Why Indiana Jones Works

Maddd Science

Fun fact: My Indiana Jones newsletter remains to this day the one that lost me the most subscribers (check it out! Maybe I'll lose you too). Without any data, I can only assume it may have been because I spent the whole newsletter explaining that everyone's favorite adventurer can be inferred to be a stauatory rapist by the explicit intent of his creators.

One thing I might not have made clear in that email: I don't think this is a reason to reject the franchise, which is easily one of my favorites. It is an example of how sexism sneaks into the fabric of pop culture, though. I'm a fan of critiquing the things I love. You're not going to see me go deep on 1984's Dreamscape, even though it features its hero using the power of dreams to date rape his love interest, because the movie's kinda forgettable and no one cares about it. And at least with Indiana Jones, the creators were smart enough to leave the underage relationship vague enough that it's arguably not even canonically there and barely needs to be retconned away. (Not that there isn't plenty of very canonical sexisim in the franchise... here's a video on Harrison Ford's controlling on-screen persona.)

So this newsletter's about what makes Indiana Jones work so well that I feel like critiquing it in the first place. It does a lot of things right, but what makes it stand out to me is one key element: Physicality.

Indy's answers might be ingenious (Motorcyclist coming towards you? Grab a flagpole to joust with him), they might be stupidly simple (Giant boulder rolling towards you? Run really fast the other way), but they’re always physical.

Simple physics, cause-and-effect stuff, are always at play, and even simple gags rely on them to build a character: A Nazi looks through a periscope to laugh at Indy fighting above a tank, and then Indy kicks the periscope, making it swivel to clock the guy beneath him. The physical cause and effect track with the Nazi's laugh and immediate comeuppance.

Even the mythology of Indy’s world is physical. He’s always going after a single physical object. Meanwhile, the Christian God is so literal that when he tells you to be a “penitent man,” what he really means is that he’s installed giant wall buzzsaws that will decapitate anyone who doesn’t physically kneel down for him.

And the whole thing is great for a movie, of course, since it’s the epitome of visual storytelling. The best adventure movies keep up this trend, from Errol Flynn breaking his fall by dragging a knife down a ship sail to pretty much everything Jack Sparrow does. At the risk of stretching too much, my theory is that a sharp focus on physicality is what separates the successful Indiana Jones pastiches from the flops like that new Tomb Raider reboot.

Anyway, here's a fun article (that's not as combative as the title makes it sound):
'Indiana Jones' Has Aged Terribly
James Charisma, Vice

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) begins with the pursuit of a looted artifact: a gang of treasure hunters chase 13-year-old Indiana Jones on horseback and train to recover a stolen cross. According to the film’s version of history, this fictional “Cross of Coronado” is a jewel-encrusted cross that combines a gold alloy crucifix from the 7th or 8th century with a piece of the True Cross upon which Jesus Christ was crucified. It dates back to the last emperor of the Byzantine Empire, Justinian II, and bears a nearly identical inscription to that of the real-life Crux Vaticana, currently kept at St. Peter’s Basilica. In the movie, the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés gave the cross to Francisco Vázquez de Coronado in 1520. Some time later, it was boxed and buried in Utah until being dug up by treasure hunters and stolen by an adolescent Indiana Jones, who is then forced to surrender the artifact back to the hunters. 26 years later, we learn that Jones is still chasing the cross; when he finally secures the object, he ultimately donates it to the National Museum of Natural History in Washington.

Here's a great look at the blocking in one scene from Raiders.

And here's a collection of punch noises, also great.

So I originally started this newsletter a few years ago thinking it could be an easy way to promote my articles, which I really haven't done that much. Instead, the reverse happened: Writing the newsletter has been a great way for me to come up with article ideas. I repurposed my rave review of Gideon the Ninth from this letter into a fun Forbes article complete with an author interview, and last month I was actually a paragraph deep into telling you folks about what a huge art auction said about collectors' love for sci-fi art when I realized I should just write an article on it. Here's that article.

A $2.4 Million Art Auction Hints At Collectors' Growing Interest In Retro Sci-Fi Art
Me, Forbes

Heritage Auctions just had a good week: The Dallas, Texas-based auction house broke multiple records with the auction of a science fiction cover art and book collection that exceeded its pre-auction estimate by more than $1 million to arrive at a total of $2,407,620 and achieve a rare 100% sell-through rate. [...]

What's driving the surging sci-fi illustration market, in Crain's estimate? Baby Boomer nostalgia. "I think it’s a function of the Baby Boomers who grew up with this stuff," he says. "Maybe they weren’t even collectors at time, in the ’60s, but once they became successful in their careers, they had money, [and] they realized, 'I can recapture these childhood memories, and here’s a piece of Jack Kirby art and I remember this cover when I was a kid.' I think so many of us realized the same thing and started desiring that stuff."

Here's a review of a Netflix show I hadn't heard of. The review starts out by explaining it's not that great a show, but then did a pretty good job of explaining why I'd like it anyway:

The Pulpy Origins of Netflix's 'Typewriter'
Thomas Connolly, Popmatters

More significantly, the storyline itself—with its emphasis on cursed objects, dramatic villains, and intrepid detectives—also bears certain hallmarks of Indian pulp fiction. Although pulp fiction still tends to be associated primarily with the US literary market in the early and mid-20th century, in fact many countries experienced a similar boom in cheap genre fiction, whether in the form of mass-produced paperback novels or pulp periodicals. In India, this boom can be traced to the 1970s, which saw a surge in such genres as detective and crime fiction, science fiction, and romance and domestic fiction.

I was literally just the other week telling a friend of mine that Succession is a comedy, and then second-guessing myself afterwards, since all TV shows have elements of both these days. Which is to say, this very good article came along at just the right time:

Is Succession a Comedy?
Kathryn VanArendonk, Vulture

The key to the show’s brutal sense of humor is right in the opening credits, which are full of self-serious clips from a privileged family’s past and present: Kennedy-esque vacation homes, dour children in formal wear, glassy skyscrapers and newspapers shuffling through printing machines. But in both seasons, the credits also feature brief shots from the cable-news channel owned by Waystar Royco. In season one, the most prominent chyron read, “Why Are So Many of Our Older Celebrities Dying?” In season two, it has been replaced with “Gender Fluid Illegals May Be Entering the Country ‘Twice.’” Underneath, there’s a scrolling report: “Senator Wants to Create ‘Supremer’ Court.”

Next Time on Maddd Science: Crime Tropes

Header image: “The Preacher,” by Daniel Williams.

Like this issue? Maybe forward it to someone you think would like it, too. My marketing budget just covers that and my twitter account. And if someone forwarded this to you, you can subscribe here!