I’ve seen many movies that were objectively worse than The Lone Ranger. Very few have made me angrier.
This is not because I have any personal attachment to the character. Like most people my age, I don’t. I do care about the fraternity of iconic heroes in masks and capes of which he is a member: Zorro, the Green Hornet, Superman, Batman, Spider-Man. While some of these (notably Batman) have been more ambiguously portrayed than others, generations of children have looked up to these figures as much for their high moral codes as their prowess and cool accoutrements.
Even more than Man of Steel, The Lone Ranger is the poster child for our culture’s terminal inability to offer children today heroic role models. It’s as cynical and bankrupt an exercise of pop moviemaking as any would-be summer blockbuster I can think of.
Case in point: In one sequence, Tonto (Johnny Depp in yet another pasty-faced role) and the Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer, The Social Network) are left buried up to their necks, and the Ranger is rescued first (implausibly but not unpredictably). Immediately he leaps on Silver and starts to ride away, callously leaving Tonto to die without so much as a thought — until belatedly realizing that he needs Tonto to show him where to go. This is not a moral lapse, it’s typical of the character’s cluelessness.
When the film first brings together Tonto, Silver and the newly deputized Texas Ranger who will become our nominal hero, there’s a sequence with Tonto leading the horse and the unconscious Ranger unceremoniously dragging behind. Then the horse stops to pass excrement — before dragging the future Lone Ranger’s head right through the pile of poop.
There, in a nutshell, is the movie’s attitude toward its source material. I’m reminded of the penguin pooping on Jim Carrey’s face in the also deplorable Mr. Popper’s Penguins. Here is a dismal rule of thumb: When a Hollywood adaptation of a family story involves the hero’s beloved animal pooping on his head, it’s a sign that the filmmakers are not lovers of their material.
Between the poop jokes, the Disney brand and the reunion of Depp with the director and screenwriters of Pirates of the Caribbean, you might be expecting a crude family action-comedy: Jack Sparrow meets Shrek. The often comic use of Silver — less the Lone Ranger’s horse than his preternatural patron and champion, rescuing the bumbling, incompetent masked man whenever he gets in over his head — reinforces the family-film vibe.
Yet The Lone Ranger is also chock-a-block with brutal violence, from heaps of slaughtered Indians to villainous Butch Cavendish literally cutting out the heart of a Texas Ranger while he’s still alive and then eating it. So many people are murdered in cold blood that I lost track. One older gentleman is unexpectedly shot in the back and left alive and screaming to cow other gentlemen into doing the villain’s bidding.
There are scenes of sexual menace; indeed, from the moment our hero’s sister-in-law and love interest Rebecca (Ruth Wilson) appears onscreen, she spends most of the movie being sized up, menaced or held captive. Let’s not forget the bordello sequence, with Helena Bonham Carter playing a flamboyant madam with a prosthetic ivory leg concealing a double-barreled shotgun.
Another grim, violent revisionist pulp-hero origin story, so soon after Man of Steel, would be depressing enough. One that debunks its nominal hero as a buffoon — a naive, bumbling city-slicker lawyer rather than a tough Ranger like his brother Dan — and comes tricked out with lame, crude family-film slapstick is worse. The Lone Ranger has no idea what kind of movie it wants to be, or who it wants to be it for.
At least the makers of Man of Steel were trying, however unsuccessfully, to honor their source material. You can tell, because they didn’t throw in Krypto the Super-dog (or Comet, the Super-horse) pooping on Clark’s head.
Here’s another suggestive point: In Man of Steel, Superman’s “S” insignia is a Kryptonian glyph that doesn’t stand for Superman, but at least stands for something noble: “hope.” In The Lone Ranger, “kemosabe” (“trusted friend” in the old stories) no longer means anything noble, but “wrong brother.” “Half-wit” and “dumb white man” are among Tonto’s other epithets for the Lone Ranger (who ultimately shoots back, alluding to the fact that “tonto” is Spanish for “dummy”).
It isn’t just the masked hero himself the filmmakers don’t love. Verbinski and company flip the bird, just about literally, to everyone and everything in sight: Tonto (wearing the bird on his head); the Western genre and the heroic ideal as such; the United States and just about everything connected with it, from its military and industry to its rule of law and religious heritage.
One of the most head-scratching things about this movie is that Disney had the gall to debut such explicitly anti-American fare over the Fourth of July holiday. Consider a set piece with the band playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” under a banner reading “A Nation United” at a railroad ceremony as Tonto commandeers one of the trains, in the process tearing the bandstand to pieces and ripping down the “Nation United” banner. The heroes almost literally pull apart the united nation in order to stop the bad guys.
