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Help Support Features Articles Fourth Installment or Third Wheel?
Fourth Installment or Third Wheel?
by Michael French - posted on April 14, 2008

As the days count down to the premiere of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, more and more buzz begins and even more debate over whether the film will be a successful chapter in the Indiana Jones series or a complete dud. A valid conversation for both casual and die-hard fans, to be sure. However, what I have not heard bandied around in these debates is corroborated "evidence" from other movie series to support either judgment.

Being an amateur film critic and historian, the "legacy" of film series and their multiple chapters is the first place I look for a clue of how Crystal Skull might fare immediately after I assess the merits of the key players and whether they're up to the task. In the case of Indiana Jones, those key players are Harrison Ford, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. I have my own opinions about their recent works before heading into Indy IV, but that's another debate for another time.

Indiana Jones 4 poster
Kingdom of the
Crystal Skull

Taking Crystal Skull at face value as a fourth chapter, all key player personalities aside, there is still much to consider. Film series generally gravitate towards trilogies, because they act as large three-act narratives. Many series follow this formula and rightly so – stories have been presented in this structure since the beginning of time. For Hollywood trilogies, it is often the case that the first chapter is a groundbreaking story with interesting exposition, the second story is darker and more threatening and the third story is a solid wrap-up ending with great high moments and few questions left dangling.

There are countless examples of this: Obviously, the Classic Star Wars Trilogy, the Back to the Future Trilogy, The Lord of the Rings and the Jason Bourne series are just a few of many. Indiana Jones is no different, despite some observations that the films are separate adventures and not one single story. However, the films each have the same mood and flow as most trilogies. Raiders of the Lost Ark is exciting, groundbreaking and establishes the character. Temple of Doom is dark and more risky with the characters suffering terribly at the hands of great evil. Last Crusade is the rollicking wrap-up with our characters riding off into the sunset.

Interestingly, third chapters can sometimes also be where a series needs to stop because criticism is often levied on them as being tired versions of the previous films. Return of the Jedi, Back to the Future III, The Godfather: Part III, Spider-Man III, and in some circles even Last Crusade, are described as a good place to stop. The series is getting tired. In most of these above examples, it's safe to say while they are very good films, they aren't the awe-inspiring installments like the first films nor necessarily as edgy as the middle chapters. Return of the Jedi was criticized for being too syrupy, Return of the King had too many endings for some, Back to the Future: Part III lacked the excitement of the previous movies and, well, people just complained about Godfather: Part III and Jurassic Park III. I'm not saying these criticisms are valid, but they do exist and should be considered.

The legacy of film series becomes further muddied by the inclusion of a fourth installment. Historically, fourth installments cannot be pinned down. We know trilogies generally work and can be mapped out successfully. The fourth installment is the wild card. Some have been terrible. Some have been stellar. So that begs the next question: Will Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull be a meaningful and narratively successful fourth adventure or will it feel more like a single guy going to a movie with a couple, or in this case, a happily married trilogy... Will Indy IV be the third wheel?

Let's look back at the legacy of fourths...

Thunderball poster
Thunderball (1965)

I'm not going to include horror films. Those movies are generally made a dime a dozen. That and the fact that they're too numerous to count. As for the remaining film series to gain fourth installments, let's start with a character that is often compared to Indiana Jones – James Bond.

Under Sean Connery, the series got off to a great start and went from Dr. No to From Russia With Love to Goldfinger and was riding some highly successful waves. Truly, in the case of James Bond, the fourth film in the series shot Bond to the moon. Thunderball cemented the James Bond series as a lasting cinematic staple. And more than 20 movies later, Bond is still with us, despite his ups and downs at the box office in the years since.

The same cannot be said of some later film series. Warner Bros. Pictures effectively killed off both the Superman and Batman movie franchises in four films each. What were already flagging film series by their third chapters were both effectively killed off with Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and Batman and Robin. I find it interesting that Christopher Nolan, director of the new Batman series, is describing it as a "trilogy" and no word on a possible fourth chapter. Probably a smart move for that character.

The Phantom Menace  poster
Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999)

Another cinematic staple and beloved classic, Star Wars, arguably lost a lot of its luster thanks to its fourth film. While not a fourth chapter in the story chronologically, the fourth movie made in the series was Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, largely considered the weakest of the entire series. Recall this was the film that kicked off a soon-to-be controversial second trilogy that remains a contentious debate to this day amongst film goers as to whether or not the "prequel trilogy" helped or hurt the Star Wars Saga.

And who can forget Jaws? Despite the fact that the original Jaws is the only one remembered largely, let's not forget there were, yes, four of them, with the fourth, Jaws: The Revenge being universally loathed at the box office and all but skewered the franchise to death.

