Indiana Jones and the Death of Magic

Indiana Jones and the Death of Magic

Disclaimer: I don’t usually write movie reviews. I’m not very good at it. There are people out there who do a much better job. All the same, here’s my attempt.

Disney and the Mangling of Lucasfilm IP

The past eight years have been anything but kind to the nostalgic IP of the 80s and 90s.

Although opinions vary depending on who you ask, the general impression I get from people (and a sentiment I share) is that Disney has all but destroyed Lucasfilm’s intellectual property—to such a brutal extent that I would now entertain a conspiracy theory suggesting that it was all part of Disney’s deep-rooted revenge plot to brutalize the franchise it wished it had thought of, to begin with.

I won’t repeat how I and others feel about the Star Wars sequel trilogy except to say that I’ll likely never watch any of them again, and for me, that’s the litmus for whether I think a movie is any good.

But I admit there is a high probability I’m out of touch with what appeals to most people. For example, I thought Rogue One was a steaming slice of crap—mainly because if you hold up a freeze-frame of the movie’s protagonist, Jyn Erso, alongside a faceless slab of moldy cardboard, I would have difficulty telling the two apart. But I realize that for most Star Wars fans, all that matters is whether Glup Shitto makes his cameo. So, what do I know?

There is another…

Still, for me, the last strike was how Disney portrayed Obi-Wan Kenobi as an incompetent, bumbling fool whose lack of intentionality would make even Winnie the Pooh shake his head in disapproval. Oh, bother, indeed.

Or, I thought this was the last strike. But that’s because I forgot what many have already pointed out—there was one final IP for Disney to mangle and leave bleeding in the street. ‘Or, I thought this was the last strike. But that’s because I forgot what many have already pointed out—there was one final IP for Disney to mangle and leave bleeding in the street.

As Yoda famously says to Obi-Wan in The Empire Strikes Back, “No, there is another.”And what’s his name? Indiana f#@%ing Jones.

Indiana Jones and the Dole-out of Distended Plot

I’m not sure what frustrates me more—that the filmmakers thought Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny was good enough to distribute or that movie-goers feel the need to affirm it because it gave them their much-needed dose of member-berries.

But again, I’m usually interested in things that most people don’t care about, like bigger ideas around magic and belief that explode from the original, Spielberg-directed Indiana Jones trilogy and reach out to you across the screen, reminding you of something transcendent, seemingly out of reach, and yet undeniably real. 

“What are you on about now, Adam?”

The magical, the spiritual, and the supernatural

Raiders of the Lost Ark

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy starts his journey by telling Marcus, concerned about the Ark’s mysterious secrets, “What are you trying to do, scare me? You sound like my mother… I don’t believe in magic, a lot of superstitious hocus pocus. I’m going after a find of incredible historical significance. You’re talking about the bogeyman.”

And how does Raiders end? It ends with Indy telling Marion to keep her eyes shut—because it’s real. It’s all real. The stories are true. The Ark has power. Whether for good or bad, the God of the Old Testament exists.

Indy’s humility before the unknown and the unknowable is the only thing that saves him and the love of his life from certain and horrifying obliteration. In story-telling parlance, we call that a character arc.

The Temple of Doom

In The Temple of Doom, the arch-villain, Mola Ram, tells Indy: “You will become a true believer… We will overrun the Muslims. Then the Hebrew God will fall. And then the Christian God will be cast down and forgotten.”

What a fascinating thing for an arch-villain to acknowledge—that his primary ambition is to overthrow the God of Abraham. And the only thing standing in his way? Indiana Jones, the unbeliever.

(Modern Hollywood, especially Disney, has more in common with Mola Ram than it might be willing to admit.)

The Last Crusade

In The Last Crusade, we see Indy exploring his father’s ransacked home, with echoes and images of Grail lore scattered about the place.

With John Williams’ haunting score setting the tone for the rest of the film, Indy, with deep conviction, asks Marcus Brody, “Do you believe, Marcus?” Framed behind him and a little to the right rests a painting of Christ at his crucifixion, the blood from his pierced side flowing into the fabled cup.

Marcus, ever the contemplative, replies: “The search for the cup of Christ is the search for the divine in all of us. But if you want facts, Indy, I have none to give you. At my age, I’m prepared to take a few things on faith.” 

In the climax, the story’s principal villain (and fool), Donovan, shoots Henry Jones Sr. and tells Indy, “The healing power of the Grail is the only thing that can save your father now. The time has come to ask yourself what you believe.” Queue John Williams’ signature, haunting theme yet again as Indiana Jones must now approach the first test and, to survive it, truly know for himself that “only the penitent man will pass.”

Strangely dressed for a knight…

Indy’s path to the Grail echoes the path to Christ: penitence in God’s presence, acknowledgment of God’s name (identity), and the leap of faith required to transcend the chasm of separation between God and humankind.

Regardless of your spiritual beliefs, one thing is certain. This definitive and daring religious symbolism would not pass in today’s Hollywood. Yet, it is the path Indy must take on his journey from unbelief to belief. And it runs through the heart of those original stories like a vein of untapped Mithril. It’s also why The Last Crusade is one of the greatest of the series, even if it does not quite surpass Raiders in terms of sheer action and suspense.

