Last summer, a movie rode into theaters nationwide with a bullseye already painted on it.
That movie was Disney's "The Lone Ranger," which, in its troubled production history, had been shut down once due to budget overruns, and then, when it was actually in production, faced a number of problems, including a costly, overlong shooting schedule that was stalled due to a dust storm of biblical proportions and the loss of a behind-the-scenes heavyweight in rock'n'roller Jack White, who was set to provide the movie's twangy, honky-tonk score.
So, when Gore Verbinski's $250 million western finally opened over the July 4th holiday, it had already accumulated a fair amount of negative press -- its gigantic budget, the questionable portrayal of a Native American by Johnny Depp (which stirred the ire of a whole lot of people who hadn't seen the movie and would ultimately never see the movie), and the so-so trailers which tried, unsuccessfully, to sell "Lone Ranger" as a kind of "Pirates of the Caribbean" on land.
Gone from the conversation was the fact that it was directed by Gore Verbinski, whose last foray into the western genre wielded the animated hit "Rango," a film that would go on to win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature; or that it was being shepherded by Verbinski and producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who had overseen the original three "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies, which had similarly shaky productions but wound up grossing billions of dollars for Disney.
Had people actually gone to see the movie, they would have realized that it was a wonderfully lively, darkly funny action adventure and that Armie Hammer, as the titular Ranger, and Depp as his mystical sidekick, had terrific chemistry. The action sequences, expertly staged by Verbinski, were more dazzling than a bunch of superheroes knocking each other into buildings, culminating in what can easily be described as the greatest train chase in the history of cinema. So many blockbusters that summer, like "Despicable Me 2," which opened against "The Lone Ranger" and promptly decimated it, were anonymous, by-committee product. With "The Lone Ranger," it was clear that it was made by a filmmaker with a distinctive point-of-view.
What's even more frustrating is that "The Lone Ranger" is clearly an origin story. It's the tale of how John Reid (Hammer), a lawyer-turned-impromptu Texas Ranger, assumes the identity of a ghostly outlaw to right the wrongs that the law simply cannot handle. The final act of the movie, consumed largely by that aforementioned train sequence, was also the promise of what's to come, since it is really the first time that the Lone Ranger owns his secret identity and becomes the hero we all know that he could be. The "William Tell Overture" is present, transplanted form the beloved television series, and the entire movie seems to not only pick up and move (like a locomotive), through the end of this film and into the other films beyond. If you think this one was good, the sequence seemed to be saying, wait until you see what we've got in store for number two.
Disney certainly seemed to think they had a hit on their hands, or at least the possibility of a hit. When Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in Disneyland went in for a lengthy rehab last year, one of the possible outcomes, had the movie been a success, would have been animatronic versions of Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer installed in the ride. (Hey, the attraction is built around an out-of-control train in the old west, right?) And right now, in countless CVS stores nationwide, sit "Lone Ranger"-themed Valentine's Day cards (yes, seriously).
In more tangible terms, both Hammer and Ruth Wilson, who plays the woman caught in a love triangle between the Lone Ranger and his more outwardly heroic brother, were signed on for an additional two films. Depp was not, but was said to be excited about the possibility of returning to the role. Watching the film, you can clearly see Depp relishing the part. He probably thought it was his next Captain Jack Sparrow -- an oversized character he could refine and perfect and play with through subsequent movies.
Sadly, it was never meant to be. While the film ended up grossing over $250 million worldwide, it wasn't enough to get Tonto and the Lone Ranger into the Magic Kingdom, or get another film off the ground. Shortly after the movie's opening, Disney dissolved its partnership with Jerry Bruckheimer, which it had maintained for more than a decade, and the fifth "Pirates" movie, which Bruckheimer was spearheading, soon fell into limbo.
The chances of "The Lone Ranger" riding again seem pretty unlikely at this point.
Had the movie been more of a success, and a franchise been greenlit, it would have been fun to see Tonto and the Lone Ranger come up against more supernatural foes; the things that are hinted at in the periphery of this film could be fully explored in subsequent installments. There's also an incredible deleted scene that wound up on the Blu-ray special features (where Tonto and the Lone Ranger survive a deadly locust attack) that would have been fun to see in another movie. And we can only imagine what Verbinski would have come up with for future action set pieces, if this is what he concocted for the duo's first outing.
"The Lone Ranger" deserves a franchise because it is in keeping with the movie's pulpy aesthetic. These adventure magazines and comic books came out all the time; so too should the movies. They're not things that should be puzzled over or thought about too often, they should be enjoyed quickly and efficiently, and then the next issue should come out.
Considering "The Lone Ranger's" roots in serialized fiction, it would have been fitting to have the characters come back again and again. Lord knows the Lone Ranger is more deserving of a franchise than most of the comic book superheroes out there.