Summer Movies: Indy Meets ‘M.I.’ and a Mermaid

This summer’s presumed blockbusters are defined less by action and more by leading roles—including an iconic doll and an ageless mermaid


We all know by now what the sound and fury of summer movies signifies. You’re excused for assuming, until persuaded otherwise, that this summer’s Pixar entry, Elemental, is barely distinguishable from last summer’s, whatever that was. You’re forgiven for losing track of how Across the Spider-Verse, the new animated Spider-Man, differs from Into the Spider-Verse or next year’s Beyond the Spider-Verse. In comparison, Greta Gerwig’s Barbie sounds as original as a rom-com based on a doll can be.

You can make an argument that summer movies went off the track when people started describing some as “character-driven.” Any story worth telling is character-driven, and the openings this summer of three of the biggest franchises ever are more character- driven than most. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first Indiana Jones movie, made at the dawn of the Reagan presidency, the character didn’t even rate mention in the title; the franchise was a high/low-concept Trojan horse with what became one of film’s most enduring characters hidden inside, emerging under cover of the movie-house darkness to shanghai the film from snakes, Nazis, sword-wielding assassins, and massive runaway boulders. The series had the good luck to cast Harrison Ford in the role at the last minute after other actors dropped out, surprising since Indy seems so suited to Ford’s grumpy, laconic charms. Reports have it that as Ford turns 81, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny will be the last of his four subsequent Indy movies, none of which has been as good as the original. It’s also the only one not directed by the other character driving the franchise, Steven Spielberg.

While Ethan Hunt is less delible, it’s now hard to picture any of the seven Mission: Impossible movies without Tom Cruise, who plays him. Of course, Hunt is the leader of a barely sanctioned espionage unit routinely confronted with intelligence challenges for which James Bond would be out of his league. In contrast to the diminishing returns of the Indiana Jones series, the M:I franchise has been more variable; the fourth installment, 2011’s Ghost Protocol, remains the peak, though expectations for the new one are elevated due to the high quality of 2018’s Fallout. The interesting thing about Cruise that seems inextricable from the series is that he’s out of his damned mind. Riding motorcycles at deranged velocities, hanging onto planes or jumping out of them, scaling Dubai skyscrapers that seem to soar to the moon, Cruise makes a nearly existential point of doing many of the stunts himself, a recklessness that lends the series a crazed authority. About to turn 61, Cruise is a spring chicken only in comparison with Ford, and, apparently Dead Reckoning is Cruise’s final M:I. We’ll see if the series can survive his departure, or wants to.

As preposterous as the prospect is, the most controversial of the big summer movies is a two-century-old child’s fairy tale. A rite-of-passage story about a half-girl, half-fish named Ariel, The Little Mermaid, an animated Disney landmark in the late ’80s, is now a live-action spectacular directed by the Oscar- and Emmy-nominated Rob Marshall. It’s only the latest of a couple dozen versions over the generations during which the character has been Scandinavian, Eastern European, vaguely Arabic, subtextually Asian, and bronze in the form of a statue. In the form of Halle Bailey, Ariel is Black and, as MAGA Nation would have it, the greatest affront since Black Santa Claus outraged Megyn Kelly on Fox News (“Santa just is white!”). Like Santa, Ariel is, in point of fact, not any color because she isn’t real, which is to say she’s any color anyone imagines an imaginary character to be.

Given all this, a case can be made for seeing Little Mermaid whether you care about it or not; cast your vote early while it still counts and as often as your child of whatever color or gender makes you take her. Sometimes the box office is character-driven, too.