Posted: 05/17/2008


Does Indiana Jones Qualify as a Superhero?

by Chris Wood

Exclusive: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull opens May 22nd, 2008

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The blockbuster movie season is upon us, and this season has no shortage of films that involve a superhero. Currently, Iron Man has been released and is enjoying much success. In addition, the next edition of the new Batman movie, Dark Knight, is due out; the revamped Incredible Hulk starring Ed Norton; Hellboy II; and Hancock, the Will Smith picture about a washed up superhero, will all be heating up the screens from June through September.

During the Memorial Day weekend, the long awaited and anticipated fourth installment of the Indiana Jones movies, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Chrystal Skull, will be released nationwide. Harrison Ford, who has reprised the role of Indy, is 66 years old. Nonetheless, the daring and amazing action sequences to be seen in the movie (from the glimpses shown in the trailers) do not belie that of a person his age. And for that, many would certainly give Mr. Ford superhero status. However, it is his character’s status that I would like to put to the test… the “Superhero Test.” Does Indiana Jones qualify as a superhero? I never gave it much thought before; however, there is evidence that I believe makes a very good case for the iconic character. So I thought I might try to prove my case to the masses and see if anyone cares to take a crack (by way of bullwhip is entirely up to you) at tackling this question, too.

A superhero has been defined as a fictional character “of unprecedented physical prowess dedicated to acts of derring-do (brave and heroic deeds) in the public interest,” in National Periodical Publications v. Empire Comics, New York Court of Appeals, April 24, 1954. And typically, one of the first superheroes who comes to mind is Superman. Though he really isn’t a man at all; he’s actually an alien from the planet Krypton who has superpowers (i.e., flight, super strength, seeing through walls, etc.), but he since he didn’t pronounce himself to be Superman, the Daily Planet and Lois Lane did, it can be an overlooked fact.

Nonetheless, the “man of steel” fits the bill as defined by the NY Court of Appeals case, being that he is a fictional character. It does not state that the character must be human. And the other portions of the definition fit like a skin tight blue and red outfit, cape and “to-die-for” boots, too. Unprecedented physical prowess, check—like the time he caught a falling Lois Lane in one arm and a crashing helicopter in the other. Dedicated to acts of derring-do in the public interest, check—like saving the United States from Zod and the other two outlaws from Krypton who try to take over Earth once freed from their Phantom Zone prison by a nuclear explosion in space (I hate it when that happens).

So when stacking Indiana Jones up against Superman, an immediate and noticeable difference is that Indiana Jones has no superpowers. He can’t fly, he can’t see through walls, and though just a guess, probably can’t sing or dance, either. However, there are a number of other individuals who have been characterized as superheroes and have no superpowers. Batman has no superpowers and neither does Iron Man. And going back to the NY Court of Appeals definition, a character needs to have physical prowess to be a superhero, which has two definitions: (1) superior skill or ability; and/or (2) superior strength, courage, or daring, especially in battle. So while Superman can clearly be grouped in the second definition with his superior strength, Indiana Jones, and perhaps Batman, would more accurately fit within the confines of the second definition. And of note should also be that the definition of physical prowess does not state that the owner of such properties must possess superhuman abilities that defy the laws of gravity, say for instance.

Indiana Jones is a fictional character who is a doctor of archeology. He is pretty handy with a bullwhip and can fight with the best of them. He escaped death from a giant rolling boulder in Raiders of the Lost Ark, survived a harrowing experience with a rope bridge suspended over a river filled with crocodiles in Temple of Doom, and passed the three “live or die” tests necessary to obtain the Holy Grail and save his dad’s life. A person must possess superior skills or abilities to accomplish all those things. In addition, those situations require courage and daring, as stated in the second definition of prowess.

Indiana Jones is also dedicated to acts of derring-do in the public interest. Jones has stopped the Nazis from obtaining the lost Ark of the Covenant, a weapon capable of wiping out entire armies; saved an Indian village from a voodoo doctor, who rips out the heart of his victims; and once again battled the Nazis to stop them from getting the Holy Grail. It is undeniable that his services were brave, heroic and in the interest of the public.

There are other factors, peripheral to the NY Court of Appeals case definition, which can be examined as well. First is a duel personality or identity. Superman has Clark Kent, Wonder Woman has Diane Prince (and my heart J), and Batman has Bruce Wayne. Indiana has Dr. Jones. When he is teaching, he wears glasses, a bow-tie, and appears a bit stiff and terribly scholastic. However, throw on a leather jacket, a worn-to-perfection fedora, and a bullwhip, and voilà, Indiana Jones emerges. Though, with Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman, their duel identities are secretive.

