a tale of two flops: the lone ranger and john carter (part 1)

Disney’s aspiring blockbuster franchises John Carter and The Lone Ranger are generally dismissed as flops on account of failing to satisfy critics and, most importantly, the all-powerful Box Office. Finding only some sort of lingering life in rentals since their theatrical release, they failed to ignite fandom in spite of each proto-franchise having significant cultural cachet. So what happened? Were the films essential flops or merely victims of marketing hype? The answer, of course, is both…but not to the same degree in each film.

Let’s start with the Wild West. It’s not until the intricately choreographed climactic confrontation on fast-moving trains that The Lone Ranger achieves the buoyant irony-free mood of a heroic adventure. Of all the film’s action set pieces, Verbinsky’s directorial wit shines best in this sequence, naturally set to the tune of the William Tell Overture. Everything that precedes and follows it, however, is a tonally inconsistent narrative that understandably alienates the generations who grew up with the legendary character and fails to impress a new generation of potential fans.

Some of the film’s sour atmosphere emerges from elements like a needlessly gruesome villain, Cavendish, whose cannibalism feels like a cheap shortcut to establish the character’s malevolence. Granted, audiences seem to prefer the directness of horror to the subtlety of terror, but can’t it be enough for a character to be a murderer and thief? Are we so jaded that storytellers have to resort to lurid gimmicks? Forget the expression “jumping the shark” as a shorthand for derailing into nonsense. I propose “eating the heart” instead.

Supernatural overtones, even as the product of an unreliable narrator’s interpretation of events, are similarly contrived. Layering the supernatural onto Cavendish whom Tonto perceives as a Wendigo and John Reid, whose path to becoming the Lone Ranger is associated with a mystical white horse, comes across as a stunt to add sparkle to a mundane plot. At least with Pirates of the Caribbean, the fantasy elements played into a deliberate embrace of exuberant excess.

This is by no means the worse of the script’s tendency to overcomplicate its narrative to the point of unraveling the film. Not content with a simple origin story, a comic element is added by conceiving John Reid as a bumbling city slicker who has to grow, with Tonto’s aid, into the role of heroic masked ranger.  A story rooted in the blurring line between personal revenge and genuine justice, as John is prompted to avenge his brother’s grisly death at Cavendish’s hands, is magnified by a larger plot involving that perennial Wild West villain, the megalomaniacal railroad company executive. And all of that is presented through a framing story in which an aged Tonto tells the story to an enthralled but skeptical young boy, a device that injects uncertainty into the narrative on account of Tonto’s  questionable reliability. It’s all too much, and the film groans with the juxtaposition of narrative themes, storytelling gimmicks, and ideas of all kinds.

Astonishingly, narrative bloat isn’t the film’s greatest shortcoming. As Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End proved, a film can be marvelously entertaining even as it falls apart from the attempt to cram too much into it. Rather, it is the film’s treatment of Native Americans in general and Tonto in particular that makes it a source of queasiness. The good news is that Native Americans aren’t presented as savages in need of civilization, or with the condescending reverence typically deployed in an attempt to counteract negative stereotypes. Yet their role in the film is arguably just as problematic: they serve as victims for the slaughter and, by extension, objects of pity. While the genocidal campaign against Native Americans is a decisive facet of early American life, surely this isn’t the only defining aspect of a people.

Similarly, while I have no objection to the use of tragedy to propel a character forward, as the film does with Tonto, I do question the filmmakers’ conception of the character. In the main narrative, he is portrayed as eccentric and unhinged, but is simultaneously too tragic to be comic relief and too quirky to be dramatically authentic. In other words, this is character that lacks dignity, being alternative a source of amusement and a source of pity. The framing story is even less charitable, presenting us with an old man displaced from this culture and reduced to a prop in a travelling exhibit. Despondent and doddering, with an uncertain relationship to reality, this Tonto merely evokes sadness. What the heck kind of movie is The Lone Ranger, then, that leaves audiences with a downer?

Next up: John Carter

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