Religion in The Lone Ranger is either a hypocritical mask worn by the villains or an absurd occupation of frivolous, sheep-like citizens whom the ruthless villains gleefully terrorize — and it’s supposed to be funny, because they’re really so ridiculous. When a smilingly insipid Presbyterian woman on a train invites the future Lone Ranger, John Reid, to pray with them, his reply is to hold up a copy of John Locke’s Treatises on Government with the words, “This is my bible.”
Even Native American spirituality is lampooned. Tonto considers Silver a “spirit-horse” and Reid a “spirit-walker” who has been to the other side of death and back, and so can’t be killed in battle; he also calls Cavendish, against whom he has an old grievance, an evil “Wendigo” spirit. But Tonto is clearly more than a bit tweaked by his life experiences, and his fellow Comanche ridicule his homespun beliefs, explaining them as any Western rationalist might.
It’s true that Silver is essentially a walking deus ex machina, and the Lone Ranger does survive extraordinary dangers and make extraordinary shots. But that’s just another way of debunking the hero’s traditional prowess: Our hero doesn’t make that shot because he’s a straight shooter, but by either magic or dumb luck. He’s a bit like Jar Jar in a mask, winning by accident or fiat rather than skill.
Before the Pirates of the Caribbean films, screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio collaborated on Hollywood’s last two Western swashbucklers about a masked pulp hero: the splendid The Mask of Zorro and its inexplicably dreadful sequel The Legend of Zorro. Someone should have told them they got it right the first time and wrong the second time. Here, they freely recycle plot points and gags from both of their Zorro films.
Once again, white men plot to exploit and murder natives in order to steal the wealth of their land. (The twist: this time it’s silver, not gold.) There’s another corrupt General Custer cavalry type (Barry Pepper). Silver chugs liquor from a bottle and then belches; Zorro’s black horse Tornado did the same in Legend. A stunt with the Lone Ranger riding Silver atop a train racing into a tunnel (and dropping to safety at the last instant) is borrowed directly from Legend. Oh, and once again the patrician villain carries a torch for the hero’s woman (though in this case our hero himself is also carrying a torch for her, because she’s actually his brother’s woman).
Needless to say, the comparisons to The Mask of Zorro, at any rate, only accent The Lone Ranger’s glaring deficiencies. The Mask of Zorro took nobility, honor and heroism as seriously as villainy: Anthony Hopkins’ Don Diego was a skilled, classy and cunning warrior, and Antonio Banderas played a scruffy rogue undergoing a grueling tutelage to become worthy of the mask of Zorro.
The Lone Ranger laughs at all this. John’s moral scruples make him ridiculous and naive, not admirable, and he’s basically useless in a pinch. It’s hard to believe, but Hammer was more traditionally heroic and noble as the semi-comic Prince in Tarsem’s lightweight but sincere Mirror Mirror.
Then, suddenly, after two hours of steadfastly not developing the hero, the swelling strains of the William Tell Overture announce that, at last, the Lone Ranger has arrived for the big finale. (Yes: Two hours, and the finale is yet to come.) Here at least Verbinski’s flair for cartoony set pieces creates sequences worth watching as sheer spectacle. If you walked in on this sequence, with those stirring trumpets on the soundtrack, you might think you were watching a decent popcorn flick.
With Tonto and Silver’s help, though with no real training or acquisition of skills, John takes on a cavalry regiment, hijacks a train, and engages in enough locomotive derring-do to make Buster Keaton blanch, with the obvious caveat that Keaton’s stunts in The General were real and the Lone Ranger’s are massively digitized. (Depp’s performance is supposed to evoke the Great Stone Face, though they’re clearly going for another Sparrow-like weirdo. Instead, he comes off more like pasty Barnabas Collins. Apparently no one has noticed yet that Sparrow was also a sly flirt whose disconcerting effect on Elizabeth Swann was key to his charm.)
The Lone Ranger was explicitly created and developed as a role model for children. He never drank or smoked, never shot to kill, and explicitly followed a “creed” that included belief in “my Creator, my country, my fellow man.” I’m open to a new take on the character reexamining what a role model should look like today, but this film’s masked man is someone no one could possibly look up to.
A strange framing device finds an elderly Tonto in a Wild West show in 1933 San Francisco, relating the story of the Lone Ranger to a young boy in a Lone Ranger mask. At first the boy is skeptical of Tonto’s version of events: The Lone Ranger would never rob a bank, he protests. Boys of that generation may have been naive, but at least they had stories about iconic heroes whose virtue and heroism they believed in implicitly. What stories about iconic heroes do our children have?
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is studying for the permanent diaconate for the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.
Content advisory: Much intense violence including graphic shootings, mass killings and a gory, off-screen mutilation of a dying man; some suggestive content including a bordello sequence and brief sexual menace; some crude language. Mature viewing.