Thursday, May 5, 2022

The Singularity of Indiana Jones' Success

With the fifth Indiana Jones film on its way (due out June 2023 according to the current plans) I find myself thinking yet again how one of the films that launched the Hollywood action-adventure blockbuster as we know it, while inspiring a certain amount of imitation, never really made its particular genre a staple of the form. In spite of Star Wars, really successful space operas never became all that numerous. (Avatar apart, how many really top-level hits of the kind are there? Certainly the Star Treks never came close to Star Wars as moneymakers.) And likewise the kind of period adventure the Indiana Jones films offer up remains identifiable mainly with . . . Indiana Jones. (After all, how many others can you name? Of the early '80s wave of imitators probably the biggest success was Romancing the Stone--but it was not a period piece at all, having a distinctly contemporary setting and as easily taken as a paramilitary adventure--a light-hearted Rambo--as an Indiana Jones-type piece.)

Looking back I suspect that the reason Indiana Jones-style period adventure never really became all that big a maker of hits is the same reason that space opera never became all that big a maker of hits--that an adventure in another period, like an adventure in another world, puts things at that much further of a remove from the audience's here and now. Assuming the audience is supposed to be interested in what is happening on the screen in a way deeper than purely neurological reaction to images as images in that way so critical to high concept, it is, in terms of the Goethe-Schiller way of understanding these things, "epic" when the audience today is overwhelmingly conditioned to (expect the "dramatic"--to expect to become intensely absorbed by something "relatable" rather than contemplating something they know to be "far, far away" from a distance. Hence the perennial superior salability of superhero stories--which have been a principal means by which space operas (Thor, Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain Marvel, the Avengers) and period adventures (Captain America, Wonder Woman) have managed to find audiences--but, I would argue, less consistently and easily than your friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man, who with the success of Spider-Man: No Way Home (which scored a nearly $2 billion take during a particularly intense period of the pandemic) has reaffirmed yet again his claim to being the superhero most consistently able to sell a movie all by himself.

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