By Michael Robinson ~ Communication Studies Professor
Paramount / Courtesy Everett Collection
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is a good movie. It does everything that an Indiana Jones film should do. Mysterious and powerful treasures are tracked down. Adventure abounds across exciting global settings. And, most importantly, Nazis get punched.
And yet, the movie was not the financial success that Disney hoped it would be. According to Box Office Mojo, the film has made just over $380 million worldwide. That failure is more money than most of us are ever likely to have, but once production and marketing costs are factored in, Dial of Destiny is going to break even (at best).
A result like this would normally send me looking at the flaws in the film itself. Dial of Destiny is a good film though. As a lifelong fan, I would place this film smack in the middle of the franchise. Just for the record, my ranking for these films from the top are: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), The Last Crusade (1989), Dial of Destiny (2023), Temple of Doom (1984), and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). As always, Harrison Ford is excellent as Indy. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Helena Shaw is a great adventuring companion who works brilliantly in the story. The always great Mads Mikkelsen brings the bad as the Nazi villain who must be thwarted. The action sequences are solid and there is the right balance of wild adventure and mysterious forces that have always been a signature of the franchise.
So, what happens when “good” is not good enough? Well, marketing is the next obvious target.
At first, I was tempted to say that the studios may have made a mistake by pushing the idea of a last adventure for Indy too much. Then I remembered that Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 3 (2023) was also promoted in the same way earlier this year. For that film, Marvel Studios, and thus their parent company of Disney, asked us to come out to the theater for one more romp with the crew. A nostalgic, fond farewell appeal clearly worked for Guardians, Vol. 3 financially (the movie pulled in over $845 million worldwide).
Thinking about Guardians, Vol. 3 does bring out one contrast though. That film was a goodbye to a team we came to love over the past decade. Guardians of the Galaxy debuted back in 2014 and through the miracle of cinematic universe narrative cross-stitching, we followed that team of scruffy outsiders through not just their movies but also some Avengers films.
Indiana Jones had his first three adventures in a similar time span (1981-1989). At the end of The Last Crusade, our hero and his friends literally rode off into the sunset. I am not saying that the franchise should have ended there, although a lot of people sure felt that way upon seeing Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. While I am always happy to have more Indiana Jones adventures, the nearly two-decade gap between the third and fourth installments made Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’s flaws much more glaring.
Dial of Destiny is the antidote to Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It is a much stronger final adventure for a franchise that has now had three final adventures. Unfortunately, the wait for that adventure was another fifteen years. We’ll save a conversation about what it means for an action hero like Indiana Jones to age for the future. This recent film demonstrates the character’s capacity for adventure remains strong.
Ultimately, the studios failed to definitively answer the most important audience question in the age of streaming: “Why should I go?” This is a problem that movie studios have faced since the introduction of television. The question becomes particularly salient in the post-COVID world when we are spoiled with movie debuts on our phone. Marketing sold nostalgia to longtime fans, but failed to explain to newer audiences why adventure has a name and that name is Indiana Jones.