How Raiders of the Lost Ark Continues to Influence Pop Culture

We're looking at three examples of how Raiders of the Lost Ark still affects pop culture's biggest stories.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is a great landmark of modern cinema directed by Steven Spielberg from a story by George Lucas. A tribute to the adventure serials of the 1930s and 1940s, Raiders of the Lost Arkwas greatly influenced by what had come before in blockbuster movie cinema and would go on to influence action adventure film and TV that would come after.

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We could spend an entire book outlining the ways in which the Indiana Jonesfranchise not only changed action cinema, but continues to influence contemporary pop culture to this day. Instead, let’s honor the film’s anniversary (happy 38th birthday, Raiders!) by looking at how Raiders of the Lost Arkhas specifically influenced three of the most important TV and film franchises of the last decade: Captain America, The X-Files, and X-Men

Captain America: The First Avenger

Has there even been a more successful Indiana Jones-style blockbuster (that isn’t Indiana Jones) than Captain America: The First Avenger?Like Raiders of the Lost Ark,The First Avenger lives and breathes nostalgia. They’re both period dramas featuring action heroes who fight the Nazis. They even have nearly identical-dressed secondary antagonists in Toby Jones’ Dr. Arnim Zola and Ronald Lacey’s Major Arnold Ernst Toht.

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Of course, these similarities aren’t a coincidence. The First Avengerdirector Joe Johnston spoke to the L.A. Times about the extent to which Indiana Jonesinfluenced The First Avenger, saying:

We used Raiders as a template when we were developing the story, but we sort of moved away from it as time went on. This is futurism in the 1940s. If you went to 1942 and thought of what the future would be, that’s what the approach was … So we went away from the Raiders template in that sense but where we sort of stuck with it was in the structure and the action and the way the main characters are thrown into these situations and then have to get themselves out of them.

When you sit down to watch it, it’s certainly not Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is a very different kind of film in the final analysis. But sometimes when we had questions and we were stuck we would say, ‘What would Indiana Jones do? What would be the answer to this in Raiders of the Lost Ark?’ I’ve always loved Raiders, and the great achievement of it was the tone and the fresh feeling of the movie. It was period but didn’t feel like it was made in the period. It felt like a contemporary film about this period in the past, and that is the goal we have with Captain America. And I can say this — it definitely has an Indiana Jones pace.

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Though this Indiana Jonesvibe lessens after Steve Rogers travels to the present-day in future Marvel movies, Raiders‘influence lives on in Steve’s old-fashioned sensibility. And, though subsequent Captain Americafilms have arguably been better than The First Avenger,it’s hard to imagine what the MCU would look like if that first Captain America installment hadn’t worked. 

The First Avenger not only gave us another superhero to match Iron Man within the MCU, but also cemented the tactic of using different genres to craft unique tones for each of the Marvel superheroes within the larger shared cinematic universe.

The X-Files

The X-Filescreator Chris Carter has called Indiana Jonesone of the reasons why he wanted to go into filmmaking, telling TV Insider:

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Sometimes writers—and even people who are not writers—come up and say, I’m doing what I’m doing because of The X-Files. But I could say that about Apocalypse Now for me. Or Indiana Jones. That’s the reason I’m doing what I’m doing.

If Raiders of the Lost Ark‘sinfluence on The X-Files in particular wasn’t apparent from Harrison Ford’s David Duchovny-like mumbling and masculine earnestness, then the final shot would hammer it home. The film ends with a crate containing the Ark of the Covenant being moved through a government warehouse filled with countless non-descript crates holding other potentially dangerous mysteries. It’s a scene that wouldn’t be out of place at the end of an episode of The X-Files.

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Agent Fox Mulder is something of an Indiana Jones-like character. He has a rugged academicness to him. He is unhealthily passionate about his work. And, like Indy, he is perpetually getting in over his head as the result of his insatiable curiosity about the secrets of the universe (in Indy’s case, archaelogy, in Mulder’s case, anything unexplained).

Season 6’s “Triangle” in particular seems a direct tribute to Indiana Jones‘swashbuckling style. In the episode, Mulder travels back in time while in the Bermuda Triangle and is rescued by a World War II-era ship overrun by Nazis. He meets someone who looks exactly like Scully, his very own Marion Ravenwood, ready to call him out on his shit and punch Nazis (or him) in the face when the situation calls for it.

X-Men: Apocalypse

Though Apocalypseis set in the 1983 while Raiders of the Lost Arkis set in 1936, it seems worth noting that Apocalypse‘s setting is almost the same year as the year Raiders wasmade and the Indiana Jonesfilmwas obviously an influence on Bryan Singer in the making of Apocalypse. Singer even shared this photo from the set. Note the caption:

Apocalypse‘s beginning unfolds in a Raiders-like fashion, with Moira MacTaggert playing an Indiana Jones of sorts in the first act, traveling to Egypt where she accidentally stumbles upon the hidden tomb of Apocalypse as a cult is just about to resurrect him. (As in First Class, she is nothing if not timely in her investigating.) 

Den of Geek‘s David Crow wrote about the trend for superhero flicks to “go biblical.” Referencing X-Men: Apocalypsein his analysis, he writes: “Director Bryan Singer would appear on the surface to be offering a critique of the Christian and Jewish God’s angrier early years … Like the Old Testament God, Apocalypse is depicted as a vengeful, jealous deity.”

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It’s easy to see Indiana Jones in the focus on ancient Egypt and the archaeological-like investigations of Moira, but, in many ways, Apocalypse‘s true homage to Raiders of the Lost Arkis in its status as a period drama that blurs the line between the supernatural and the religious. Apocalypse is a vengeful, all-powerful entity, albeit one more corporeal than God as depicted in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Perhaps this is where Apocalypsegot into trouble. The elements of Apocalypsethat seem most actively inspired by Raiders of the Lost Arkare the very elements that confuse the themes of this film, and distract from much of what was good about the first two X-Menprequels: namely, the core relationship between Charles and Erik, and the exploration of the political subtext inherent in the X-Men story.

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Still, I would argue that X-Men: Apocalypsemanages to capture some of the glorious stakes of the Raiders of the Lost Arkin its initial introduction of the Apocalypse plot. It’s only when it tries to expand upon those elements that the plot starts getting murky. Maybe they should have just had everyone’s face melt off instead. 

What’s your favorite example of a contemporary film or TV show inspired by Raiders of the Lost Ark? Sound off in the comments below.

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