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.
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.
Among the many reasons that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feels out of place within the franchise is the way it doesn’t simply give us a new installment of Indy’s adventures. It’s a continuation sequel, linking back to Raiders especially for connections that more cater to the nostalgic desires of the audience than for good narrative purpose. That’s why a prior love interest was brought back and why there was reference to the Ark of the Covenant, but it’s also why the movie comes across as a reunion special answering “where are they now?” type questions and not a movie that works on its own as an answer to “what’s an adventure that Indy had later in life?”
There are some movie franchises that are close to what the Indiana Jones series did initially. Once the X-Men producers got over the idea to literally do “Origins” spin-offs, they’ve had better luck with having The Wolverine be a real one-off adventure, one that has a backstory prologue like Last Crusade. And X-Men: First Class was redone out of the planned Magneto Origins prequel and wound up working better for its isolated storyline than whatever links it has to the other movies. The latest, X-Men: Days of Future Past relies a lot more on familiarity with the rest of the series (or in linking to it via lame reminder flashback clips), but at its heart is a singular mission-oriented storyline, too.
Few loved The Bourne Legacy as I did, but that movie was a new breed of sequel that now seems the start of a trend towards spin-offs and one-offs. In addition to Star Wars, other franchises looking at branching off include Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, Twilight and probably anything else where the source material ran out or the main stars want to bail and the studio wants to keep going. It all makes Halloween III: Season of the Witch seem very ahead of its time. But spin-offs aren’t quite the same as what Indiana Jones did. For that we need new adventure of Jason Bourne, Jack Sparrow, Harry Potter, etc. that is fresh and separated from the events of the other movies.
Very few movie franchises work the way Raiders, Temple of Doom and Last Crusade do, if any can even be said to have done so with three titles. Maybe the Riddick trilogy? There’s almost a sign of it in the Die Hard legacy, mainly because that specific series and its copycats were mostly working with one-off novels turned into sequels for existing franchises. Usually they wound up coming back around or going off the deep end, though. I love this relevant excerpt from a Cracked list and its example of how Under Siege 2: Dark Territory and its ilk did the one-off adventure thing with ultimately disastrous results:
What’s especially odd is that, around this time, Speed was in need of a sequel, which meant it needed a script about a fast-moving vehicle, explosions and terrorists. Dark Territory would have fit, but it was turned into a sequel to Under Siege instead. This left Speed 2 in need of a script, so they used what was originally supposed to be the script for the third Die Hard movie, about a boat being hijacked. This obviously left Die Hard 3 in need of a script, so they gave Bruce Willis a sassy black partner and used the script that was originally going to be the fourth Lethal Weapon movie. This obviously left Lethal Weapon 4 without a script, but apparently they went ahead and shot that movie without one.
Why do I focus this discussion on the first couple Indiana Jones sequels, though, rather than the whole of the Bond series? It is true that we can learn some of this from 007, plus there’s the valuable lesson in how a franchise can recast its hero without necessarily being a reboot – something that’s been suggested and then rumored for Indy before. Well, the thing to learn here is partly that another franchise besides Bond did it well, but also there are some distinctions between the two where I believe Indiana Jones is the better model. The old Bond movies especially were a bit too unrelated, with only minor continuity flowing through the series.
Indy is more confined to a timeline in the form of history and period setting, and if you want to give a chronology you can do so better with Indy than 007. Where I look to the Indiana Jones movies is in their ability to jump around and be self-contained but always be centered on a character who is consistent in personality and biography (one reason I can’t accept John McClane enough as fitting this idea anymore). With Bond, there’s enough reason for fans to think there are multiple 007s rather than one single man named James Bond.
So, there’s your latest challenge, Hollywood. Stop just mining from literary series that flow from one book to another and give us more well-developed heroes who we want to simply follow on different adventures or missions and get to know bits and pieces of here and there. Maybe it seems less fruitful in a business sense to not have that need in audiences to return for every next episode, but it does mean you can have less successful installments and make a more dissociative return with the next one rather than giving up or having to reboot or worrying about what a disappointment like Amazing Spider-Man 2 means for your long-term plans.