There are no shortage of movie lovers out there who have a soft spot for the Indiana Jones movies. And for damn good reason too! At its best, the action-adventure franchise — directed entirely by Steven Spielberg and originally conceived and produced by George Lucas — creates all the glorious spectacle, splendor, entertainment and excitement of a great blockbuster, the type of movies that makes the theatergoing experience so much fun in the first place.
Played by Harrison Ford over the course of nearly 40 years, Indiana Jones has stolen the hearts of plenty. Now, with Indiana Jones 5 being teased over the past few years, there's a good chance that we haven't seen the last of the whip-carrying treasure hunter — either for better or worse.
Admittedly, the Indiana Jones franchise has seen its hills and valleys in equal measure. For all the great moments in the better installments, there are a number of lesser sequences that make you smack your head and wonder why you gave a damn about these movies in the first place. It hasn't always been easy to be a fan of the Indiana Jones movies, and there are certainly one or two films that don't live up to their predecessors — to say the very least. That's why we're going to take this moment to look back at the four movies and rank them accordingly, from the very worst to the absolute best.
4. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
We're only one movie into this list, and it's already a bit controversial! Admittedly, Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom isn't without its moments. It has some top notch set pieces, a cool opening sequence, some memorable villains and a tunnel sequence that I adore. There's also something to be admired about how weird and dark this movie can get, especially since George Lucas reportedly wrote it during a particularly nasty divorce. There was great potential for this sequel to be bold and strange in the same way that Tim Burton made Batman Returns in a similarly angry, troubled headspace.
Alas, while it's not without its positives, the dark elements of the movie can also make the movie feel much more ugly and mean-spirited than its more enjoyable and generally more fun-loving predecessor. Granted, it's hard to argue that a film where Nazis get the skin melted off their faces is entirely all-audiences friendly. But Temple of Doom never quite finds the same balance, bouncing between moody moments and lighthearted quips with less smoothness. It also doesn't help that Indy's love interest, Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw), is not a particularly compelling character, playing the type of flaying, helpless lady that disappointingly was an all-too-common '80s trope. Not to mention Short Round (Ke Huy Quan), who is an unfortunate caricature.
It's certainly understandable if you would place Temple of Doom above the next movie on this list. At the very least, this one does feel more like an Indiana Jones film than the one I'm about to put up next. But I'd argue that it's similarly a disjointed, uneven and unsatisfying film in the series that was thankfully brought back to its former glory with the second sequel a few years later. But we'll talk about that particular movie in just a little bit.
3. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
Easily among the most derided of the Indiana Jones movies, there are certainly no shortage of criticism to be lodged at 2008's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, the sloppy, awkward fourth film in the series, and the studio's misguided attempt to revive the long-dormant franchise. Whether it's the overabundance of CGI, the multitude of dumb character decisions that are too plentiful to list and the inclusion of some elements that feel a little too outside of the normal Indy wheelhouse, it's not hard to see why The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is often considered the weakest entry.
The only reason why I put it above Temple of Doom is because, whether or not it's popular to say, I do believe the camaraderie between Indiana Jones and his mismatched son, Mutt Williams (played well — in my humble opinion — by Shia LaBeouf), is genuinely investing and charming. While far from perfect, there's a nice back-and-forth between them in plenty of early scenes which makes you appreciate the subtle character choices of director Steven Spielberg, as well as the natural acting talents of both Harrison Ford and the aforementioned LaBeouf.
Do I think Mutt Williams should have taken over the franchise? Absolutely not. I only think he works as a supporting character opposite his dad. But he's better than the reputation of Crystal Skull might suggest, and maybe that's sweetening my opinion of what is otherwise a messy and alarmingly disheveled long-awaited sequel. Additionally, it's nice to see Karen Allen return to play Marion Ravenwood, and she still has fun chemistry with her male lead. Cate Blanchett is also enjoyably campy as the villainous Irina Spalko, and the late John Hurt is overall commendable as Professor Oxley.
It's a hard movie to defend, even slightly. And the worst moments of this movie are easily among the lowest points in the series, particularly an odd scene where Mutt Williams is swinging in the CG branches with a bunch of poorly animated monkeys. The effects have only gotten worse over time, and the writing is still painfully clunky. But even the worse Indiana Jones movies have good set pieces and a few rousing scenes. There's no exception here. It's filled with enough enjoyable moments to make it slightly better than Temple of Doom — but only ever so slightly.
2. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
After the unwieldily and misshapen Temple of Doom, it was nice and comforting for Indiana Jones to return to his more simple, straightforward action-adventure roots with the highly enjoyable sequel, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It paired Harrison Ford with a great turn from Sean Connery as his disorderly father, is easily the most entertaining and lively of the sequels, and its the only one that really captures the charm and the wonder of the original, if not to the same extent.
In a quest to find the long-lost Holy Grail, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade might carry a little bit of the mythicism that got out of hand in the next Indy movie. Nevertheless, it contains the right amount of flighty fun and rousing action beats to make the whole adventure consistently endearing and funny. There's also some unexpected emotional tenderness with the relationship with Indiana Jones and his previously unseen father. It also has all the world traveling, appealing set pieces and Nazi punching that you'd hope to find inside the better Indiana Jones films. Oh, and an agreeable finality.
As Indiana Jones rides off into the sunset by the end of the movie, there is a clear understanding that no character can live on forever, and that's it's okay to let things go — a hard-learned lesson that director Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford and producer George Lucas didn't ultimately take to heart. (Well, in Spielberg's defense, he was reluctant to make the fourth movie...) While it doesn't quite measure up to the next movie on this list, there's a lot to like about Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. And it's ultimately the only sequel that really captures the magic (if in a smaller dose) of the first.
1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
It's the one that started it all! Raiders of the Lost Ark might not be a totally flawless movie (maybe...) but it's ultimately pretty damn hard to find an action-adventure blockbuster that's more enjoyable and consistently entertaining. With director Steven Spielberg near the height of his directing powers, along with the once-assurable talents of George Lucas as a producer before that creative reputation was somewhat sullied, this first and best Indiana Jones movie is an absolute blast from start-to-finish. Featuring a wide number of great action sequence, memorable lines, great character actions and so many unforgettable moments, it's everything you could hope to find with a fun night at the movies, plus so much more — and the beginning of the franchise.
After the unprecedented success of Star Wars, it was clear that Harrison Ford was a star in the making. Thankfully, the soon-to-be A-list film actor was given the franchise that played to his rugged strength and clear charisma, playing the sort of tough-willed, whip-friendly serial adventure character that allowed Ford to travel the world, meet a number of exotic characters, find love in a variety of places and discover rare artifacts that were once thought unbelievable.
It's a simple character that Ford played with gusto, resulting in Indiana Jones becoming one of his greatest characters ever. Paired with Lucas' bold ideas and Spielberg's clear-focused talents, Raiders of the Lost Ark became one of the most beloved, acclaimed action movies of the '80s — or any decade, for that matter. It's hard to find many people who don't think it's is the best the franchise has to offer (though we're sure you'll make yourself heard in the comments if you disagree).
We imagine this list doesn't match up with everyone's opinions. Let us know your ranking and which ones are your favorites and least favorites below.
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Will is an entertainment writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. His writing can also be found in The Playlist, Cut Print Film, We Got This Covered, The Young Folks, Slate and other outlets. He also co-hosts the weekly film/TV podcast Cinemaholics with Jon Negroni and he likes to think he's a professional Garfield enthusiast.
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