One might not guess that Dr. Jones is capable of all the derring-do that Indy does, but he’s not intentionally hiding it from anyone. But not every superhero has or requires a duel identity. Bruce Banner becomes the Hulk. We know this. He tries to control it, but get him angry and, well, I think one may not like him very much, as Banner warns. But he is two different people. And I think that is the underlying factor: a dual identity. In the classroom, Dr. Jones is mild-mannered. Out on a mission, he is driven, decisive, and a man of action who gets the job done at all costs. Furthermore, Tony Stark is Iron Man, a superhero in his own right who’s not hiding his identity (though maybe not shouting it from the mountain tops either) from the public, either. And again, when he has on his Iron Man suit, he becomes a different person who is more daring in the pursuit of justice.

Another factor, which I just briefly touched on, is a uniform. Superman’s got one, so does Batman, and Iron Man has one heck of a cool one! Indiana Jones’ getup may not be as sleek or skin tight (definitely not a bad thing) but it is a uniform. Again, while in the classroom he’s a bowtie-guy with elbow patches on his houndstooth jackets, but when he is in the pursuit of acts of derring-do, he’s got on the leather jacket, whip, and fedora. And we know that this outfit is important to Indy as director Steven Spielberg goes to the trouble of shooting a number of scenes in the movies where Indy goes back for his hat (i.e., in the Temple of Doom when the walls of the “insect room” are closing in, certain to crush him, he dives out of the room and then reaches back for his hat just in time).

Then there’s the girl. Just about all superheroes (male superheroes anyway) need a girl. And such superheroes are typically never able to get this girl (or have any shot of a lasting relationship) because of their dedication to acts of derring-do. Superman and Lois Lane, we want them to be together, but they just never seem to end up together. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, we sure do want Marion and Indy to end up together, and it seems like we get our wish at the end of the first movie, but in the third edition (Temple of Doom is a bit of a prequel adventure, taking place one year earlier than Raiders of the Lost Ark) of the series there’s no Marion, just a fine looking feline named Elsa, who turns out to be a Nazi (auf wiedersehen!). Also, in Temple of Doom it is another girl that we see in a series of “he said, she said” situations and know these two will likely never end up together. And it doesn’t matter that Indy’s “girl” is a different girl in other editions of the movie series. This can be proven in the Batman movies where the caped crusader’s love interest in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie is Vicki Vale and in the 2005 Batman Begins is Rachel Dawes.

And lest we not forget that most superheroes require a villain, like a Lex Luthor of a Joker. An evil plan is hatched by such villains to do harm to others while at the same time bringing them more power and wealth. Luthor’s plan in Superman: The Movie, was to sabotage a pair of nuclear missiles and use them to create an earthquake that will wipe out the California coast line. Lex had bought a huge amount of real estate behind the fault line so he would then become a very, very wealthy land owner. He would become very powerful and very rich as a direct result of people suffering and dying. Diabolical!

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jones is in a race to get the lost arc of the covenant and stop Dr. Renee Belloq and the Nazis from obtaining it and using it for their own evil doings. Belloq’s interest is purely for his own gain in the pages of history, and of course to be well paid by the Nazis for his services. In the Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones faced off against Mola Ram. Mola Ram was no doubt a formidable adversary as a voodoo doctor who could tear out a man’s heart after some required chanting. And it was imperative that Indy face Mola Ram and beat him to free the kidnapped children from the Indian village and return the sacred stone back to its rightful owners, which was also the village. Mola Ram’s purpose was strictly for power and it goes without saying that he caused harm and death to the innocent with the whole heart ripping out thing.

I’m quite certain there are a number of other mitigating factors that can be brought up, but this is where my argument in the case for Indiana Jones to be labeled a superhero ends and I will now put it to the public to continue this study. Perhaps the rest of the puzzle can be unlocked with the fourth installment of the moves series? Perhaps I’m wrong and my mind’s ramblings are pointing to flawed conclusions about Indiana Jones and his potential status as a superhero? But like most good superhero movies, those questions can all be answered for another day because for a superhero, the journey continues. There is generally more than one movie about a specific superhero, just as in Indiana’s continuing adventures. So let me know if you think I’ve got something here of if I just need another hobby… perhaps archeology?

Chris Wood is a writer and film critic living in New York.

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