So much excitement in the media about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the first Indiana Jones movie for 19 years, should not make us forget that it was the first movie in the series, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), even more than it was Superman or Star Wars three and four years earlier, which killed off the old movie hero. The Star Wars movies, though revolutionary in other ways, belonged to an already-recognized movie genre, science fiction. And the "Superman" films, also of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, amounted to a straightforward translation of the ethos and the imagery of the comic book direct to the silver screen. But Raiders represented the main-streaming of the comic book hero — from which there has since proven to be no return.
Indiana didn’t have exotic ray-guns and robots to make him special, nor outlandish costumes and a supernatural pedigree. He was outwardly a man among men, just like the movie heroes of old when played by John Wayne or Gary Cooper. But it quickly became apparent that, underneath that fedora and leather jacket, there beat the heart of a superhero — someone whose adventures could not have taken place in the world as we know it but only the comic book world formerly confined, cinematically, to Saturday morning serials. Since then the cartoon hero has proven to be a particularly stubborn growth in the cinematic garden, a hearty weed which hoovers up all the nutrients and starves more delicate flora. He is the kudzu of the movie culture, the zebra mussel that has taken over a whole entertainment ecosystem. Today, apart from anti-heroes and victim heroes, it’s cartoon heroes all the way. And now we welcome back the prototype of the cartoon hero if he were a hero indeed. Perhaps we’ve forgotten what real heroes look like.
Of course, this process has been speeded up by the demographics of the movie business. Since Indy first cracked his whip, the flight of adults from the multiplex has been remarkable. The advent of the home VCR and DVD and, now, the high-tech "home theatre" has kept grown-ups in their living rooms while pre-adolescents and early teens predominate at movie houses. For them, movies provide a public place to gather and meet friends — and to watch comic-book style pictures untroubled by any awareness that there were ever any other kind. Meanwhile, mom and dad back at home are left to wonder why there isn’t anything to watch on their big screen TVs and expensive sound systems.
Their kids’ dollars are more powerful than theirs in the movie-marketplace. The kids are the ones going to first-run movies, not their parents, and they’re going more than once if they like something. Hollywood naturally concludes that the kinds of things that appeal to 13-year olds — such as power-fantasies, explosions, cool gadgets, fart jokes, blood and guts, and moral simplicity — are the way to go to maximize box office returns. Later, the ‘rents will watch it on DVD because there’s nothing else to watch — although, like Tony Soprano, they may wonder from time to time whatever happened to Gary Cooper. Today, the taste of the American 8th grader has become the world’s taste. The Crystal Skull — the name says everything you need to know about its cartoonishness — opened around the world on the same day, yesterday, so as to minimize the possibilities for piracy. But piracy would not be a problem if there were not millions and millions of grown-ups eager to get Indy into their home theatres.
You often hear it said that those pre-1970s movies with the old-fashioned heroes were simplistic in their reduction of the world to black-and-white. In fact, this is much more characteristic of the cartoon Nazis — or, rather daringly in the new movie, Communists — of the Indiana Jones franchise. But if you go back and look at the best John Wayne movies — The Searchers, say, or Stagecoach or Red River or Fort Apache or The Sands of Iwo Jima or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance — they are full of difficult moral choices. The hero fails at least as often as he succeeds and he sometimes dies. It’s a lot like real life. We admire the John Wayne hero just because he’s not a Superman — or an Indiana Jones . Eighth-graders were once thought to be not too young to admire such heroes; now nostalgists of 50 are not thought to be too old for Indiana Jones’s cartoon adventures.
Yet, after all, what are their choices in the heroic line? The era of Indy has shown that comic book heroes have put an end to the grown-up kind. Writing in the British Daily Telegraph, Andrew O’Hagan deplores what he sees as the snobbery at work among unnamed "critics" who have found fault with poor old Indiana merely on the grounds that he is so popular. On his view, either you’re on board with Indy-mania or you’re probably one of the pointy-headed brigade who liked Lars von Trier’s ghastly Dancer in the Dark. Once a critic might have attempted to make a distinction between "popular" and "vulgar," but that no longer appears to be an option. So there’s another critical tool gone. But what the heck? Mr O’Hagan’s article ends by observing that "the world is big enough for The Simpsons and King Lear." Well, you’d think so, wouldn’t you? But in practice this proves not to be the case. Where is the King Lear for our times? Where, for that matter, is The Searchers for our times? My conclusion: bad art, by which I mean childish fantasy for adults, drives out good.