Of Bond, Batmobiles and Bullwhips
The dark new breed of pulp heroes — and why the latest Indiana Jones reminds us that Raiders of the Lost Ark is still the greatest action–adventure ever
From a Catholic World Report article
By Steven D. Greydanus
James Bond is back. Quantum of Solace, opening in theaters this month, is the 22nd film in the official Bond series, not counting a few stray independent productions. More notably, Quantum of Solace represents the second installment in a bold new direction for James Bond, a direction begun with the previous film, Casino Royale (2006). Eschewing the tongue-in-cheek irony and winking bawdiness of previous incarnations, the new Bond (played in both films by Daniel Craig) is callous, ruthless and cold.
Batman is also back — and, like James Bond, the Dark Knight is darker than ever. Coming to DVD and Blu-ray on December 9, The Dark Knight is easily the year’s biggest hit, and, like Quantum of Solace, follows a ground-breaking predecessor, Batman Begins (2005), in charting a dark new direction for an established hero. More than one critic has compared The Dark Knight to The Godfather Part II. These are films for adults, with a moral ambiguity startling in what are essentially pulp adventure movies.
Indeed, there is room to wonder whether the protagonists are still truly heroes at all. I would say that The Dark Knight’s Batman, though compromised, remains a hero, though others may disagree. As for James Bond, I’m not sure he was ever really a hero to begin with; the new films are simply franker about issues that earlier films winked at. We may identify with Bond, as we identify with Michael Corleone in the Godfather films, because it’s his story and we see what he goes through. But we don’t idolize him in the adolescent way that we might have earlier incarnations — which, in a way, is a good thing.
All of this is fairly new territory in a genre traditionally dominated by the escapist entertainment that has been Hollywood’s bread and butter for some three decades. Michael Corleone’s moral trajectory in The Godfather is emblematic of the gritty, sophisticated Hollywood cinema of the late 1960s and early 1970s, a period usually regarded as antithetical to the nostalgic popcorn blockbusters dominating Hollywood in the wake of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Movies like Die Hard, Independence Day and Pirates of the Caribbean may do well what they do, but the style of moviemaking they represent hasn’t normally been known for its artistic daring and moral seriousness.
By rights, pulp heroes like Batman and James Bond belong to this world of escapism, not the world of The Godfather. Bond was even one of the original inspirations for Indiana Jones. (“I’ve got something better than James Bond” was how Lucas pitched the character to Steven Spielberg.) Now, though, the boundaries are becoming less clear.
Action thrillers eschew simple moral verities for tough questions and grey areas. Creative filmmakers are pushing the limits of what is expected or possible in a genre film. Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army is as visionary (and demented) as his acclaimed Pan’s Labyrinth. The Jason Bourne films find redemption only through an angst-filled journey of self-doubt, with ferocious action sequences anchored by a subtext of thoughtful humanism. In a completely different genre, Pixar has increasingly brought astonishing sophistication and daring to the world of family entertainment, not only with this summer’s Wall‑E but also in recent efforts like Ratatouille and The Incredibles.
The popcorn blockbuster will never die, of course. If anything, the nostalgia market is bigger than ever; we even have nostalgia for nostalgia, with 1980s popcorn franchises returning to the big screen for new adventures: two more Terminator films, a fourth Die Hard, a fourth Rambo, a sixth Rocky, and so on.
Coming anywhere from a dozen to a score of years after their most recent predecessors, these latter-day installments have a somewhat apocryphal feel. With the passage of time, we come to feel that the series belongs to the past, and a sequel at a sufficient remove is no longer truly a sequel.
Then again, few if any of these franchises was ever really of a piece with the original film that inspired the sequels to begin with. A dramatic rule of thumb holds that a story should be about the most important event in the protagonist’s life. Films like the original Rocky, The Terminator and First Blood arguably do this. Once such a defining story has been told, anything else will almost necessarily be anticlimactic. Do the Rocky sequels add to the original, or do they diminish it? Did any of John McClane’s subsequent exploits ever rival that terrible, unforgettable night at the Nakatomi Plaza locking wits with Hans Gruber?
A few iconic heroes, like James Bond and Batman, may be larger than any one adventure, any one film, even any one actor. They can be recast, reimagined, created anew for each generation. Other heroes, though, are defined by what happens to them in a single crucial episode, and no sequel can ever live up to the original. In fact, in a strange way, the latter-day sequels with their historical distance may be an asset as well as a limitation. With a bona fide sequel, we want more of the same; with these recent films we know it can’t be the same. Sequels ask: “What happened next?” With these latter-day homages, the question is: “Where are they now?”