Indiana Jones and the Call of the Divine

In case you missed it, all three original Indiana Jones films: 

  1. Acknowledge the reality and power of the divine.
  2. Frame their villains as forces trying to appropriate the divine for their own malicious cause (or, in the case of Mola Ram, eradicate it in favor of death worship).
  3. Feature Indiana Jones as fate’s chosen champion in the cause of the same mysterious divinity, regardless of whether he believes in that silly stuff.

Fast forward to Dial of Destiny, where the filmmakers go out of their way to introduce a misdirect in the film’s riveting intro (I give the intro props for echoing the original trilogy). That misdirect is a relic presumed to be the tip of the spear that pierced Christ’s side. However, on closer inspection, it turns out to be a fake, at which point the film introduces us to a new relic: the mysterious dial of Archimedes, also known as the Antikythera. As if to set us straight, we hear the villain say something about how “math” is more powerful than superstition.

It’s almost like the writers are trying to tell us something—as if they’re trying to tell us that the time of framing Indiana Jones in a spiritual or biblical context is a thing of the much-to-be-derided, politically-incorrect past.

Let’s keep it clean

From that point forward, the movie leaves the spiritual element of Indy’s prior films in the dust, never acknowledging it again except when Indy tells his god-daughter, “It’s not so much what you believe. It’s how hard you believe it.” I don’t know about you, but I love it when a story takes the safe, middle-of-the-road position. It keeps things vague enough for us all to have the same mediocre film-going experience.

All that “Christ stuff” was a bit heavy-handed, anyway. Math is cooler (I guess?)—except that the movie never explains much of the math. And for a story that emphasizes the brilliance and genius of Archimedes, it ironically seems to lack a grounding in logical plot development and suspenseful exposition that the three original films didn’t lack, for all their hocus pocus. 

I understand the writers’ aim may have been to try something different, and I salute that effort, but the result was shallow and uneventful. And you already know why I think that’s the case.

Dial of Destiny also dispenses with the not-so-spiritual hallmarks of an Indiana Jones movie.

In terms of what else it lacks outside the spiritual component, I have a short list of additional gripes:

  • Indy always fights a guy bigger than him.* Even Crystal Skull remained true to this signature, recurring action piece. In Dial of Destiny, Disney subverts our expectations by having the boring tag-along kid trap the big man underwater. And that’s that, as they say.
    • *I know The Last Crusade is considered the exception, but that was because it already featured an intense top-of-the-thundering-tank fistfight between Indy and General Vogel (Michael Byrne).
  • There were zero booby traps. Indy has to escape from pretty alarming traps in all three original films. Not so in Dial of Destiny, where it’s an overlong chase, a meandering dive, or a plodding walk-slash-climb to each quest item. Looking for that signature “We—are going—to die!” moment? Re-watch Temple of Doom.
  • In the original trilogy, Spielberg rooted his action sequences in suspense—you were genuinely afraid for Indy’s life (or the life of one of his allies). Although you don’t often hear people acknowledge it, Spielberg was a master of suspense-based action sequences. (Tom Cruise is the only other person in Hollywood today who comes close.)

What else have we lost?

In the original films, Spielberg was a master of framing scenes of dialog in which multiple characters would engage with each other, much like they would on a stage, in a way that modern filmmaking has abandoned.

As we descend further into the abysmal, churning depths of shorter and shorter attention spans, à la TikTok and YouTube shorts, it saddens me to think that the art of holding a frame on multiple characters is a thing of the not-too-distant past. But what upset me most about Dial of Destiny was how the writers chose to end it. Don’t mistake me—it was a happy ending (I guess). But it was weak and tired, like an eighty-year-old man. And compared to The Last Crusade’sfinal shot, where Harrison Ford and Sean Connery ride off into the sunset, it was an ending I could have done without.

What can I say? I guess I’m tired of seeing Hollywood portray my childhood heroes as worn-down, dying old men. I choose the Indy riding off into the sunset over the Indy crying in his crappy NY apartment any day of the week.

Still, even this has its own poetry to it, for just as the original Raiders of the Lost Ark poster advertised itself as “the return of the great adventure”, it stands to reason that Dial of Destiny can label itself as the slow, uneventful death of the same.

What does the death of magic mean for the future?

I don’t know. Also, I’m not convinced that the magic is completely dead, so much as it is just changing hands (sorry, Disney, but you’ve lost it). But I can say this: the safe, middle-of-the-road approach to telling stories for the lowest common denominator won’t sustain a studio, and it won’t sustain an industry, either.

And then, there’s the problem in the opposite direction, where a studio tries to do something bold and daring and, as a result, [SPOILER ALERT] decides it’s a good idea to kill off James Bond. If that’s not a sign of the times, I don’t know what is.

Despite my disappointment with the present Hollywood machine, I’m pretty sure the films of Denis Villeneuve, Christopher Nolan, and Wes Anderson will keep me returning to the theater for many years. So, at least, that’s something to be hopeful for. But even these artists only have so many years ahead, and the need for original, well-crafted stories is as urgent as ever.

I’ll say it again. We have a clear and present need for new blood, stories, and legends. Because Disney, Warner Bros., and Universal will continue to milk their life-support IPs until their dying gasp.

Or, maybe the present state of movies is exactly what the new blood wants. If that’s the case, so be it. I always knew my days were numbered, anyway.


Speaking of Villeneuve, I had not felt in a movie what I felt in Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring (at 13 years old) until I saw Villeneuve’s adaptation of Dune in 2021. Suffice it to say I cannot wait for Dune: Part Two

Long live the fighters.

Published by

Adam Burdeshaw


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