Effective Protagonists, Part V: The Indiana Jones Series

Now that we’ve identified five different Character elements across a few different titles – Relatability in Star Wars, Driving Need (and Introductions) in Curse of the Black Pearl, Vulnerability and Stakes in Die Hard, and Change across The Terminator films – it should be obvious that few protagonists, even the most effective ones, embody every element simultaneously.

Luke Skywalker is a relatable Everyman, but doesn’t possess a specific want or anything emotionally resonant to risk losing besides his life, because he already lost everything before his journey began. Furthermore, he doesn’t reflect intrinsic change until Empire and Jedi. William Turner, on the other hand, is universal almost to the point of blandness, yet has a strong want that doubles as his risk of loss. In addition, he adapts from his adventure on the Caribbean in a transformative journey that brings him full circle by film’s end. By contrast, superman John McClane is accessible only through external vulnerability and his fish-out-of-water circumstances, but his otherwise surface-level want is amplified through heightened personal stakes and the potential loss of his marriage. Sarah Conner is the anomaly, as she is instantly relatable and, though initially passive, develops a clear want over her journey. Moreover, she displays logical vulnerabilities, overcomes personal obstacles, and evolves from a helpless waitress into a capable badass. I can officially declare with all the authority that is due me that Sarah Conner is the most effective protagonist… (Jeremy Clarkson voice) in the world.

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These characters are all effective heroes despite the fact that most of them only represent some of the vital Character elements. This shows us that the strength of one element can sometimes compensate for the deficiency or outright absence of another.

Now, you might be saying to yourself, “That’s all well and good Mr. Snooty Film Critic, but what about a protagonist who doesn’t represent any of the vital character elements?”

Oh, you mean Indiana Jones?


Indiana Jones is a hero who needs no introduction. He’s an iconic character leading one of the greatest film franchises ever made and an automatic winner in any given costume contest. If you’re unfamiliar with him and his series of films, well, you’re probably not one of my loyal readers.

Then again, if you’re not one of my loyal readers, you’re probably most people on planet Earth, because most of my readers (who previously numbered into the whopping teens) abandoned ship after my Venom memoir. Apparently having the audacity to not adore a critical darling like the Venom movie gives web surfers licence to publicly brand me a talentless, uninteresting, vice-addled, armchair-squatting hack.

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The nerve!

Speaking of most people on planet Earth, like them I grew up with the original Indiana Jones films on VHS. Such was their influence on my upbringing that the very first movie I ever directed growing up was based on Raiders of the Lost Ark. Colorado Smith and the Basement of Doom, it was called, and believe me when I say it’s a work of art that I currently regard with the same level of affection that George Lucas holds for Howard the Duck.

The reason I’m choosing to end this series (pauses to relish audible gasp from anguished crickets) with a beloved character like Indiana Jones is because according to all the rules we’ve covered thus far, he’s not an effective protagonist. Yet, we all love him anyway.

Let’s find out why, shall we?

NOTE: For this piece I’ll be analyzing elements of Indiana Jones across the franchise with no particular consideration for series order.


Who is Indiana Jones? For starters, he’s a tenured archeology professor, a globe-trotting adventurer, and one of the few men in the world who can perfectly pull off a fedora.

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When we first meet the intrepid Dr. Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, he’s infiltrating a Peruvian temple to obtain a pagan fertility idol, which took me until I was an adult to notice is in the throes of childbirth. Indy is already an established adventurer with all the skills, talents, abilities, and equipment he needs to dive headlong into the plot. In the prologue sequence alone, he disarms a double-crossing guide with his whip, evades lethal booby-traps, and displays supernatural imperviousness to poison-tipped arrows. Our immediate impression of Indy is that this is the sort of thing he does on a Tuesday afternoon, which is counterbalanced when we see his seemingly mundane job as a bespectacled college professor. Daring adventurer by day, respected educator… also by day.

As we follow Indy across his ensuing adventures, we see that he’s consistently stylish, smooth, quick on the draw, capable, quick-witted, and a perpetual ladies’ man. He maintains contacts around the globe and frequently embarks on adventures that none of us will ever know in our lifetimes. Most of said adventures involve outrunning boulders, participating in car chases, racing mine carts, fist fighting on trains, and, most importantly, shooting people with little to no provocation. He triumphs over Nazis, gangsters, cultists, Soviets, and interdimensional aliens (…the last part of that sentence broke my heart all over again…). Like a secret agent or perhaps even Batman, he’s fully capable of leading the life of a humble civilian and a daring tomb raider simultaneously and never seems to want for money or resources. Wherever he goes, women want him and men want to be him — but we know we never will be.

