Last night I watched the 2013 film, The Lone Ranger. And before I discuss it, let me just point out that even at five years old, I thought that the Lone Ranger was the most pathetic hero imaginable. Nothing since that time has changed my opinion. He is the archetype of the Good Guy™ — a character so earnest he shits puppies. So I appreciate the problems that the filmmakers faced in trying to make this film. The obvious, and correct, solution to this and many other problems with modernizing this franchise was to not make it. Obviously, they did not do that.
The Lone Ranger is brought to you by the same people who brought you Pirates of the Caribbean. And it has many of the same problems. In particular, it is quite boring whenever Johnny Depp is not on the screen. And the action sequences — just like in the second the third Pirates films — are overlong and so over-the-top that they reach escape velocity — never finding their way back to earth. In the pursuit of these action sequences, the film also commonly depends upon animation that sticks out. Finally, the film is at least forty minutes too long.
The best part of the film is when it is going for comedy. It is incredibly silly. Clearly, the filmmakers decided to go for a postmodern approach. Generally, the film is not so much about the Lone Ranger as it is a modern meditation on the Lone Ranger. And for anyone who doesn’t think much the old incarnations of it, these sequences are very funny. But for some reason, everyone thought it was a good idea to oscillate between Duck Soup silliness and The Ox-Bow Incident seriousness. I don’t think it worked, but it was an interesting idea. In a world of art, I’m sure the writers would have continued working on it. In the world of commerce, I’m sure everyone did their very best to get this thing done on schedule and budget.
In addition to the fundamental problem of the Lone Ranger being a very boring character, the film has perhaps a bigger problem: Tonto and the depiction of Native Americans in general. The problem is that genocide is hard to deal with as a side issue. In Captain America, I thought it was great and all that that over-earnest hero saved the world during World War II, but I thought maybe he might be able to do something about the genocide going on. Call me stick in the mud. Regardless, The Lone Ranger deals with the issue better: we get to see the genocide happen in real time.
Thematically, this is the best part of the film. Business interests have manage to take control of all parts of the government. The military is portrayed as basically decent, but cowardly and foolish. And in the name of protecting “civilized society” from the “savages” they use Gatling guns to wipe out the Comanche. The real reason, of course, is so the bad guys can make a bunch of money and take control of the railroad. To be honest, I was shocked about the portrayal of the military. But isn’t that pretty much what the function of the military is? When I talk about cowardice, I’m not talking about rushing into battle and killing and risking death — they clearly have that kind of bravery. But the bravery to stand up to authority? Not really. This isn’t a slight against the military. This is definitional. If you are going to have a military, you want them to do what they are told. But that is so dangerous and I don’t think Americans have given that any thought. Instead, they idealize the military as if it is the only part of the government that can do no wrong. Good God, we are doomed!
Tonto is a difficult character. Traditionally, he is Gunga Din: the good and loyal savage. Clearly, that doesn’t fly anymore. So what the filmmakers do here has now become almost as much of a cliche: they flip it so the audience sees the story largely from Tonto’s perspective. Rather than look up to the Lone Ranger, Tonto looks down on him. And we share that view because the idealism of the Lone Ranger is childish and insipid. But the film also makes Tonto insane in the same way that Jack Sparrow was. I’m not sure how we are supposed to take that.
Ultimately, I liked the film far more than I expected to. But the bar was set pretty low in that regard. About the only reason I watched it was because I wanted to see Johnny Depp play a funny character. I’d heard the film was quite bad, so I was expecting something like Wild Wild West — which really was bad. In an absolute sense, The Lone Ranger is more good than it is bad. But I will do my very best to never watch it again.