Indiana Jones and the Devil of Expectations
What do people want? What did people expect? When will it end?
NOTE: the following piece contains spoilers for the Indiana Jones film series, including Dial of Destiny.
After 42 years and numerous stops-and-starts, Indiana Jones has finally gone on his final cinematic adventure. That’s not to say we won’t continue to see Indiana Jones in some form or fashion, but for all intents and purposes, the character has finally retired, and director/co-writer James Mangold sends him off in fine fashion.
Mangold is a filmmaker obsessed with misfits and people who don’t belong, a theme that peppers his entire filmography. Cop Land is a searing indictment of cops who police jurisdictions they don’t actually live in. Girl, Interrupted examines what can happen to maladjusted youth who can’t seem to find their place among their peers. Kate and Leopold is a story about a man literally in the wrong time period. Walk the Line chronicles the story of Johnny Cash, a musician who like most of the greats, was always out-of-steps with his contemporaries. His remake of 3:10 to Yuma is itself an oddball, a rip-roaring Western road trip made at cusp of the burgeoning digital era. Ford vs. Ferrari takes on two mavericks of motor racing as they strive to show everyone they can do the seemingly impossible. And, of course, his excellent Wolverine chapters highlight just how isolated and alone a man who lives forever can truly be.
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Naturally, audiences and so-called pundits took Mangold’s hiring for Indiana Jones in the most superficial sense possible: the man who killed Logan was going to kill Indy. Mangold apparently only makes movies about old mavericks having one last hurrah before going gently into that good night. It’s a nonsensical take, and Dial of Destiny bears that out. Indy himself seems to want to die, eventually pleading with Fiona Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge, sharp as always) to let him die in the past because he doesn’t see a need for himself in the present. He’s forcefully brought back to reality, closing out his on-screen legacy in the arms of the only person who ever mattered to him: Marion.
In this way, Dial of Destiny is arguably unnecessary, as Indy ends up largely in the same place he was at the end of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull — he has his wife, he has a child of sorts, and he’s finally achieved some measure of happiness and finality. But it’s not the destination, right? It’s the journey, and the journey Mangold puts Indy on in Dial of Destiny doesn’t really deconstruct the character. Rather, it shades him, giving him color and nuance that the Spielberg films simply weren’t particularly interested in because Spielberg wasn’t making those movies.
The original trilogy consists of superhero stories: by day, a meek archaeology professor, but by night, he transforms into an adventure-seeking daredevil who’ll do whatever it takes to save priceless pieces of history from those who would destroy, sell, or use them. In each film, Indy’s faith in the reality of our world is tested and shattered, as he discovers that no matter how much knowledge he amasses and how many places on Earth he travels to, there will always be things simply beyond his grasp.
Then there’s the black sheep of the family: Crystal Skull, which brings Indy into the space age by showing him how the past and the future are irrevocably linked. (Something Dial of Destiny also does, albeit more explicitly.) Spielberg turned down Dial of Destiny because he felt he had nothing left to say with Indiana Jones, meaning that, presumably, he had something to say with Crystal Skull. And he does: the future is coming, technology is advancing faster than we can keep up with it, and the only thing that can get us through the uncertainty ahead is our family. Hold your loved ones close, take care of your children, and never forget who you are.
With Dial of Destiny, Mangold adds a new layer of depth to Indiana Jones, turning his story into one of a man who’s not necessarily looking for adventure or antiquities, but is in constant search of his own place among the trinkets of the past that he holds in such high regard. There’s an obvious meta-commentary there — all directors seek to know their place among the greats, and Mangold taking the reins from a bona fide genius like Spielberg almost certainly weighed on his every creative decision — but that’s somewhat facile. It’s more interesting to read the film as Henry Jones, Jr. finally realizing that the only place he’s ever belonged was right here and now, among people who truly love and appreciate him, and with whom he’ll be happier than he could ever be with lifeless objects that belonged to people thousands of years ago.
In that sense, the fan reaction to Dial of Destiny and Crystal Skull is heavy with irony. The fans never know what they want, and that’s nothing new. Too much of their time is spent obsessing over things: why this movie didn’t do this, why that movie chose to do that. Missing the forest for the trees, they don’t see that the movie is telling them to let it go. Take the story for what it is, not what you want it to be. Go for the ride, be part of the adventure, and come out on the other side a little older and a little wiser. And if you can’t, then at least go spend time with people.
I liked Dial of Destiny. I think it’s a good Indy adventure, and if it feels less than spectacular, it’s because of the inevitable sense of deflation that comes whenever something this beloved and long-lasting finally ends. It’s what No Time to Die wanted but mostly failed to be: a celebration of an icon, putting him through his paces and giving him a definitive end that’s nevertheless hopeful and optimistic, not belabored and exhausting. Not everything in Dial of Destiny works, but the plusses far outweigh the negatives.
This isn’t so much a review of the movie, but a desperate plea for people to at least give it a chance. And if you’re one of those who just doesn’t care anymore — and believe me, I empathize; that feeling has set in for me with other properties — then please don’t make the mistake of confusing ambivalence with antagonism. It’s OK not to care; it’s not OK to hate. There’s just no reason to.