I watch The Lone Ranger every 4th of July.
I do this not only because the film is wildly enjoyable and exciting, and thus an apt complement to the mood of a hot summer afternoon with hot dogs on the barbeque, but also because it is an ideal encapsulation of (and commentary on) the national myth of the country we are celebrating. Although the genre has fallen out of fashion somewhat in the last fifty years or so, to my mind, the western is as American as baseball and apple pie.
The Lone Ranger is noteworthy as a chronological anomaly – a big-budget western made at a time when westerns were not popular or profitable. (Its infamous failure at the box office may have scared Disney off of making interesting movies for the foreseeable future.) It is also noteworthy as a multi-faceted, meta-textual reflection on the western – on the genre’s cinematic history and the cultural and historical realities that both created it and led to its decline. By the same token, The Lone Ranger is a reflection on America. It is astonishing that such an unflattering picture of the nation had the gall to premiere on Independence Day weekend, but if the film is by no means straightforwardly patriotic, neither is it the scathing anti-American screed some make it out to be. It is neither glibly jingoistic nor glibly subversive.
There are two narratives about the frontier. One story says that man heroically conquers nature; another story says that man violates nature’s innocence. Locke tells us that society saves man from the state of nature; Rousseau tells us that society corrupts man and robs him of his natural freedom. The Lone Ranger’s most remarkable quality is its determination to hold these dueling narratives in tension, a conflict dramatized in a tug-of-war between two narrators, a child and an old man – a device that enables it to hold the romanticism of youth and the cynicism of old age in equal balance. Even as it weeps over America’s sins, it holds tenaciously to America’s promises. In one of its final shots (above), an image both sadly ironic and tentatively hopeful, our disenfranchised hero still stands before the stars and stripes.
These are not the only narratives that The Lone Ranger holds in balance. As we approach the end of a decade and film critics begin to ponder the past ten years, making sweeping claims about the best they had to offer, I want to make a case for The Lone Ranger’s greatness from a very particular perspective – a historical perspective, if you will, though I will not go back more than fifty years. As with any attempt to speak in generalizations, there will be exceptions to the trends I describe, but my contention is this: three distinct trends have defined the last twenty-odd years of blockbuster filmmaking, and in addition to everything else it accomplishes, The Lone Ranger encapsulates all three of these trends.
I can hardly deny that my taste in film leans toward snobbery. All the same, there are few things I love more than a really good popcorn movie. There is a personal bias at play here, for I grew up in the 2000s, and I grew older and more jaundiced in the 2010s. Nevertheless, I believe the 2000s truly were something of a golden age for blockbuster cinema. Directors were more comfortable using CGI to bring their visions to life, but not yet comfortable enough to use it as a crutch, and the result was an unusual explosion of ambition and imagination in big-budget films – the very films that, given the monetary investment they represent, are typically most liable to be corralled by the need to cater to the lowest common denominator. The 2000s’ ostensible failures are often more interesting than the 2010s’ supposed successes, and the triumphs of the 2000s speak for themselves. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings (and, for my money, King Kong). Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. Christopher Nolan’s Batman. George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels. Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean. The Bourne trilogy and the best James Bond movie (Casino Royale, but I’ll stick up for Quantum of Solace too). X2. Superman Returns. An Alfonso Cuarón-directed miracle called Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The list goes on.
One can abstract two distinct trends from the 2000s’ embarrassment of riches (though this survey will be brief and necessarily sketchy). Some of the films are essentially constructive, assuming a moral order that undergirds and governs the universe and presenting heroic characters who clearly live in accordance with that order. In contrast, many of the films are deconstructive, subjecting their heroes (if they can be called heroes at all) to moral dilemmas in an ambiguous world. Constructive films espouse a clear moral vision; deconstructive films question that vision. Yet none of this is to imply that deconstructive films are not morally serious. Indeed, many of them are profoundly, intensely concerned with pursuing moral clarity in a cosmos that seems obscure. It is not very difficult to slot most of the blockbusters of the 2000s into one category or the other. Raimi’s Spider-Man films are constructive; Nolan’s Batman films are decidedly deconstructive. Lord of the Rings? Constructive. Pirates of the Caribbean? Deconstructive.
To risk oversimplifying matters, it is easy to see 9/11 as the pivot point. The Spider-Man and Lord of the Rings trilogies both feel like holdovers from a bygone era because, in many ways, they are. The first Spider-Man, which set the tone for its two sequels, was well into production before the 2001 attacks (certain scenes featuring the Twin Towers were subsequently altered), and Lord of the Rings did not deviate too far from Tolkien’s mid-20th century source material (which, in turn, was steeped in even older sources). By contrast, the Dark Knight and Bourne films are clearly post-9/11 movies, fraught with anxiety over incomprehensible evils and ambivalence about the ethical compromises often required to impose order on a chaotic world. As a rule, constructive films like Spider-Man and Lord of the Rings portray goodness as simple and straightforward enough. It is not always easy for Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker to do the right thing – quite the opposite, in fact – but it is rarely difficult to tell what the right thing to do is. Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne, in contrast, broods insistently over what lines he should or should not cross, and whether the goals he pursues are worth the sacrifices they require.
