It's no secret that Hollywood blockbusters — especially those that arrive as part of the summer movie season — are crafted with an eye toward potential sequels. Just about every big-budget movie with repeatable characters and potential mass appeal includes a climactic scene that leaves the door wide open for subsequent films. But at some point over the last few years, things changed. Those calling the shots on enjoyable and well-crafted summer entertainments like The Lone Ranger are no longer satisfied with merely setting the stage for sequels. Today, these movies are constructed from the ground up specifically to support franchise longevity.
The Lone Ranger feels even longer than its substantial 149-minute running time. That's because it takes a full two hours for lawman John Reid (Armie Hammer) to become The Lone Ranger. Instead of establishing the lead characters early on and sending them into the best Wild West adventure his screenwriters could imagine, director Gore Verbinski presents a very long and detailed origin story in the manner of popular Marvel Universe movies such as Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk. That is a choice no seasoned filmmaker would make for a stand-alone film. There's no shortage of plot here, as The Lone Ranger never ceases trying to be all things to all people: It's a buddy movie, a Western, an action picture and a kid-friendly comedy from Disney. There's a big and intentionally hokey payoff when The Lone Ranger finally arrives. But the whole thing bears no resemblance to the movie it might have been without sequels as a top priority.
Verbinski gets away with a mostly absent title character by focusing the movie on the Lone Ranger's sidekick, Tonto (Johnny Depp). Depp's creation is equal parts Native American mystic and deadpan jokester, and he's older, wiser and generally more fun than the sometimes-bumbling Ranger Reid. Tonto gets his own compact origin story, but it's well-integrated into the movie's larger tale of a corporate raider plundering the virgin West and exploiting its people through "progress" in the form of steam-engine trains. Verbinski and Depp may be interested in correcting 80 years of Lone Ranger history — first in radio shows, then TV, feature films, comics and video games — in which the brave and capable Tonto effectively played second fiddle to the white guy in the mask. No matter how it's framed, Depp's unique presence is the movie's main asset.
Cynics may point out that Depp carries another movie series known as Pirates of the Caribbean, which also is directed by Verbinski and shares much of the Lone Ranger creative team, including producer Jerry Bruckheimer and screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio. (A fifth installment of Pirates was announced at the start of this year.) Disney surely hedged its bets on The Lone Ranger's massive $250 million production budget by relying on its own all-star A-team. What else would the corporation do? The young people who serve as Disney's core audience are not too familiar with The Lone Ranger's legacy, unlike many of their grandparents. That's a risky way to launch a franchise. — KEN KORMAN