The Lone Ranger has proved to be a surprisingly stolid member of American pop culture. First introduced in a radio serial in 1933, the Lone Ranger enjoyed a long run as a radio program, a film serial, and a television show. He was last heard from in 1957, when he rode off the small screen for good. Several generations have grown up without him as a weekly figure, but there are few who don't know his catchphrases ("Hi ho Silver, away!") or his sidekick, Tonto.
Because of this ubiquity, there have been numerous attempts to revive the Lone Ranger since the 1950s. The most famous is probably 1981's The Legend of the Lone Ranger, a box-office bomb that darkens the resumes of Jason Robards and Christopher Lloyd to this day. In 2003, the WB network aired a television movie starring the pretty Chad Michael Murray as the masked man, but it was a flop, and squashed Murray's dreams of becoming the next Clayton Moore. Studios have been trying to make a Lone Ranger movie since 2002, with the rights bouncing from Columbia to the Weinsteins to Disney. The project that once boasted a script from screenwriters David and Janet Peoples (Unforgiven) is now linked to Jerry Bruckheimer and Johnny Depp.
Can Bruckheimer and Depp do for cowboys what they did for pirates? Or should they heed the lessons taught by 1981 and Chad Michael Murray, and let the Lone Ranger lie?
There are plenty of reasons they should quietly drop the idea. Westerns have been out of vogue since 1992, though every cinematic season brings a new Western offering, and a prediction of their revival. (This year it hangs on the Coen Brothers. No pressure, guys!) If serious and action-packed Westerns such as 3:10 to Yuma can barely lure adults or teenagers, how on earth can you sell one geared towards general and younger audiences? The Lone Ranger is an especially musty and retro hero. He's a gunslinger who doesn't even engage in the rough trappings that make the Wild West fun or appealing. He's a goody-goody who doesn't swear or visit saloons. Abandoning his strict credo (as Legend of the Lone Ranger and the recent Dynamite comic series tried to do) has led to fan fury and disaster.
There's also the awkward matter of that other serial revival: The Green Hornet. Only major geeks know the two masked heroes are even related (Hornet was a spinoff of Ranger, and they are both Reids) but Hornet may be a litmus test to how much audiences are even clamoring for retro remakes. If you can't interest audiences in an update of Hornet –- a show packing a bigger cool factor thanks to Bruce Lee –- how on earth can you interest them in The Lone Ranger?
Well, Johnny Depp is a start. Again, Depp made pirates popular. Pirates were deep, deep into Davy Jones' Locker before Jack Sparrow started lurching from port to port. (Yes, that's shortchanging Bruckheimer, Gore Verbinski, Orlando Bloom, and Geoffrey Rush -- but we know what really made those movies a sensation, and it wasn't any one of these poor fellows. It was how they played with Jack Sparrow.) Depp has a knack for creating iconic characters, and Tonto is ripe for reworking. (Especially a more racially sensitive revision.) On the other hand, Depp's penchant for quirky details could be the project's downfall. I have a vision of Tonto strung out on peyote, and it's not a pretty one.
But honestly, I'd love to see The Lone Ranger ride again. He may be a bit corny (what gunslinger/lawman ever frequented cafes?), but no more so than a pirate in dreadlocks. He has a great origin story –- the lone survivor of a group of bushwacked Texas Rangers, he digs his own grave in order to remain unknown -- that would play beautifully on the big screen. He's sparing of his rare silver bullets, using them to symbolize the preciousness of life. His identity is secret. It's deliciously larger than life. All right, so he doesn't drink, swear, or hire prostitutes. Characters with strict principles aren't necessarily an audience turnoff. Batman does quite well, and he has all kinds of rules and regulations that guide his pursuit of justice. The trend may be determined to keep churning out dark and edgier heroes, but audiences suffer from quick burnouts. By the time the Lone Ranger rides, they may embrace someone who wears a white hat instead of a permanent and tormented scowl. I really think sheer goodness may be appealing to a lot of people.
Older audiences are the easy sell. They have fond memories of the character, and they're the ones who are dying for the Western to come back. People miss fun Westerns. The genre has taken a turn for the serious and apologetic, which is why people continue to long for the days of John Wayne and Sergio Leone. It's why a lot of people had hopes for Jonah Hex, and it's why many of us lost hours of our lives to Red Dead Redemption. I think it's why people flocked to The Mask of Zorro back in 1998. There's a sexy and adventurous spirit to the Western -- one that's uniquely American -- and I think general audiences long for it. They miss wide open spaces and death lurking around every corner.
But what about the children? Well, I think kids would eat it up. I suspect there's a ton of young kids who have worn their DVDs of Toy Story and Toy Story 2 pretty darn thin, and would like to see a real version of Woody. Kids will always like cowboys. They can't possibly be dressing as Woody for Halloween because they want to be a neurotic toy. It has to be something about the vest, sheriff's badge, hat, and Bullseye. There's something in them that still dreams of being king of the wild frontier, even if that's a vision concocted out of Pixar imagery. Even the argument that it's the format -- shiny CGI -- and they're really too numb and modern to appreciate real horses and cowboys is quickly shredded if you put them in front of a real heroic figure. Kids still go crazy for firemen, policemen, and soldiers. They're really very easy to please, and haven't changed that much since mass media began brainwashing them.
I think a Lone Ranger movie is a good idea. As with every so-called "tentpole movie", it depends entirely on the actors cast and the quality of the script. No one wants a bloated and boring action movie, no matter what nostalgic icon it centers on, and audiences are often turned off by self-referential romps. People want good movies and memorable heroes. That's why Hollywood keeps wanting to revive the really iconic ones like the Lone Ranger, who come with prepped back stories and catchphrases. He's stood the test of time, continues to thrive in reruns, and enjoyed a short-lived popularity in comic form. He seems ripe for a remake.
He may, however, be forced to visit saloons.