***WARNING: Mild spoilers of "Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull" ahead.
I have never understood what happened to the Indiana Jones movies after "Raiders". Like a lot of film makers, Spielberg and Lucas seemed to lose sight of what made their original creation so great and instead of building on what they'd done in the first film they completely undermined their creation with the successive films.
I know many people will disagree with me on this but I'll try and write up all my thoughts anyway and hopefully it'll make for a good read if nothing else (and probably a good debate in the comments section).
One of the things I like best about "Raiders" is the journey that Indy's character takes. Part of what makes the movie work so well for me is that he seems to undergo a fairly significant personal transformation during the telling of the story.
After he talks to the government agents about what the Ark is, and why Hitler might want it, Brody comes by his house to tell him he's free to go and try to retrieve the Ark. Brody has a great scene where he hints that maybe the Ark has powers that mere men aren't meant to tamper with, but Indy completely rejects this and tells Brody that he doesn't believe in such nonsense. So this is a clear statement that Indy doesn't believe in the power of the Ark and to him, it's just an object to be pursued.
By the end of the movie, his experiences have changed him so much that he believes in the power of the Ark. He tells Marion to "close her eyes" because he has come to understand something deeper than what he understood at the beginning of the movie: he now knows that there are things in life which hold a greater power than just their material or archaeological value.
But you can see the problem this can cause within the movie's structure: he doesn't believe at the outset that there is any power to the Ark. Therefore, he can't begin his journey with the motivation of "keeping the Ark's power out of the hands of the Nazis", because he simple doesn't believe there's any power to be had from it.
So the film begins with a sequence that, among other things, shows his determination to get that golden idol from the temple at any cost. It shows his fierce competition with Belloq to get whatever archaeological find he can grab at any cost, without ever considering that it might have any powers that can't be seen. To him, finding treasures is only about what they are worth in material terms.
After all, we saw in the opening of the movie that he doesn't care at all that the Hovitos tribe doesn't want anyone in their area. We see that they are still around - not some long-extinct tribe - and they are protecting their territory, and that they don't welcome outsiders. Somebody built some elaborate traps to keep people out of the temple and to protect the idol, and yet there is no hesitation on Indy's part, or any thought that maybe stealing the idol is a bad idea. There's no morality problem to him that the idol might mean something to these people and removing it might be detrimental to them or harmful to their way of life. To him, it has no "value" other than what it will fetch on an open market or add to his reputation after he collects it.
And we see in his willingness to risk life and limb to get the idol and through his interaction with Belloq how driven he is to posses the idol, how competitive he is to grab the greatest archaeological finds he can before anyone else does.
Which is all a great setup, because it provides a motivation for him to go after the Ark - his competitive nature and his burning desire to find the greatest historical treasures the world has to offer. Because it wouldn't work if he was going to keep the awesome "power" of the Ark out of the hands of the Nazis - because he doesn't believe in that kind of power, period.
Once again, you can see how meticulously plotted this movie is and how many things are setup within the story without the audience realizing that it's being fed exposition. The opening sequence feels like it's just an exciting piece to hook you into watching the movie. But it's not just that - it sets up a lot of things in a very effortless way, so we don't realize we're being shown things that will be important later.
So that's one of his "arcs", or journeys that he takes through the story: he comes to learn that there is a power to these things he collects, that they are not just objects, but that these things deserve our respect and reverence and that they have a power greater than we can imagine.
The other arc is also a very interesting one, and I really love the subtle way it's laid into the movie. When Indy is first introduced, he's seen (famously) in shadow and then walks into the light, revealing his face. It plays well, and I think it's well-known because it's such an interesting and weighty introduction and gives him a great mystique.
The first time you see his head, from behind - reacting to the sound of the porter pulling a gun on him.
The first time we see his face - as he steps out of the shadows.
But if you look at it within the context of the rest of the movie you can see that it's much, much more than that. The idea of "shadows" and light are very important within the film.
When he appears in The Raven (Marion's bar) he is re-introduced by his shadow, which appears behind her. Again, he is equated with shadows.
And interestingly, after he leaves, the Nazi contingent arrives and there is a very similar scene to Indy's, where their shadows are thrown onto the wall in the same way as his was. This can only be seen as a connection between the Nazis and Indy. The implication is that he is hardly better than they are - he is as morally ambiguous at this point as they are.
The real key to this idea is said very plainly by Belloq after Marion's apparent death in the marketplace. Belloq has a whole speech to Indy where he says (basically) "we are no different, you and I, we are just a shadowy reflection of each other". Significantly, this is the only thing Belloq says which seems to get under Indy's skin and prompts Indy to reply "now you're getting nasty", which tells you that deep down he probably thinks that this is true.
When Belloq is first introduced, outside the temple where Indy has taken the idol, the reason Belloq is able to take the idol away from Indy is because Belloq has learned to speak the native tongue and influence the natives into helping him - arguably a more noble approach than just walking into the temple and ripping it off. I think that's a great idea that Belloq took the approach to learn the native tongue and insinuate himself with the tribe to accomplish his goal whereas Indy just took the most obvious, blunt approach. It says a lot about their different personalities, and also, you can't necessarily say one approach is more "moral" than the other.