As you can see, we have absolutely nothing in common with Indiana Jones. He’s just too damn cool for us – even his name is cool, putting the Derricks, Eugenes, and Willies of this world to shame. This, of course, is nothing out of the ordinary for a film hero and wouldn’t even be a problem if there were more to Indy’s character than his wardrobe and travel itinerary. As charming and enviable as Indy is, there’s nothing inherently human about him for us to identify with. After three films (and one movie), we know almost nothing about him beyond the fact that he wears a fedora and likes to travel by map.

This is (or should be) a problem. See, in his acclaimed Plinkett review of The Phantom Menace, Mike Stoklasa challenged his colleagues to test the strength of individual Star Wars characters by describing them without noting their occupation, appearance, or garb. Suffice to say, the original trilogy characters passed the test while the prequel characters failed. Though he’s certainly not as two-dimensional as, say, Queen Amidala, Indiana Jones is invariably always described on the basis of his wardrobe and little else. This is because the films give us little indication of who he is underneath his accoutrements.

Even attempting to analyze Indy’s behavior can be problematic. We know he’s a good guy because he endeavors to preserve historical artifacts and hates Nazis, but he also uses women for their bodies and generally comes and goes as he pleases – not unlike a stray cat. He protects the innocent, which is certainly noble, but his adventures are largely centered on himself and his own interests. He’s not Captain America or Batman on a crusade of justice – he’s a glorified grave robber. Again, this might be forgivable if we were given a glimpse into what drives his behavior. Who is Indiana Jones deep down? Why can’t he commit to a relationship? Why does he seek to preserve these fabled antiquities? What are his wants, needs, hopes, and fears (besides the snakes, dammit)? What secrets does he harbor deep, deep down in his soul?

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This is one of the reasons I’m partial to The Last Crusade, because it delves ever so slightly into Indy’s psyche by focusing on his strained relationship with his father. Uniting Senior and Junior Joneses gives us some blessed insight into our whip-toting hero, which is best evidenced when the two argue at the German crossroads over the former’s obsessions and again on the Zeppelin over their prior falling out. These are probably the juiciest character scenes in the entire franchise because they hint at the wounds Indy surely carries from his early life, but once they’re over they not really addressed again.

Like John McClane, Indiana Jones is a Superman protagonist. His lifestyle and skillset are unattainable for us mere mortals and there is almost nothing about his character that grounds him to our level. Our only avenue into finding common ground with him is through Vulnerability, but before we step onto that glass-strewn floor we’ll pop another film reel into the ol’ camera –


Indiana Jones doesn’t want anything at any point on any of his adventures. Period. This might come as a surprise, as every Indiana Jones adventure is typically centered around the pursuit of some kind of object – or MacGuffin, if you will – be it the Ark of the Covenant, a trio of magical stones thingamajigs, the Holy Grail, or an ornamental alien skull (oh, my heart hearts so bad…). No matter what film he’s in, Indy always wants something – doesn’t he?

Well, not really.

See, Indiana Jones always has something to obtain on his adventures, but he personally doesn’t really want anything. To illustrate, I’ll briefly highlight the first three beats in the standard Indiana Jones Plot Formula.

1) Indiana Jones is introduced in an action-centric prelude that may or may not have anything to do with the rest of the story (Raiders, Temple, Crusade).

2) Indiana Jones is approached by a third-party and offered an opportunity to acquire a seemingly mythical artifact, which is already being actively sought by an evil organization (Raiders, Crusade, Kingdom).

3) Indiana Jones concludes that he must reach the object in question first, trapezing us into the plot (Raiders, Crusade, Kingdom).

The objects on Indy’s radar aren’t things that he desires on a fundamentally personal level – they’re grand fetch quest items that more or less land on his desk and give him something to do.

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Because Indy embarks on so many quests, the ones that are documented in the films might be described as his episodic adventure of the week. Furthermore, Indy is consistently more interested in getting to the artifact before anyone else as opposed to harnessing the supposed power it holds.

In Raiders, he’s skeptical as to whether there is any true power in the Ark and only accepts the government’s offer to retrieve it because it would be the discovery of a lifetime. By the end of the film he’s less concerned with the preservation of the Ark than he is with saving Marion Ravenwood from Belloq – but even she can’t be called the object of his heart’s desire because the film isn’t about them falling in love. In Temple of Doom, Indy kind of just stumbles into the Thuggee cult’s child-enslaving shenanigans and works to undermine them mostly because A) it’s the right thing to do and B) it’s all taking place right in front of him (Temple of Doom has quite a bit in common with a Mad Max film, now that I think about it). In Last Crusade, he cares less about the Grail than he does the welfare of his father – which is actually a wonderful motivation! Father-son dynamics are tried-and-true, dramatic gold, and resonate with viewers on a universal level. However, like Will Turner seeking to save his own dad in Dead Man’s Chest, the motivation to save his father from the Nazis doesn’t change Indy as a character or reveal much more about him. Finally, in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, he’s fairly disinterested in the titular crystal skull and kind of just goes for it because it’s an Indiana Jones movie and that’s what he does.

