Some thoughts on The Lone Ranger
What does the Lone Ranger want? Excellent question! Of necessity, spoilers within.
The Lone Ranger wants “to avenge his brother’s death.” He joins his brother Dan, a Texas Ranger, on a manhunt, and the entire posse is killed by an outlaw band led by despicable bad-guy Butch Cavendish.
Terrific premise for a movie! Even the places where the premise deviates from canon, making the Lone Ranger a liberal, due-process worshiping goodie-two-shoes instead of an actual Ranger, is fine – it gives the protagonist room to grow.
What does the protagonist not want? He doesn’t want to be The Lone Ranger. And that presents a real problem. As Charlie Jane Anders puts it in her comprehensive takedown of the movie:
Imagine a Batman movie where people keep asking Batman why he’s dressed as a freaking bat. And where Batman himself keeps looking embarrassed and telling everyone that he knows the bat costume is moronic, but it wasn’t his idea. That’s The Lone Ranger.
In the Batman model, The Lone Ranger would be a movie about Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s faithful butler, who spends two hours trying to convince Bruce Wayne that it would be a good idea to dress up as a bat to fight crime in Gotham City. Because Bruce Wayne is dead set against the idea. “Bring my parents’ killer to justice, sure, I want to do that, but dress up like a bat? That sounds a little weird, Alfred, admit it, you’re kind of weird.” And then there would be some comical setpieces where Batman accidentally takes out some bad guys, because oops, while Alfred makes funny faces.
I’m a huge Lincoln fan, and many years ago I went to Lincoln Center in NYC to see Sam Waterston play Lincoln in Robert Sherwood’s play Abe Lincoln in Illinois. Abe Lincoln in Illinois, like The Lone Ranger, is two and a half hours of everyone the protagonist knows telling Lincoln that he really ought to run for president and free the slaves, because, you know, it’s his destiny. And then, finally, reluctantly, with great misgivings, Lincoln finally caves and says “Okay, I guess I’ll run for president and go to Washington and free the slaves and fulfill my destiny.” First of all, I hated Waterston’s portrayal of Lincoln as a polite, genial sad-sack. Second, I thought “What man in the history of ever had to be bullied and cajoled and hectored into attaining the highest office in the land?” Becoming president is hard, complicated, arduous work – nobody does it because his friends and family keep bugging him to do it. A man has to really want it, and want it badly, and be willing to compromise a million different aspects of his character to do it. The story of how Abraham Lincoln became president is smashing drama, but Robert Sherwood, for whatever reason germane to his time, decided to make Lincoln the ultimate passive protagonist, a cavilling whiner who just isn’t really sure if he wants to be president, could you lay out the reasons one more time?
As I’ve noted before, when, in a narrative, a protagonist puts on a mask to fight crime, you’ve automatically entered the realm of fantasy. To make that fantasy work, you’ve got to believe in it, and you’ve got to get the audience to buy into it. There is no fantasy so far-fetched that it cannot be sold to an audience. The Lone Ranger is an American myth, and Americans love their myths, especially their Western myths of white-hatted lawmen and magical Injuns and evil railroad tycoons and instant wealth of gold and silver and Manifest Destiny. We love those myths, it’s the reason why the Western is the most durable of American film genres, from Tom Mix to John Wayne to Clint Eastwood. The Western is where Americans go to learn about themselves. It’s the US before the laws were writ, the place where we decided as a nation who we are and what we stand for, good and bad, the foundation of the pioneer spirit and the wholesale slaughter of the natives.
All those plot touchstones are in The Lone Ranger, but they’re hung on a protagonist who really isn’t sure what he wants. People complain that the movie is too long, and what they’re feeling is the anxiety of an audience way ahead of the protagonist. Way ahead. Batman Begins waits an hour to get Bruce Wayne into his mask, but lays out that hour with character development, a complicated flashback structure and incident galore. We get wrapped up in Bruce Wayne’s quest to prepare himself, we almost forget that he’s going to end up as Batman. There is no similar struggle dramatised in The Lone Ranger. John Reid is shot and left for dead, he comes back from the dead in the presence of Tonto, and Tonto sets about turning John Reid into the Lone Ranger. And even Tonto keeps saying that this is a bad idea, it won’t work, this is the wrong guy, and so forth. And it takes a full two hours for John Reid to finally say “Yeah, this is what I want to do, I’m the Lone Ranger, let’s settle this drama.” Essentially, it’s a movie where the second lead works for two hours to convince the protagonist that he should really be the protagonist.
It’s great to have a protagonist who isn’t sure what he wants, Hamlet being a prime example, but imagine Hamlet with Horatio prodding Hamlet every step of the way: “Maybe you should go up on the battlements to talk to Bernardo about the ghost he saw,” “Hey, what if you put on a play that will show your uncle that you know he killed your father?” “You know what? Poisoned swords, what could go wrong?” and then, every other scene, saying “Eh, you’re probably not the right guy for revenging your father, let’s see if maybe Ophelia is up for it,” and that’s The Lone Ranger.
How did this happen? I’m guessing that it began with the casting of Johnny Depp as Tonto. Depp mentioned somewhere that his decision to play Tonto is meant to be an homage to his mentor Marlon Brando, who was famously involved in Native American affairs and famously turned down his Oscar for The Godfather in protest of the treatment of Native Americans. Well, Johnny Depp is older now that Brando was when he made The Godfather (if you can believe that) but he’s already begun doing what Brando waited until late in his career to do: create performances chiefly for his own amusement. Sometimes his self-conscious choices work like gangbusters, like they do the Pirates movies, and sometimes they disastrously sabotage the project, as they do in Dark Shadows. Depp even puts on old-age makeup in The Lone Ranger (partly an homage to Dustin Hoffman’s makeup in Little Big Man) but Brando was really working when he created the aged Vito Corleone, there were no winks to camera, no goofball eye-rolling, no calling attention to the performance. Brando played The Godfather totally straight, with great humanity and gravity, and we ended up loving Vito Corleone in spite of his being a ruthless gangboss, because the narrative needed us to do so, or else the story wouldn’t mean anything.
I could see a movie called The Lone Ranger where the protagonist is Tonto, and, indeed, Tonto’s backstory is probably the most heartfelt and compelling passage of The Lone Ranger. I could see a movie about Tonto and his quest for justice against the men who killed his people and spoiled his land, and how he needs a raised-from-the-dead Texas Ranger to attain that goal. I could even see a movie that involves that storyline, and comical horse hijinx, and cannibalistic rabbits. I could even see a movie about Tonto trying to create the Lone Ranger out of the least likely candidate available, a kind of My Fair Ranger, which is the fairest description of the movie now running, but you couldn’t have a My Fair Lady where Eliza Doolittle has to keep apologizing to people about wanting to raise her class status because it’s kind of stupid. The Lone Ranger wants to make a myth and also be too hip for that kind of thing, wants to be above it, considers it old-fashioned, which was the point of the character to begin with.