People complain that The Lone Ranger is boring, that it's almost totally devoid of fun except for the final 10 minutes, that it's ridiculously violent and yet inert. And all of these things are true — but you have to understand, it's all part of a calculated strategy, to sink far enough to burrow all the way to the infarcted heart of the terrible superhero origin story.
The goal is to show you who is to blame for the crappiness of so many superhero origin movies — you — and to punish you for allowing movies like The Lone Ranger to exist.
In The Lone Ranger, Armie Hammer plays a stuffy lawyer, who chases after some outlaws and apparently dies in an ambush, only to come back as a stuffy crime-fighter. Johnny Depp is Tonto, a Native American who urges Hammer to wear a mask and fulfill his heroic destiny — in this film, Depp is basically Obi-Wan and Robin rolled into one, which is as weird as it sounds.
The actual plot of the movie revolves around a silver mine, and control over the transcontinental railroad, and the local Native Americans being framed for murder. But it's really the heroic journey of the masked man, with Tonto serving as the magical Native American who helps the Lone Ranger to realize that he's special and wonderful. Meanwhile, a lot of Native Americans have to die, on screen, in a bloody and horrible way, to provide the crucible for this lonely ranger to become the Lone Ranger.
But we're just scratching the surface here. Are you ready to go down the carnivorous rabbit hole?
What you mean 'Wheeeeeee,' white man?
You expect certain things from a Disney movie, from the director and star of the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies. In particular, you expect a fast pace, lots of zany set pieces, funny stunts, Johnny Depp being a sexually ambiguous Keith Richards, CG beasties, and a bit of slap and tickle. Basically, you expect an amusement park ride turned into a movie. Lone Ranger knows this, and deliberately turns this expectation against you, as an instrument of torture.
The Lone Ranger actually starts with someone entering a carnival, or basically a 1920s amusement park, in search of a fun ride. Only to be disappointed.
The little white kid, wearing a mask like the Lone Ranger's, enters a Wild West attraction — but instead of excitement, he finds Johnny Depp in old-man makeup, pretending to be a stuffed figure in a diorama labeled "The Noble Savage." This is the framing device for the entire movie, Old Tonto telling his story to the hero-worshiping kid.
Having signaled that the "amusement park ride" thing was a bait-and-switch, the movie goes on to make sure we loathe the little kid that Tonto is telling the story. Except that soon, we realize that the most annoying child in the West is an audience surrogate. He is us, and we are him. The kid's job is to help us develop the proper amount of self-loathing by association, because it's not enough for us to suffer. We have to understand that we deserve to suffer.
Outside of the framing story, the film is painfully slow, and beautifully shot. The high-seas adventure of Pirates of the Caribbean is replaced with the desolate, unforgiving mountain-and-desert vistas of the West. Every few minutes there's a stately shot of a crag or a gully, even as the movie's story develops at the pace of soil erosion. The very landscape mocks your foolish expectation of fun.
Against this backdrop, the movie flails at a storyline in which Tonto keeps insisting that "nature is out of balance," because of the crimes of the white outlaws who are secretly but obviously in league with all the white authority figures in the movie. Backing this up, we see weird monster rabbits with big carnivorous fangs, which eat through anything in their path. And there's a magical white "spirit horse," which apparently marks the Lone Ranger for greatness, and saves him a couple times.
So is it true that nature is out of balance and the Lone Ranger has been chosen by a magical horse? Unclear. We see some stuff in the movie that appears to be supernatural, including a bit where someone touches a rock and has visions. And the monster bunnies. But Tonto's fellow Native Americans think Tonto is just crazy and guilt-ridden, from Tonto's own complicity with evil white men.
Considering that the whole movie is a story that Tonto is telling years later, it scarcely matters. This is Tonto's story, as told by Tonto — and yet, he remains a cipher.