If you’re not seeing the giant X marking the spot on the floor, allow me to escort you up a flight of stairs – all of Indiana Jones’ supposed wants are purely reactionary. He isn’t drawn to these artifacts because of some deep desire nor is he even sold on the power inherent in them. Really, he’s just clocking his 9 to 5.

There was an analysis that circulated the Internet a few years back that said that Indiana Jones is incidental to the plot of Raiders. Essentially, it stated that the Nazis would have found the Ark and been destroyed by it regardless of Indy’s involvement. I sort of disagree with this, as Indy did directly affect some of the minor points of the film, but the general idea is that Indy reacted to the turns of the story instead of driving them forward. Ask yourself what Indiana Jones wants and you’ll name a world-renowned artifact. However, ask yourself why he wants it and you’ll find yourself answering “I don’t know!” with as much exuberant gusto as the Pitch Meeting guy.

Now, while most of us would agree that endeavoring to keep religious artifacts out of Hitler’s hands is an inherently virtuous motivation, it’s still not something that means something to Indy personally. He hates the Nazis because they’re bad people and hating Nazis is socially acceptable in most communities, but he’s not driven by nationalism nor is he out to uphold the American way. He’s a collector for the sake of collecting, virtually no different from a good-hearted kid at a preschool who wants all the toys in his corner just so that mean kid that nobody likes doesn’t break them.

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As I brilliantly outlined in my Die Hard piece, humanizing a protagonist through Vulnerability (some writers call it weakness or contradiction) is sort of cheating, because it’s an easy way to generate sympathy for them without having to reveal anything about them. It’s easy for human beings to identify with those who are hurting, struggling, or vulnerable, because we’ve all experienced hurts, struggles and vulnerability in our own lives. The reason this worked effectively for John McClane in the first Die Hard is because it directly tied into his arc, which was centered on saving his marriage. Conversely, the recent Die Hard-derivative Skyscraper tried to generate sympathy through this element by giving human juggernaut Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson a peg leg – a ploy that proved to be as lazy and superficial as Skyscraper itself.

Yes, I can speak authoritatively on Skyscraper, because it’s a movie that I’ve definitely seen, yes sir. Definitely. Ahem.

Vulnerability is the element that Indiana Jones embodies best, because despite his impenetrable personality, smooth demeanor, and incredible skills, he’s not infallible. In fact, he falls down quite a bit.

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For all his archeological and analytical prowess, Indy is frequently pitted against baddies who not only outmatch him, but consistently clean his clock. In Raiders, we see snooty Frenchman Belloq get the drop on Indy at pretty much every turn – at the Peruvian temple, at the Wells of Souls, and finally on Nazi Island. In an uncharacteristic narrative move, Indy doesn’t actually triumph over his loathed rival in a climactic boss fight – Belloq is outdone by his own hubris in a sequence that would have transpired even without Indy’s involvement (hmm…). Throughout the series, Indy takes hits, suffers betrayals, bleeds, gets shot, endures demonic possession, falls into traps, and sometimes is forced to cut his losses and run away. Obviously, he’s terrified of snakes and harbors intense daddy issues that come into play in Last Crusade. Spielberg has even stated that this was the original intention with Jones – to have a hero who could get hurt and take a beating like anyone one of us would. Incidentally, where Indy and I personally differ is that when Indy takes a shot he invariably gets back up, while I metastasize into the carpet in an pathetic mess… but enough about my drinking habits.

While these details certainly humanize Jones on a physical level – in that they show he’s not bulletproof – they ultimately fail to flesh out his character. John McClane’s cringe-inducing glass-walk led to a pivotal character-moment and progressed his emotional journey, but Indy never overcomes his fear of snakes, nor does his foray into the Well of Souls lead to any breakthrough with his character. That being said, it provides a damn effective obstacle that makes the Ark recovery sequence far more interesting than if the chamber had been filled with, say, butterflies. Even his relationship with his father in Last Crusade doesn’t really pay off in a truly satisfying way – though long-term reconciliation is implied, we don’t see evidence of it until Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which I always thought was a nice touch.