Not incidentally, this summer also saw a fourth entry in the 1980s-era franchise that arguably did more than any other to give shape to modern-day Hollywood escapism. The sequel, recently released on DVD, is Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and the original film, possibly greatest and most influential action–adventure film of all time, is Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Along with Star Wars, Raiders essentially inaugurated the whole popcorn-blockbuster genre that gluts the summer market every year. Yet while Star Wars is widely credited (or blamed) with returning fantasy and nostalgia to the Hollywood mainstream, and Spielberg’s Jaws is sometimes cited as the first modern blockbuster, it was their collaboration on Raiders that established the template for future excess.
What made Raiders so influential was simply that it seemed easier to copy than Star Wars. Star Wars set the agenda, but Raiders provided the template. Despite its sci-fi trappings and technical achievement, Star Wars was too close to myth and fairy tale, a form Hollywood never had much of a feel for — as subsequent efforts like Dragonslayer and Lucas’s own Willow and Laybrinth bore out. (It took Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings to finally give the genre its due.) Few sci-fi films after Star Wars (Alien, Blade Runner, the Star Trek films) show much sign of thematic (as opposed to technical) Star Wars influence. (A few exceptions — The Last Starfighter, Flight of the Navigator — weren’t very successful.)
Raiders, on the other hand, suggested a formula other filmmakers could replicate, or borrow elements to mix and match: a rugged but not invulnerable hero in exotic locales, barely surviving one hideous threat only to be confronted with another; an ancient treasure or some extraordinary phenomenon, possibly involving taboos, curses or other paranormal elements; screwball-style romantic tension with the leading lady; villains meeting horrible deaths.
From Romancing the Stone to Spielberg’s own Jurassic Park, from Lara Croft to National Treasure, from The Mummy to Pirates of the Caribbean, the influence of Lucas and Spielberg’s classic entertainment is everywhere. Yet, going on thirty years later, scarcely any of those imitators come close to even rivaling the original. Almost without exception, they’re more or less disposable also-rans in the shadow of a masterpiece.
That includes those imitators that happen to have the name “Indiana Jones” in the title and key filmmakers on both sides of the camera in common. As with Die Hard, among others, there was never a persuasive series there. There was only Raiders of the Lost Ark, followed by a couple of Indiana Jones flicks. There was a kind of ironic symbolism in the revisionistic DVD packaging that retitled the original film Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark: It was an effort to suggest that the original was more like the sequels than it actually was.
Ironically, it turns out that what made Raiders special was even harder to replicate than the Star Wars magic. Few would question that the second Star Wars movie, The Empire Strikes Back, is equal or superior to the original, but Indiana Jones never came close to matching his first and greatest adventure.
In no small degree, this is because what made Raiders special was not just the imitation-ready components, but the motif of awe of biblical mystery, of fear and trembling of venturing where angels fear to tread. Crystal skulls, sankara stones and even the Holy Grail — an ethereal property the filmmakers seemed to have no clear idea how to approach, as they certainly knew what to do with the ark of the covenant — never brought us to the mountaintop again. And the same is true of Raiders’ countless imitators.
Not that Christian imagery is entirely lacking in more recent popcorn entertainment. The 2004 comic-book movie Hellboy, for instance, made extensive use of rosaries, holy water, relics and other sacramentals in the fight against the forces of darkness. Christian imagery can also be found, though less effectively used, in similar but more problematic films like Constantine and Ghost Rider.
On the other hand, the more creatively satisfying sequel, this year’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army, substantially diminishes these elements in favor of mythological influences. If the recent trend of more artistically sophisticated interpretations of pulp iconography continues, it will be interesting to see whether or how religious themes and imagery appear in such films.
The 2003 X-Men sequel X2 could be a hopeful harbinger. The first two X‑Men films, directed by Bryan Singer, were among the early signs of a more mature pulp cinema, eschewing the camp backbeat of earlier Superman and Batman movies as well as the glossy stylizations of the three Spider‑Man films, among others.
Among X2’s large ensemble cast is a character named Nightcrawler, a blue-skinned outcast whose Catholic faith figures prominently in his characterization. Nightcrawler prays frequently (the rosary, Psalm 23, the Our Father), and tells another character that he pities those who fear his strange appearance, since “most people will never know anything beyond what they see with their own eyes.” Told that anger can help one survive, he replies, “So can faith.”
In a more allegorical vein, the 2006 film Superman Returns drew on the implicit Christological resonances, deliberately emphasized in the original 1978 film, of the comic-book tale of a father in the heavens sending his only son to earth, a godlike being who becomes a kind of savior. The latter-day sequel raises the question whether the jaded, cynical modern world still wants or needs a savior, a Superman.
This new breed of pulp fantasy isn’t limited to simple escapism. As The Dark Knight above all demonstrated, it is capable of becoming something more complex and challenging — something more rewarding, more problematic or even both at the same time.
There will never be another Raiders, just as there will never be another Citizen Kane. But innovative filmmakers seeking to tell new kinds of stories will continue to find ways of using genres — and images — that connect us to our past.