What Today’s Sequels Need to Learn From the ‘Indiana Jones’ Movies

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom bridge

Lucasfilm, Ltd.

How many of you knew Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was a prequel while you were seeing it back in 1984? I admit that it took me years to come to that realization, but I was a little kid 30 years ago, and my memory of Raiders of the Lost Ark and my understanding of the history of the world in the 1930s were minimal. There’s also the way that Temple of Doom isn’t really a prequel in the sense that I think of that word. It’s not an origin story, it doesn’t involve events that lead into those of Raiders or depict a story alluded to in that first Indiana Jones movie. Temple of Doom isn’t so much a prequel or sequel as simply an installment in an adventure series.

Roger Ebert, in his review at the time, called it “not so much a sequel as an equal.” He meant equal in all ways, having given the movie four stars, but I specifically like the word usage for its implication that it’s a movie that sits not really before or after but to the side. Yes, it is technically set prior to the action in Raiders, though not by that much (being in in 1935, the year before the year of Raiders, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a full 12 months nor as few as that), yet chronology is not very important with these two movies. Some argue that there is backward character development with Temple of Doom, but it’s not enough to make it anything other than the additional James Bond-inspired one-shot story it is. 

That’s something to envy in this era of sequels all being tied together so much that connective post-credits teasers are the norm and now titles are kind of leap-frogging their own movie to indicate where the series is headed in the future. Even James Bond is a lot more serialized than he was in the past, when George Lucas was taking a cue from the British spy franchise for his own series about a globe-trotting hero. There might be some hope on the horizon that the Star Wars spin-offs are truly one-offs rather than stories directly spun from the plot of Episode VII or any other. I would love for them to not even care too much about continuity, just as they’re ignoring expanded universe canon, regardless of whether the fans would be stinking sticklers about it.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade 06

Lucasfilm, Ltd.

Of course, Temple of Doom wasn’t enough of a success at the time that the idea of an independently existing story seemed like a good idea, in retrospect. So, when Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade arrived five years later, almost exactly (today is the 30th anniversary of Temple of Doom and tomorrow is the 25th anniversary of Last Crusade), it was a lot more like Raiders. Nazis were the bad guys, a Biblical artifact was the MacGuffin and supporting characters Marcus Brody and Sallah returned, as well. At the same time, though, it works as an independently existing 007-ish story, too. There’s a new Bond girl type love interest/femme fatale and a one-off plot that doesn’t link too much to the events of Raiders. Like Temple of Doom, Last Crusade can be watched before the prior two installments without anything being missed.

Last Crusade also satisfies the interests of a prequel in a way that Temple of Doom doesn’t (and didn’t need to) with a short, sweet prologue giving us a young Indy and an easy origin story for the way he dresses and why he’s armed with a whip. He’s no superhero and there’s no need to explain how he got any powers, but that sequence could still be sufficient inspiration for how comic book movies ought to do origin stories these days, especially for reboots. Eventually it’d be nice to get a Spider-Man or Fantastic Four movie that just is, the way any random comic book issue just is. Last Crusade‘s flashback prologue integrates the prequel within the sequel, a la The Godfather Part II, giving us no need for a full-on prequel in the traditional sense.

What these movies do, rather than play out like a trilogy the way Lucas’s other major property, Star Wars, does, is mimic a series of adventure novels. Like Star Wars, the Indiana Jones franchise was influenced by serials, but that influence is only felt within each movie itself, not as an overarching power. It’s interesting that even when the franchise went to television that the series wasn’t in serial form, either. Like the movies, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles bounces around a bit in time, even if primarily within only a few years. Sometimes the TV show acted as origin story prequel stuff, like how we see an early encounter with the Peacock’s Eye diamond from Temple of Doom and also more general development of character and relationships. Otherwise it was separate enough to ignore or watch without familiarity with the movies. It’s what some of us would wish from modern television shows, particularly any related to movie franchises, as in the case of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Rather than a reject, Christopher Campbell is a film school dropout. But he has since gotten a master’s degree in cinema studies and has been blogging about movies since 2005. Earlier, he reviewed films for a zine (a what?) that you could buy at Tower Records (a what?). He is married with two children.

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