Perhaps critics were unprepared for the fact that it is predominately a comedy, or perhaps they were unprepared to have to think about it thematically. The Lone Ranger, drafted by the same creative team as Pirates of the Caribbean, pokes at the corniness of the original radio and television versions in addition to genuine attempts to reach out to the tastes of modern audiences. In doing so, it can become corny in its own right, with a wink and a nod, proving that it isn't poking at the original Ranger in a mean way. On the contrary, to fully understand the subtext to this film, it helps to have a working knowledge of the original.
Our story opens in a carnival in San Francisco in 1933, the same year that The Lone Ranger debuted on radio. A young boy, clad in Hollywood cowboy style complete with Lone Ranger mask enters a Wild West show, out of which pours the music of Gene Autry. The carnival barker promises that the exhibit will take visitors back to "the thrilling days of yesteryear," another recall to the introduction of the radio show. Inside are mostly static displays of buffalo and grizzly bears, dusty relics of a bygone past. One display, however, features a living "Noble Savage"... An aged and decrepit Tonto, who proceeds to tell the boy the true story of the Lone Ranger.
Not long into the film we come to understand that Tonto - who has traditionally been represented as a "Noble Savage" archetype - is an unreliable narrator, raising the question of how much of the true story of the Lone Ranger is really true. The boy himself tries to remind Tonto (or convince himself) that the Lone Ranger is just a made-up character. A key point in the film is that Tonto is emotionally scarred from the childhood trauma that connects directly to his desire for revenge on Butch Cavendish. Cherokee elders relate the story to John Reid, the Ranger's alter ego, believing that Tonto's mind is broken and that his perception of the world is skewed. At least it would explain why he keeps trying to feed the dead crow on his head, or why he wears one at all. Supernatural, "Weird West" elements are layered throughout The Lone Ranger, but these are all called into question. Are they real or imagined by Tonto? Is the Lone Ranger real or imaginary? For that matter, is Tonto even real or was he also imagined by the boy?
Consequently, the film calls our attention to the act of Western myth-making and sets about, in its own way, to deconstruct how cultures recollect and reinterpret their own history (including a self-deconstruction of the very act of making cinematic reboots, which is the sort of self-awareness I haven't seen since the South Park movie being a satire of the controversy the South Park movie would generate). The reality of western settlement in the United States has been layered over and over again by myth-making and faulty recollection, due exactly to film, television and radio. Not only them, but even the people who lived it, as with Buffalo Bill Cody's wild west shows, Ned Buntline's dime novels and the paintings of Charlie Russell. From Washington Irving to Walt Disney, the United States has always been a myth-making culture that reworks and retools its own history to communicate a certain ideal, however divorced that may be from fact. Everyone knows about the Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere and Washington crossing the Delaware, but not about the Royal Proclamation of 1763 that was a proximate cause of the Revolution. The Royal Proclamation recognized Indigenous peoples as sovereign nations, thus forbidding the conquest of Native lands, instead requiring legal land surrender by treaty. Everyone remembers to remember the Alamo, but doesn't remember that Mexico was actually in the right in that conflict. Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett, William Travis and the Texan settlers were essentially foreign insurgents whose motivations included maintaining a slave economy outlawed by Mexico. It is common knowledge that the Wild West was settled by the gun, less well-known that the average annual homicide rate per city during the period of western settlement was two, and that gun control was strictly enforced in towns. The Gunfight at the OK Corral was instigated by the Clantons and McLaurys flouting the ordinance not to carry firearms in Tombstone, and three people died. Illegally carrying firearms was the second most common cause of arrest after drunk and disorderly conduct.