The genius of Star Wars, the greatest work of big-budget mythmaking ever to grace the cinema, lies in (among other things) its combination of these two trends into one unified vision. The original trilogy is a simple morality play, a fairy tale. Good and evil are clearly defined; ambiguity about the moral authority of Luke’s Jedi mentors is shaded in so subtly that most viewers miss it. The prequel trilogy, on the other hand, is entirely defined by ambiguity and obfuscation. For all his soul-searching over the darkness he inherited from Darth Vader, it is impossible to imagine Luke really turning to the Dark Side, but Anakin? Well, we all know the answer to that one. And if the original Star Wars trilogy started the trends that found fruition in the constructive blockbusters of the 2000s, and the Star Wars prequels were part of that decade’s trend toward deconstruction (Attack of the Clones, the most morally obscure Star Wars movie, was the first released after 9/11), it is appropriate that the shift of the 2010s is best seen in the Star Wars sequel trilogy.
In a marked contrast to the daring innovation that characterized the blockbusters of the 2000s, new installments in long-running franchises are knowingly obsessed with reviving the tropes and iconography of those franchises. The well seems to have run dry, or at least been severely diluted. As they pay homage to old things, 2010s blockbusters reduce them to mere texture and superficiality, either failing to tap into the essence of the moral vision that made their forebears so enduringly great (The Force Awakens) or questioning their values without the seriousness, depth, and moral clarity that characterized the best deconstructive films of the 2000s (The Last Jedi). For another example, compare 2006’s Casino Royale, which took James Bond to task for his misogyny but also functioned as a compelling story in its own right, with 2012’s Skyfall, an impeccably suave revival of every old trashy Bond trope dressed up in “prestigious” costume. To get a full picture of the 2010s, one must simply make the leap from Skyfall to 2015’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, a frenetically meta-textual Bond satire that both indulges and eviscerates its source material, particularly skewering the tendency to dress low art up in the texture of high art. In one scene, a Big Mac is served on a silver platter with great ceremony. Skyfall is that Big Mac.
Whether they are critical or uncritical of what came before, blockbusters of the 2010s are highly meta-fictional and self-reflexive above all else. The new Star Wars films are self-aware in a way Lucas’ never were. The man who created Jar-Jar Binks simply cannot be too self-conscious – and I say, God bless him for it. Blockbusters from the 2000s were willing to be deeply uncool; films from the 2010s are always trying to impress you with how cool they are. If the constructive blockbusters of the 2000s captured the unbridled expressiveness of a child and the deconstructive blockbusters of that decade were big-budget movies for thinking adults, the 2010s’ blockbusters most readily resemble an awkward, self-deprecating high schooler. Sincerity is no longer in fashion –it must be cloaked under layers of self-awareness to stand a chance of being palatable.
Kingsman and 2014’s The LEGO Movie represent the zenith of the 2010s’ penchant for self-examination. They are extremely intelligent films, offering thorough and relentless commentary on the tropes they portray. Unfortunately, at the same time, they are so dependent on what they are satirizing that they do not have the same lasting power as their subject matter. (This is a bold claim, I am aware; I make it based on how they have aged in the last five years, with the full awareness that time may prove me wrong.) They are reflections of other films – fascinating, intelligent reflections, yes, but reflections nonetheless, inescapably diminished in some subtle way when compared to the reality. To some degree, they are cut from the same artificial cloth as the Disney live-action remakes that are now flooding theaters – movies that can only ever be perceived as synthetic recreations of something else. They are not made to last. They do not have a sufficient raison d’être of their own.
This, then, is a broad assessment of the state of things, and in The Lone Ranger, we can see it all. The Lone Ranger himself (Armie Hammer) is a relic of the early 2000s. He is the leading man of a constructive blockbuster, all old-fashioned decency and straightforward heroism. Tonto, on the other hand, belongs to the era of the deconstructive blockbuster: haunted by tragedy, driven by vengeance, morally ambiguous and fatally disillusioned. (He is played, of course, by Johnny Depp, whose 2000s icon Jack Sparrow made anarchy look cool before Heath Ledger’s Joker took his place.) The Locke-quoting Lone Ranger believes the world and society function in a rational, orderly way, but Tonto knows better and scoffs at his naïveté. Given how fully these two embody the dueling trends of the 2000s, simply setting them up as foils to each other would be enough to qualify The Lone Ranger as a self-reflexive blockbuster in the 2010s’ mold, but it does not stop there. Instead, this interaction is writ large in a meta-textual struggle between two narrators who reflect the two protagonists. The ideological difference between Tonto and the Lone Ranger breaks the very fabric of the film. It is just as relentlessly self-aware as Kingsman or The LEGO Movie, if not moreso, but it leavens their frenetic playfulness with a gravitas that lingers and a sense of cinematic craftsmanship nearly unrivaled among its contemporaries.
Of course, claims to greatness based on relevance are always doomed to be outdated. The Lone Ranger encapsulates the cultural moment of the 2000s and 2010s with a rare complexity, but that’s not why it’s the greatest blockbuster of the decade. It is about more than just itself and its influences. It is the greatest blockbuster of its time because it will outlast its time.