‘The Lone Ranger:’ Disney’s scramble for the next superhero

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It’s been nearly a month since the train wreck of a movie The Lone Ranger hit theaters and while moviegoers have likely recouped the price of their ticket, Disney certainly hasn’t, and the question of how a movie that appeared to have so much going for it could turn out so badly still lingers in the air.

If only the movie was as good as the poster.
If only the movie was as good as the poster.

Four weeks after a much hyped holiday weekend debut, the $215 million film has grossed just over $164 million and nearly half of that is from foreign box offices. Amidst the collapse of Disney’s latest franchise hopeful, numerous critics have written it off as yet another failed attempt by the industry to revitalize the loved and lost genre of the western. While this is partially true, Ranger’s failure is due much more to bad business decisions followed by the superfluous unraveling of a tightly wound story.

If you look up the definition of a western, you’ll find that, unlike pretty much every other genre out there, the only direction it gives to the production crew is a setting; a time and a place. That’s because the western was invented to reflect upon a setting that was familiar to its audience. Since that setting is no longer familiar to the vast majority of today’s moviegoers, Hollywood’s answer has been to infuse the unfamiliar with something relevant.

The Lone Ranger's television show had its share of success in the 1950s.
The Lone Ranger’s television show had a succesful run from 1949 to 1957.

But nearly every time they’ve done that the movie has flopped (Here’s looking at you Cowboys & Aliens, John Carter). So what was different about The Lone Ranger? Rather than planting a story in the west that didn’t belong there, Disney sought to take a story already there and update it. The Lone Ranger (aka John Reid) and his sidekick Tonto were set to become the modern day superheroes of a forgotten era and all that stood in their way was Disney’s gleaming business agenda.

Since its inception, the Walt Disney Company has been the pioneer of the vast majority of what we now call the movie industry and they’ve gone to great lengths to keep it that way. When its longtime rival and owner of DC Comics, Warner Brothers, kicked things up a notch with 2005’s Batman Begins, it came as no surprise that Disney was seeking to acquire Marvel Comics, which it did in 2009, spawning its own series of blockbusters.

While the legal and financial future of that entity was being tossed around, so too was the future of lesser known subsidiary Classic Media which, among other namesakes, carried the rights to The Lone Ranger series. By the end of 2008, producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Johnny Depp, along with screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, were linked to a live action film adaptation of the highly successful radio and TV program.

Overlooking the fact that a big-screen adaptation had failed in the 1980s and rights to Classic Media had previously been passed up by both The Weinstein Company and Warner Brothers, Disney forged ahead, adding Gore Verbinski as director and fully reassembling the team behind the original Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. This time around however, the faults of each talent seemed to outshine any strengths and a smash hit wasn’t in the forecast.

Johnny Depp couldn't save this train wreck.
Johnny Depp couldn’t save this train wreck.

Bruckheimer, who hasn’t had a bona fide hit since Pirates is known more for his action sequences than storytelling ability. Verbinski’s films tend to be on the long and loosely stitched together side and Depp, while undisputedly an A-lister, has a penchant for playing the odd and outrageous but lacks the versatility to take on more dramatic roles. Ranger thus becomes an overly long, incohesive mix of comedy and drama sprinkled with odd bits of action and the supernatural.

It all worked out for Depp & Co. (several times) because the crew was working with their own material. Pirates was new, exciting, and as enchanting as the theme park ride itself despite minor flaws. Here Disney took too much creative liberty to make a story that wasn’t its own fit a formula that was and neither the movie nor its creative team knew what exactly it should end up looking like.

Depp was signed to portray Tonto from the beginning and that character became a Jack Sparrow. Until 2013, Tonto was the wise and faithful Native American companion of the Lone Ranger but here he’s portrayed as a cunning and marooned loner; willing to help but also just as willing to out do. He’s given a completely invented backstory in which he has his own bones to pick and a completely outrageous costume that includes a dead bird.

This had the slightest potential to work out as another oddball character but Depp doesn’t even seem to put any effort into portraying Tonto and he becomes as bleak as the deserted landscape in which he lives. Armie Hammer, a decent actor himself, plays Reid but lends no help to the situation when his Ranger comes off more like a Dudley Do-Right than the straight man that could offset his partner’s foolishness.

No character to care about this flick makes it hard to watch.

With no character to truly care about and no clear answer as to whether The Lone Ranger was meant to be a parody of the original series or a copy gone horribly wrong, the only sequences that do anything but underwhelm are, ironically enough, two dramatically-filmed, adrenaline-fueled train wrecks that open and close the movie.

An article written earlier by fellow Baltimore Post-Examiner Martin Sieff asks “What has happened to the Suits at Disney?” Well, It’s pretty safe to assume that in a billion-dollar empire able to withstand a few losses, the suits are still being dry cleaned and replenished with new pocket squares on a daily basis. But I do have a feeling that with their inability to create even a lackluster western-set buddy comedy, the Suits won’t be getting their planned sequel, or franchise for that matter.

Here’s hoping they have better luck in a galaxy far, far away.