I take all of the moments that equate Indy with shadows and compare him to Belloq and the Nazis to mean that he is morally ambiguous, that he is not committed to fighting on the "right" side as he is to accomplishing his goals in any way possible. From the outset of the film, his character seems to be teetering on a precipice and could go either way. Will he decide to live a life of righteousness, of fighting for what's right, or will he become merely a soldier of fortune, doing whatever it takes to get whatever he wants in life?
Now, as a counterpoint to the "shadow" idea of Indy, Marion seems to be constantly equated with light. There are a lot of scenes that are staged in an unusual way and seem to be arranged to link her with light sources.
So the obvious conclusion is that she is the "light" that will illuminate his shadowy side and put him on the right path in life. Certainly it feels this way at the end of the film. There is a sense at the end that he is better off with Marion than he would be if he continued along the same path as before. And in his concern for the Ark and the fate of it within the government's possession that makes it seem like he has a newfound respect and concern that wasn't there at the beginning of the film.
I like both of these arcs very much and they're very unusual. Most character arcs in movies are very standard and tend to hit you over the head - not so with either of these ideas, and the movie is richer and deeper for them.
Unfortunately it is just these things that the subsequent movies failed to consider and they are much weaker for it. Not only that but the sequels seemed to deliberately undermine these ideas.
For example, "Temple of Doom" is a prequel to "Raiders" - it all took place before "Raiders" did, supposedly. And yet in "Temple" Indy witnesses a man pull another man's beating heart out of his chest and also he uses a magical incantation at the end of the movie to make the magic rocks burst into flames, thus defeating the villain. Now if all of this is supposed to happen before "Raiders", how are we supposed to believe that he went through these experiences - witnessing acts of unexplainable mystical power and even using the other-worldly power of the stones - and yet remain skeptical that there are mystical forces at work in our world?
Also, in "The Last Crusade", we see him as a Boy Scout at the beginning of the movie. He is played as completely moralistic: he is full of indignation when he discovers men digging around for the lost Cross of Coronado and he immediately sets out to steal it with the goal of getting it to a Museum. There is no hint at all of any kind of lack of morality. Right after this scene we see him as an adult, and his morality remains exactly the same - he is still pursuing the Cross of Coronado, still full of righteous umbrage and still saying the same thing: "that belongs in a museum".
Now I'm not suggesting that he should have been introduced as a rotten, larcenous Boy Scout with a complete lack of morals. But the film casts him as a completely moral and blandly simplistic version of what he was in the first movie, playing him like Superman, a completely honest and forthright person who's always in the right. That's inherently uninteresting and also untrue to what made the character so fascinating and compelling in the first place. The film makers forgot what was great about their creation and seem to think that as long as he has a hat and a whip he will be a great character. Great characters are made great and watchable by the choices they make that define who they are, not because of their costumes.
It's interesting that in a lot of interviews, Lucas, Spielberg and even Harrison Ford seem completely sold on the idea that the third and fourth movies made the right choice by introducing Indy's family members and making the films "emotional" through the family connections that are explored. I completely disagree.
First off, I disagree that family connections are the instant formula for "emotion". The family relationships in the third and fourth movie are played more for laughs than for anything - there's almost nothing there that could even be considered emotional or anything even remotely like a real actual human father-and-son relationship. And I don't really look to my "Indiana Jones" movies to be emotional, any more than I look to dessert to fulfill my nutritional needs or look to broccoli to satisfy my sweet tooth. It's a complete fallacy to think that all movies need to be "emotional" to mean something to an audience. Some of the greatest movies ever made were never meant to be "emotional" and they don't need to be.
The weirdest part of all this is that Lucas and Spielberg freely admit that they invented Indy to be their own version of James Bond - that's even why they cast his father as Sean Connery. So why didn't they stop to think about whether they, as fans of James Bond, ever found themselves wanting to find out about James Bond's family?
Does anyone want to see a movie that tells us what Bond was like as a kid? How he got his start on the road to being a spy in his adolescent years? Do you want to meet Bond's dad and see them hang out together, working through their issues? Do you want Bond's illegitimate son to show up at some point and see them work through their issues? Because I sure don't. And I don't want to see Jones do this either. So it's inexplicable to me that this was the way Lucas and Spielberg went; I don't find it interesting or satisfying and it doesn't even follow the model they were purportedly following in the first place. And every time he interacts with his Father or his son on a familial level he just seems to be complaining or chiding them...not much fun to watch, and not the cool, carefree Indy I met in the first film.
Strangely enough, I actually thought it kind of worked to have Indy hanging out with "Short Round" in the second film. There's something about a loner, a guy who outwardly seems tough and completely self-reliant hanging out with some orphaned kid he got hooked up with. It tells you a lot about the guy: he has a lot bigger soft spot than he lets on and when you see some one relate to a kid on a kid level it's fun. When a Father does that it seems kind of irresponsible but when it's an adult who isn't the kid's dad it becomes fun to watch and telling about that character. It allows the character to show a different side than he is able to in his relationships with other men and women (and it worked just as brilliantly in "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome" as well as countless other films).
If nothing else, maybe the other three movies can't ever live up to the first one simply because you can't really top God in terms of spectacle. After witnessing the power of the Almighty, everything else seems a little bit like a letdown.