Depp is doing the same Charlie Chaplin shuffle as Tonto that he does as Captain Jack. But his main comedy device is actually the dead bird on his head, that he keeps trying to feed birdseed to over and over again. Depp puts a lot into doing his clown-face over and over again, as he tries to forcefeed a dead corvid, and meanwhile his comic timing is slowed down to a crawl as the movie lurches from scenes of mass slaughter to wacky "we're robbing a bank for justice" montages.
The expectation of wackiness and hijinks and amusement-ride fun revolves around Depp — so his mumbling, alienated performance is a crucial part of siphoning the fun out of the movie.
A central trope of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies is that there's no place for Captain Jack Sparrow in the modern world of the British Empire and progress and stuff. The Lone Ranger transplants that idea — lots of people talk about the Future, as represented by the railroad and big business, and there's no place in the Future for someone like Tonto. And that Future, the one that Tonto is struggling against, is the world we live in, man.
Even though Tonto is telling the story and Tonto drives all of the action in the story, he's not the one who gets a real arc, and the movie isn't his origin story — it's about the titular character, the Lone Ranger. And it's the Lone Ranger's heroic journey where the film shows why you deserve to languish for two and a half hours that feel like an eternity.
Who the fuck does that masked man think he is?
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.
As far as I can tell, the main arc of this film is about the Lone Ranger learning the importance of wearing his mask. Almost the first words Johnny Depp speaks in the film are, "Never take off the mask."
The Lone Ranger spends most of the movie wearing the mask reluctantly, and at various points in the film he tries to take it off. Nobody apart from Tonto takes the mask seriously, until the end of the film. The hero's journey in this film, from the call to heroism to the final confrontation with the mean surrogate father, is all about the Lone Ranger embracing the mask that Tonto wants him to wear.
What makes the Lone Ranger finally embrace the need for his mask, and hence the whole "secret identity" thing? In a nutshell, he realizes his fellow white men are corrupt, and complicit in the mass murder of Tonto's fellow Native Americans. If he takes the mask off, then he too will wind up becoming complicit. Yes, that's right — in this film, the Lone Ranger's mask is made of White Guilt.
And in fact, the only function the Native Americans in this film have, other than Tonto, is to die horribly so that the Lone Ranger will have a catalyst to make him Man Up.
But it's more than that. We tend to think of superhero movies as power fantasies, in which the use of America's status as a superpower is reflected by the hero struggling to use his or her power responsibly. But Lone Ranger seems to be making the case that the real seductive fantasy of these stories is absolution from blame — the Lone Ranger gets the Native American seal of approval from Tonto, as long as he's wearing the mask. He gets surcease from America's original sin.
That's the secret of superheroes, according to this film: Peter Parker is a Tool of the Man, but Spider-Man is a free agent. Bruce Wayne is a capitalist running dog, but Batman fights for the little guy.
And that's why you deserve to suffer. Because a lot of innocent people had to die to make your costume fantasy possible, you bastards.
Along the way, we go through every terrible origin-story trope, including the sacrificial family member, the love interest who-can-look-after-herself-but-not-really, the hero being told how special he is, the cartoony but bland villains, etc. There's even a Fetish Babe: Helena Bonham Carter plays a sexy bordello madam, whose superpower is being a fetish icon. (She has an artificial leg made of ivory, with a gun hidden inside, and men are so busy worshipping her artificial leg, they don't notice she's shooting everything. I am not making a word of that up.)
In Depp and Verbinski's previous collaboration, Rango, they spoofed and interrogated the whole idea of the Hero's Journey — but here they go one better. They create the Platonic ideal of the crappy monomyth, maybe in the hopes that nobody will ever try and tell this story again.
In any case, by the time you stagger out of this endless nightmare, you will feel as aged and destroyed as Johnny Depp in his old-man makeup. And you will know that you have been the hose of the high colonic that this film has given America. You will understand the American hero fantasy and its dreadful underpinnings. And you'll realize just why you're to blame for The Lone Ranger.