“Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear…”
Disney’s new vision of The Lone Ranger fits squarely into the mold of a superhero. When first introduced, he’s presented as having more in common with the villain of the story than anyone else. They’re compatriots in a way, both educated men out to tame a “savage” land. They both rely on (and quote from) the same treatises about law and order. The difference is that one man uses the law as a bludgeon to exploit the land and its people, while the other comes to realizes that the law ceases to be a meaningful authority when it fails to serve the principles of justice.
From the very first moment of his appearance onscreen, Armie Hammer’s wide-eyed title character radiates a mild-mannered charm and a constant desire to help people. He’s often not very good at it, but unlike some other heroes this blockbuster season, he never stops trying to do the right thing. Time and again the movie tells him that his quest for justice over vengeance is simple-minded, naïve, and futile. But still, against reason, against common sense, against even his own best interests, he perseveres. Because that’s what heroes do.
A lot of fuss has been made over Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Tonto as an American Indian, and in principle I sympathize with the idea that minority characters ought to be played by minority actors. In this case, the movie never would have come to exist without Depp’s star power driving it. This is not a case where a white man beat out otherwise qualified minority actors for a minority part. This was a specific interpretation of the character that he wanted to bring to life, and frankly would not have been the same in the hands of any other performer.
The relationship and chemistry between Tonto and the Lone Ranger is what makes everything work, I love the recurring theme that you can’t choose your brother. This is not a servant/master relationship, as it may have been fairly interpreted in the past, but a meeting of two men at odds who realize they need one another. One is seeking redemption, the other seeking purpose and family.
On the surface, THE LONE RANGER gave me everything I wanted from a summer movie. It was a fun adventure filled with heart and humor, and the action was beyond thrilling. I spent the entire last half hour grinning like an idiot. The entire thing – and especially the music – could serve as an object lesson in how to effectively mix traditional elements with a new twist, and satisfy both the craving for nostalgia (why I’m at Lone Ranger movie in the first place) and the desire to see something new.
But the genius of the story is in its framing. Many of the themes in THE LONE RANGER were highly telegraphed in director Gore Verbinki’s animated western RANGO, which follows a fantasy-prone hero through a series of adventures (or hallucinations?) guided by The Spirit Of The West. Similarly, everything that happens in this story is seen through the eyes of a child. Not just a child: a fan, equipped with Lone Ranger hat, mask, and cap guns. This kid doesn’t know about Manifest Destiny or the massacre of American Indians. He’s already accepted the established myths of The West as presented in popular radio serials without question. What he gets is a story he thinks he already knows, but from a very different point of view.
There’s a good deal of subversion packed into the tale, but the movie never forgets that this is a fantasy and is supposed to be fun. In the most obvious sense, the hero of the story is The Lone Ranger, fighting a bad guy who mirrors the prejudices within himself and the easy judgments that come with them. But really, the hero is the kid who just wants to hear an exciting adventure, but comes to see something more.
The more I’ve had time to reflect on the messages of the movie, the more I find to love about it. As part of a soulless studio marketing campaign, the oft-repeated slogan “Never take off the mask” seemed like just another way to fill posters with ad copy. But in the context of the story, it spoke to me. Like “May The Force be with you” for my generation, it means never stop believing in heroes and fairy tales. Never stop looking for the wondrous and whimsical and offbeat. Don’t buy into the conventional wisdom. Find your own path, and never stop fighting the good fight. Never, as Peter Pan would say, grow up.
I can already see that in our current era of dark and gritty angst-ridden “heroes,” THE LONE RANGER is struggling to find an audience. Doubtless its financial failure will mean fewer of these kind of movies get made, and that’s a shame. But my hope is that, maybe on cable or home video, some kid will find this movie and it will speak to him as it did to me. That it will light a spark. When that happens, I hope he never takes off the mask.
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