Being a hasty analysis of the echoing aesthetics and overlapping narrative maps of The Crow and The Lone Ranger—with toy photos
By Monte Williams
For all its miscalculations, this [The Lone Ranger] is a personal picture, violent and sweet, clever and goofy. It’s as obsessive and overbearing as Steven Spielberg’s “1941″ — and, I’ll bet, as likely to be re-evaluated twenty years from now, and described as ‘misunderstood.’
Matt Zoller Seitz, Roger Ebert.com
In “The Splendors of Crap”, an endearing standout essay from his perceptive collection, Manhood for Amateurs, Michael Chabon writes,
There’s no doubt that the Planet of the Apes TV show was crap… But it had—crucially to my theory of what makes great mass art—the powerful quality of being open-ended, vague at its borders. Onto its simple template of horses and apes and humans, of quest and pursuit across a simplified landscape, a kid could easily project himself and the world he lived in. In its very incompleteness, born of lack of budget… it hinted at things beyond its own borders. There was room for you and your imagination in the narrative map of the show.
Chabon later contrasts the inviting nature of vintage cultural crap with its insular modern counterpart, specifically any given “computer-generated piece of animated crap” wherein “creativity, idiosyncrasy, and the fertile rebelliousness of a romantic dreamer were invoked and glorified without recourse to the use or display of any of those three unmarketable commodities”:
The new studio-made CGI products are like unctuous butlers of the imagination, ready to serve every need or desire as it arises; they don’t leave anything implied, unstated, incomplete. There is no room in them for children.
Having first read it two years ago, I revisited “The Splendors of Crap” today because I hoped it might help me make sense of my recent, unexpected, briefly all-consuming creative obsession with Disney’s disastrous The Lone Ranger (2013), a sprawling, self-conscious movie that boasted a budget that could have sustained Planet of the Apes for a thousand TV seasons, and which is only “vague at its borders” because the screenplay shifts tone so frequently that the viewer can never confidently identify the film’s genre. Nonetheless, The Lone Ranger is, perhaps unwittingly, and despite its staggering reliance on CGI, and possibly only for me, a near-perfect example of the compelling “crap” Chabon so memorably celebrates in his winning essay.
It’s also an Old West prequel to 1994’s The Crow.
Below I will share the essentially identical promotional logos for The Crow and The Lone Ranger, but I won’t expect you to marvel much. After all, Johnny Depp’s Tonto wears white face paint with somber black streaks, so suggesting that his aesthetic evokes that of Brandon Lee’s Eric Draven is about as stunning a revelation as noting that pro wrestler Sting may have been inspired by The Crow when the time came for his mid-‘90s makeover. Put another way: Tonto wears a goddamn crow on his head, so really, I’m not venturing into particularly daring waters here, and if anything is “vague around its borders”, it’s my thesis.
Initially, I foolishly assumed that Tonto is The Crow of the nineteenth century, but The Lone Ranger is ostensibly about John Reid, not Tonto—though obviously we all know better—and accordingly, it is the Lone Ranger who is The Crow of 1869—it is he, after all, who dies and is resurrected to seek vengeance—which means that Tonto is his guide; not a Crow, but a crow.
I had considered watching The Lone Ranger and The Crow again (for the first time in one year and the first time in fifteen years, respectively) to see if closer scrutiny might reveal further evidence and interesting parallels, but I am convinced that much of my recent fascination with Ranger stems in part from my increasingly fuzzy memory of the film; I do not want to break the spell. As for The Crow, I started streaming it on the Netfix, but I was quickly defeated by the title character’s overwrought (and frankly nonsensical) posturing, which today calls to mind The Matrix, released five years after The Crow; were we really so consistently impressed in the ‘90s with moping emo athletes clad in leather?
Were it not for Brandon Lee’s death on the set of The Crow… the movie itself would be little more than your basic heavy-metal occult revenge thriller… Lee’s performance is by far the best thing about The Crow. Unfortunately, he’s just good enough to make you wish that the movie had had a whisper of storytelling invention to go along with its showy visual design.
Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly
I watched Brandon Lee prance and vogue and pout just long enough to realize that both films would be improved dramatically if only The Lone Ranger could donate, say, 15% of its humor to The Crow; the comedy in the former is largely successful, and is arguably its greatest selling point. Unfortunately, it so frequently comes at the expense of its title character that the result is less self-aware humor than palpable franchise shame. The latter, meanwhile, is so staggeringly earnest that, in absence of opportunities to laugh with it, the viewer instead laughs at it.