Sudden Impact, the fourth Dirty Harry film starring Clint Eastwood, also started a downward spiral for a beloved franchise. I won't even touch on the Death Wish series, which was long dead before part four. Rocky IV is a polarizing fourth film with a love/hate effect on viewers. Some love it. Some hate it. There's no middle ground. And the bad memories of Lethal Weapon 4 only drive the point home.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home poster
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)

There was one notable exception to this rule in the 1980s: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Here was a fourth film that set box office records for a major franchise and brought in a more casual audience to a property that was largely avoided by the average moviegoer. Interestingly though, Star Trek IV is a cinematic anomaly. While it is a IV, it is really at its core the third part and conclusion of a trilogy that took place within the six-movie Star Trek film series. For those who aren't aware, Star Trek II, III and IV are an internal trilogy with one storyline. So can we count the film as a successful fourth, or by definition is it a third? I'm honestly not sure. As an aside, the decidedly mediocre Star Trek: Nemesis was the fourth and, interestingly, last Next Generation movie that did not resonate with audiences.

One series that found success as a "trilogy" of sorts, and coincidentally became a major role for Harrison Ford, died in its fourth chapter. The Jack Ryan films, based on the Tom Clancy novels, were a huge success in the late 1980s and early 1990s with The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger. When they released The Sum of All Fears, starring Ben Affleck and Morgan Freeman, the franchise folded. Some blamed Affleck. Me? I'm thinking the character as a film series had nowhere interesting left to go and having Alec Baldwin, Ford or Affleck would have made little difference as the story wouldn't have held up.

The Harry Potter film series found some critical success with its fourth chapter, Goblet of Fire, but the book upon which it was based was too long to be compressed into a film, and many criticisms said the movie left too much information out. Granted, being based on a book, the movie faced its own unique challenges.

Today, as we await Crystal Skull, the fourth film legacy has taken an interesting turn. Within the last 12 months (as of April 2008), there have been two other "fourths" to come to the big screen, and both featured characters that are classic film heroes, all long absent from the silver screen. Also, both of these movies were intended to be concluding salutes to their franchise characters, both acknowledging rather than ignoring the ages of the heroes. Each one was arguably successful.

Rambo poster
Rambo (2008)

Live Free or Die Hard brought back unlucky cop John McClane for a final thrill ride and although, like Rocky IV, it seemed to polarize fans somewhat, the nostalgia of seeing Bruce Willis in his signature role again was enough for many despite the over-the-top action, which was the series' trademark anyway.

Less highly anticipated, making its success all the more surprising and satisfying, was Rambo, the fourth chapter in Sylvester Stallone's famous film series about the Green Beret who can't get a break. Stallone, who had already proven his ability to resurrect characters with the critically successful Rocky Balboa, showed audiences that the same could be done for Rambo. Despite critical harshness, always typical of Rambo films, the movie pleased audiences and was considered by fans to be an appropriate nod to the character. Rambo directly recognized the story established in First Blood and tied the two together well.

Interesting that both Rambo and Crystal Skull are about veteran action-types in their 60s dealing with their aging, and both are evidently deliberately tied to themes and plot devices from the original films in their respective series. If the warehouse of crates and Marion Ravenwood's return is any indication, Crystal Skull is rubbing shoulders with Raiders of the Lost Ark for Indy's final adventure.

So, after a long look at fourths of the past, where does Indiana Jones stand? On a solid ledge or a rickety rope bridge? Last Crusade was the intended end of the series, as most of the major players have stated, and the riding-into-the-sunset ending, while a little cliché, was beloved by audiences. However, with the drought in movie theaters of true heroes, the old ones are dusting themselves off for another go around.

Live Free or Die Hard poster
Live Free or
Die Hard

Maybe Hollywood's figured it out and learned how to make a solid fourth. Wishful thinking to a degree. The history of fourths is much more spotty than clean and both recent ones, Live Free or Die Hard and Rambo, did not walk away universally loved. Phantom Menace, while a box-office powerhouse, was a critical disaster and continues to be a raging fight in the Star Wars fan base. After a mere nine years, the film has already aged terribly.

Only Star Trek IV passes muster historically, and as stated before, it's a fourth in number only. The narrative through-line is that of a third chapter.

The danger of any fourth is that it will hang outside a solid trilogy as a needless exploitation and drag the memory of a good series down with it. The fourth in a series will possibly have less to say that's meaningful, and history bears this out. The $42,000 question is: Will Indiana Jones suffer the same fate?

With Spielberg's Munich, Lucas' prequel trilogy and Ford's Firewall and Hollywood Homicide the only recent works to go on, there isn't a lot of tangible or confident evidence to latch onto as a fan and say, "Yes. They are involved and it will definitely be great." We all want Indiana Jones' last hurrah to be a great one. In fact, no one wants to go into any movie and have a bad experience. In an ideal world, every movie would be amazing. Indiana Jones has always been an underdog that beats the most insurmountable odds. I hope he stays true to form and gets around the "fourth factor."

On May 22, I guess we all just have to take a leap of faith.


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