Yes, I said something nice about Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, because for all its glaring faults it’s not a completely terrible movie. Don’t have a conniption.

Though Indiana Jones possesses some physical vulnerabilities that make him more interesting, he displays no real emotional crack in the armor that leads to a greater understanding of his character. In this regard, he embodies this element semi-effectively. So I guess it would be more accurate to call Indy the exception to every rule… mostly.

See kids – though cheating may be wrong, don’t say that it doesn’t get results.


The element of the Personal Stake is tied closely to the Want or Driving Need. Essentially, if a protagonist has something to gain by succeeding on their adventure, you bet your buttery biscuits they have something to lose if they fail. To accomplish this, many stories implement the classic “our hero could die” formula to generate stakes and urgency. This works fine, I suppose, because generally a desire to keep living resonates with most viewers.

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Well, this is dark even for me

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the hero risking their own life for something greater than themselves, per se, but this element functions more effectively when they have something more personal and costly than their own skin to risk losing. After all, many of us, if presented with a dangerous but critical task, can perhaps come to terms with our own death for the greater good. But the loss of a loved one for the same goal? The lives of those closest to us generally mean more than our own – unless you’re Hitler, I guess. This is why John McClane’s arc in the first Die Hard works so effectively, because he’s fighting to save his marriage. If Hans Gruber wins, Holly not only dies, she dies before John could reconcile with her. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins’ motivation isn’t saving all of Middle Earth (noble as that would be), it’s preserving the one little corner of it that means something to him – the Shire.

We’ve already established that Indiana Jones doesn’t want anything personal on any of his adventures, except perhaps his father returned safe and sound in Last Crusade. Generally, if Indy fails on said adventures, evil organizations win – except in Raiders, where the Nazis would have just opened the Ark and been consumed by it. Come to think of it, if Indy hadn’t interfered, the Ark likely would have been delivered right to Hitler and opened in Berlin, which would have effectively prevented World War II. The Internet might actually be on the something here…

At the end of the day, Indiana Jones doesn’t have anything personal to him to lose on any of his quests besides his own life or the loss of the artifacts he’s seeking. This is indicative of the problem with his Driving Need, which is usually presented to him like a mission from Charlie to his Angels. Despite giving the adventure his undue enthusiasm, Indy is not emotionally attached to the Ark, the Grail, or the Skull. Though he hates the Nazis, he’s also not out to stop them from marching over the free countries of the world, nor do the atrocities they commit appear to bother him all that much – he just doesn’t like to lose.

Again, The Last Crusade embodies this element best when Henry Jones Sr. gets shot by Walter Donovan, forcing Indy to brave the dangers of the Grail Temple in an effort to save him. Suddenly there’s something deeply personal at stake for Indy and a reason for him to succeed, which ties into his entire motivation for the plot – saving his father. Unfortunately, the last fifteen minutes of a film is fairly late in the game to introduce a new plot element, so it can’t really be counted as a personal stake.

As evidenced in the prologue for Raiders of the Lost Ark, if Indiana Jones fails, life goes on and another adventure will present itself in a timely fashion. Still, as far as the viewers are concerned, Nazis, child slavers, and Soviets winning is bad for everybody, even if their defeat is just a by-product of Indy getting to the treasure first.

Looking back in my final editing sweep, it’s becoming clear to me that my title is extremely misleading. However, I didn’t really fancy ending my series by relabeling my final piece “Ineffective Protagonists, Part V,” as it would undoubtedly confuse my three remaining loyal readers and those two grannies who stumbled here looking for Pinterest.


Indiana Jones is the exact same man at the end of his adventures that he is at the beginning, and he begins his next adventure on the exact same footing he started and ended the previous one. Throughout the series he doesn’t develop, grow, mature, or alter whatsoever. He barely even changes his clothes, much less his personality. If he ever did change his wardrobe, we probably wouldn’t even recognize him.

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As a character he is a constant, as unchanging and immovable as (insert joke here – note to self, remember to come back during final edit to sub note to self for clever reference joke). As such, he lacks any semblance of a character arc. The only arc that’s present in Raiders at all is the obvious one – it’s when Indy tosses the golden idol to Alfred Molina in the Peruvian temple. The lob makes a clear arc shape that’s impossible to miss, especially when viewed in slow motion on your Blu-ray release. See for yourselves.