I also watched The Crow long enough to compose a quiz:
You discover that your fiancée was raped—in its early scenes, at least, The Crow comes closer to fulfilling the Women in Refrigerators trope than it does to passing the Bechdel Test—and you were both murdered a year ago, and now you’re a zombie with a pet crow for a Yoda. Do you:
A. Humbly ponder the awesome and mysterious nature of death and resurrection.
B. Start your own cult.
C. Ask the crow to resurrect your old lady, too.
D. Writhe on the living room floor for a while and then listen to The Cure and paint your face before posing portentously in your cathedral window.
If you chose D, your cinematic taste is presumably stunted enough that you would continue to find The Crow engaging today. (And keep in mind that this slight appears courtesy of one of the three or four people who liked The Lone Ranger.)
As previously noted, with its gargantuan budget and its liberal application of slick—if unusually convincing—CGI, The Lone Ranger is an improbable candidate for placement in Chabon’s particular category of crap. But it could be argued of redeemable crap that it is only its flaws that draw one’s attention long enough to appreciate the surrounding triumphs; perhaps the aforementioned franchise shame and the allegations of racism that erupted around The Lone Ranger could substitute for the low budget and limited scope of the Planet of the Apes TV series?
While we’re on the topic of the hullabaloo surrounding the casting of Johnny Depp as Tonto and Depp’s design choices for the character, it should be noted that Mandalit del Barco’s coverage of the controversy for NPR includes an audaciously disingenuous and misleading quote from Depp (the emphasis is mine): “It occurred to me, in a weird way, certain clichés must be embraced for a millisecond, to have the audience understand. Just for that millisecond.” I am a stern Depp-as-Tonto apologist, but even I must gently propose that his embracing of cinematic Native American stereotypes was not fleeting.
Yes, it [The Lone Ranger] adds fantasy elements and makes many of the major characters insane, while not being remotely accurate to real history. What may surprise you is that there is a legitimate in-story reason for this, one that also accounts for its mood-swings, tonal shifts, and occasional plot holes that the story quite deliberately calls your attention to.
Luke Y. Thompson, Topless Robot
Why then, for me, has Tonto become—nearly a year after I saw The Lone Ranger—so intensely captivating? Credit—or maybe culpability—belongs to National Entertainment Collectibles Association. NECA is a celebrated toy manufacturer specializing in geek-friendly, dude-friendly properties like Predator and Alien. Their Johnny Depp Tonto is an action figure masterpiece; I recently photographed it nearly four hundred times over the course of a weekend.
These days, photography substitutes for the more immersive play of my childhood, and like said play, it affords me rewarding opportunities to recast and reinterpret icons from my favorite books, comics, cartoons and cinema… most of which, yes, are crap, although at least one example—the late-‘70s/early-‘80s TV series The Incredible Hulk, starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno—is the satisfying type of crap espoused by Chabon.
Due to NECA’s stellar sculpting and painting, and the hours I’ve spent posing and studying the Tonto action figure in the Snake River Canyon, Tonto has become in my mind something of a Hellboy of the Old West; partly a tortured loner but mostly a two-fisted, mysterious, sardonic adventurer with an unfortunate tendency to run afoul of demons and monsters and sundry breeds of Weird Shit.
Consequently, I’ve developed an interest in the unlikely genre of supernatural Westerns; I’m confident this is merely a passing fancy, not least because it’s thus far persuaded me to peruse only trailers, rather than actual films. In the trailer for Jonah Hex, which was so maligned it makes The Lone Ranger seem as massively adored as The Avengers, we learn that Hex’s soul has “crossed over, giving him powers that can’t be explained.” During this grave exposition, Hex is prone, seemingly dead… and then a crow erupts from his mouth.
To close, meanwhile, let us return to “The Splendors of Crap”, wherein Chabon suggests, “what smells strongly of crap to one generation… so often becomes a fruitful source of inspiration, veneration, and study for those to come”. The examples he cites include “Victorian penny dreadfuls” and “the music of the Archies” and “blaxploitation films of the seventies”.
And an old radio show:
The Lone Ranger.