fantasy features characters just like you and me who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances. They see their situations largely as we would – from the outside looking in – and as such we relate to them, even as their plights are ones we will never encounter. These are the stories where a girl falls down a rabbit hole and into an opium-fueled wonderland, or a boy discovers that he is a fledgling wizard with a dire prophecy hanging over his head, or a pack of siblings find a magical world hidden in the back of a wardrobe. What makes these stories so great is their ability to put us in the heroes’ shoes. We don’t love Harry Potter because he’s a wizard, we love him because he’s a person just like us who becomes one. “Us Plus” fantasy allows its readers and viewers to dream of the impossible, and then imagine themselves as a vital part of it.

With that said, here’s my problem: Indiana Jones doesn’t fit into either of these categories. It can’t be “Not Us,” because Indy is firmly rooted into American history. He lives on our planet with us, fighting real enemies from our nation’s past. There’s no question that he’s American, and he saves the day with real-life weapons of his day. It also can’t be “Us Plus,” because unless you are an archaeology professor or a relic hunter, there’s nothing even remotely universal about him. He finds himself in predicaments that no one on Earth could ever encounter, and does so for reasons way too altruistic to be real. He’s not a character so much as he is an action hero.

And there you have it: the Indiana Jones films are just dying to be action movies. They have a hero who overcomes impossible odds, hordes of bad guys who can’t do him in, beautiful damsels in distress, and death-defying sequences galore. These are great elements, and they are also enough. By adding fantasy, it muddies the water to the point where you don’t really know who to clap for. Are you proud of Indy for rescuing the Ark, or do you just consider him lucky that he was able to adequately harness the power of God? (To put it another way, would we love John McClane as much as we do if, instead of getting through his climactic encounter with only a single bullet, he instead is saved by a guardian angel who swoops down and flies him to safety at the last possible moment?)

Indiana Jones is certainly not the only franchise to toe this precarious line between “reality” and fantasy, though it is certainly the most prominent. (In second place, in my book, is Lost, which keeps fluctuating between real human-interest mysteries like The Dharma Initiative, the “Others,” and the island’s out-of-time-ness, and bizarre supernatural muddiness like the smoke monster, the polar bears and the statue with only four toes.) I don’t know how other people deal with this duality in Indy’s world, but for me, I choose to downplay the fantasy elements in my own mind, even when I think about the movies. “MY” Indiana Jones is an intellectual daredevil who kicks ass with a whip, instead of a magical vessel through which the powers of heaven and earth do their work. I still love these movies with all my heart, but at long last I can admit to their flaws as well.