Given this, The Lone Ranger did hold out the threat of imposing upon us that uniquely American version of the hero's journey, where the limp-wristed, educated intellectual must learn that the only way to decisively resolve conflict is with bloodshed. Theologian Walter Wink dubbed this story form the "Myth of Redemptive Violence," dating back at least as early as the Babylonian Enuma Elish of 1250BCE. In that classical myth, the god Marduk creates the cosmos by stretching out of the entrails of his slain foe, the dragon Tiamat. American history invites - almost requires - adherence to the moral framework of the Myth of Redemptive Violence, since the American Revolution is as concrete an historical realization of the myth of Tiamat and Marduk as is possible. The United States has a particular version of this myth which reinforces the ideal of the rugged, individualistic, gun-toting Republican type against the effete, intellectual, legalistic Democratic type. Our introduction to John Reid is his sitting on a train reading John Locke's Two Treatises on Government. During the first big train robbery action scene, we also find out that he eschews firearms and is a lawyer.
Thankfully the film retains its composure and adherence to the original character, whose ultimate goal was justice. Not justice taken into one's own hand, but the justice of due legal process. Though he grows into a more model American toughguy, the Lone Ranger still possesses the ethic that he is an agent of civilization, even when being so requires being an outlaw (which also fits in with the American fetish for the criminal class, from Old West outlaws to Depression-Era gangsters to easy riding bikers to inner city gangstas). This new version also hews closely enough to the established origin of the character, complete with that infamous ride of the Texas Rangers into the canyon and the silver mine which would furnish a near endless supply of silver bullets. The origin of Silver is distinctly different, as required by the ambiguous supernaturalism imparted by Tonto.
Silver, the horse, is a fantastic actor and frequently steals the show. Armie Hammer is adequate in a role more clearly written for Brendan Fraser circa The Mummy (1999), and Johnny Depp does much to act his way out of the fundamental ickiness of casting a white actor to play an Indigenous character. The ambivalence of his playing Tonto is, I think, handled as well as one can hope by how Tonto is written. Because he is emotionally traumatized and mentally broken, he is not intended to represent a typical "Indian Brave" or "Noble Savage." His being in the Wild West show's display as a specimen of the "Noble Savage" is lampshading how Tonto has traditionally been portrayed. He is allowed to break out of having to portray Native Americans as a whole and permitted simply to act the character. Between them, the Lone Ranger and Tonto have a fun and lively dynamic that chews more scenery than did a taciturn Ranger and a stoic Tonto.
Some legitimate criticism pointed out the gratuity of some crude humour and violence. It seems that simply killing someone is no longer quite bad enough in a cinema environment glutted with zombies, starship disasters, planet-destroying lasers, and literally snapping half of the universe into nonexistence. Now the cold-blooded killers have to eat their victim's remains just to prove that they're really bad guys. Despite being needless, the acts of cannibalism were written well into the plot and fitted with the film's supernaturalism and theme of nature being out of balance. I suspect more would have been made of nature's imbalance had not major parts of the script been excised when Disney brought down the fiscal hammer during production. Lost were genuine werewolves, necessitating the iconic silver bullets.
It would also have been too easy to play the Lone Ranger for laughs. As a product of a bygone age reinterpreted into an atmosphere of identity politics, it would have been seductive to make him the butt of a joke... That white men are stupid and old things are funny because they're not modern things. That is blessedly not the case, even though it is mostly a comedy with some very dumb moments. Any fun that is poked at the Lone Ranger or his race earns the climactic payoff when John Reid owns his masked identity, takes off on Silver's back, and Hans Zimmer's arrangement of the William Tell Overture hits the octane. It's an origin story after all. It has to end with the hero rising up to become the legend admired by our young boy in 1933.
The catastrophic reception of The Lone Ranger was unfair, but it wasn't as disastrous as, say, John Carter's. The box office failure of John Carter ended any conceivable plans to continue with the trilogy implied by Burroughs' books. While The Lone Ranger's failure does deny us any further adventures with this particular duo of Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp, the film itself acts as an origin story for all preceding versions of the characters. The boy in 1933 is clearly a fan of the radio show and film serials (1938 and 1939). Those begat the television show (1949-57), science fiction-inspired cartoon (1966-68), and other media. The purpose of this film is to highlight, lampshade, and deconstruct the origins of the character itself, to tell his "true story" after nearly a century of radio, television, cartoons, and film. As such, Disney's The Lone Ranger does stand alone, which works handily after the professional critic class were done with it.