Because he doesn’t want anything specific and is more or less reacting to plot situations as they arise, Indy doesn’t develop as a character, and what opportunities there are for character development are not capitalized on. At the beginning of Raiders, he is fairly dismissive – borderline belligerent – towards the idea of the Ark having any supernatural power, and he even tells Marcus Brody that he doesn’t believe in magic or hocus-pocus. Though he eventually witnesses the power of God eliminate the Nazis firsthand with all the technological grandeur early 80’s CGI could provide, the spectacle ultimately fails to change his life or make him see the world in any different light. By the time he returns the Ark to the States he’s is still the same skeptic he was at the beginning – or at least, there is no outward evidence that his experiences changed him. Furthermore, while he did end up with Marion Ravenwood, they are clearly not together by the time of Last Crusade and she is never seen or heard from again.

I said, never seen or heard from again, dammit!

Even in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, he’s still the same wry, calm, cool, collected, and experienced adventurer he was in his younger years. There’s a lot of missed opportunities in Kingdom, one of them being a chance to really flesh out Indy’s character now that he’s older and presumably wiser. Perhaps the movie could have tapped into his regrets or some of his past failings. He could have questioned why he does this adventuring business at all or expressed some deep driving need or misgiving that he’s harboured all along. Perhaps the greatest failing of Kingdom was its inability to properly tap into his relationship with the son he did not know he had. In truth, the Act I and early Act II scenes between Indy and Mutt Williams were the strongest scenes in the entire movie, but like the father-son dynamic in Last Crusade they’re not brought to a satisfying conclusion (there, that’s two nice things said about Crystal Skull – see? I’m a reasonable man).

Indiana Jones is a constant character, not unlike James Bond (at least until the Daniel Craig era) or Ethan Hunt. He is the same character tomorrow that he was yesterday. He never changes, never grows, never alters, and never develops. Of course, none of this really matters, because despite all his narrative shortcomings Indiana Jones still works as a character.


The point I’m illustrating with this finale character piece is that despite all the rules, guidelines, how-to’s, and narrative forms that you read about in screenwriting books and hack websites like this, sometimes things inexplicably work. On paper, Indiana Jones is a dud protagonist – yet he’s a universally beloved character. Why?

An obvious part of it is the natural charm Harrison Ford brings to the role. The whole point of having an actor (or actress) portray a character is that they infuse their own inherent appeal into the character to endear them to the audience. Harrison Ford is charming, likeable, and well-suited for the role of a fedora-wearing, whip-toting adventurer. The beauty of great actors (or actresses) is that their natural likability can actually transcend their character’s narrative shortcomings – like the Vulnerability element, it’s majorly cheating, but it works all the time. For instance, Ethan Hunt has no substance in the Mission Impossible series, but people like Tom Cruise (myself included), so he tends to get a pass. Chris Pratt is another fine example, as he’s so damn likeable that Jurassic World didn’t even bother trying to give his character a personality and just banked on people liking the guy who played Star-Lord enough to buy in. It worked for most of the world – but not for this critic.

Actor charisma aside, the ultimate appeal of Indiana Jones resides in the wish fulfillment aspect, not in how real his character is. This is another point that was addressed in the Plinkett review of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, so I’m not claiming to be the first person to make this observation. Though we can’t relate to him at all, Indiana Jones is a character we all aspire to be – not unlike James Bond – and for the small price of a fedora, a leather jacket, a bullwhip, and a pistol, we can! These were the only props my little brother needed to transform into Indiana Jones – er, Colorado Smith – when we were kids filming our own basement plundering adventure. Granted, we only had access to a pork pie hat, a windbreaker, a bathrobe sash, and a squirt gun, but they still got the point across.

At the end of the day, sometimes the rules don’t really matter. It’s a ‘rule’ that a character should embody all the elements I spent the summer extrapolating on, in the same way that the Pirate Codex in POTC is a rulebook. Sometimes a film or a character defies all the established conventions and then still resonates with us for no conceivable reason. Why is Pulp Fiction a cinematic masterpiece? Or The Big Lebowski? In spite of all the rules and guidelines, sometimes things just work. There’s always an exception to the rule – even the rule “there are no exceptions.”

Though he’s the antithesis of Sarah Conner, I love Indiana Jones and would trade my life savings for the ability to wear a fedora as convincingly as he can. The only way I could love the character more is if he were somehow played by—



Well, it’s been a swell ride, dear readers, but like Indiana Jones, my time has come to ride off into the sunset, where I will return to ripping summer tentpole movies to pieces for my own amusement. There are, of course, more Character elements and narrative devises that could be dissected – such as Proactivity and the infamous “Save the Cat” moment – and perhaps one day I’ll reboot the series to do so, but for the time being I leave you with my observations. May they help shape your own understanding of Character as they once did mine.

…is anybody reading this thing?

Anybody at all?

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