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Does new 'Lone Ranger' do justice to predecessors?

| Thursday, July 4, 2013, 8:55 p.m.

“Who was that masked man, anyway?”

Why, the Lone Ranger, of course, though, an entire generation probably won't recognize that once-famed exclamation. The solitary lawman created as a radio character during the Great Depression epitomized teetotaling honest values, something of a rarity in the fictionalized Old West.

Now he thunders back onto the big screen, Johnny Depp in tow, in a bona fide big-budget summer blockbuster. So, again we ask:

“Who was that masked man? And why is he back?”

“Like Superman, the Lone Ranger is a classic American hero that is continually reinvented for each new generation,” said Michael Gitter, the founder of, a website that specializes in pop-culture nostalgia.

“Both grew out of the 1930s, but Superman (also revived in a film this summer) represented the era's love of futurism and technology. The Lone Ranger harked back to the idea of the Western frontier and rugged American individualism, a concept that holds great currency in our contemporary, unstable global world.”

The new film, directed by Gore Verbinski, opened July 3, and stars Armie Hammer as John Reid, the lawyer who will become the Lone Ranger, and Johnny Depp as Tonto, his Native American companion (now the brains of the operation).

That kind of independence is attractive in a world where everyone seems to be beholden to big business (the railroad, in the Lone Ranger's day; Wall Street in ours). Finally, someone who will speak truth to power and, if the occasion calls for it, fire a silver bullet or two while he's at it.

“I think vigilantism always speaks to people in all eras,” said Rob Weiner, the popular-culture librarian at Texas Tech University. “That is why superheroes have been so popular for over 75 years; Superman, Batman, Spider-Man are vigilantes.”

“I don't think the Lone Ranger should be thought of strictly as a vigilante, even though he does work somewhat outside the law,” said Charles Coletta, who teaches in the Department of Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University, in Bowling Green, Ohio. “He is more in the traditional-hero mold, as he lives up to a strict moral code. He was often depicted as less violent than many of the other Western fictional characters. Generally, he did not shoot to kill, and his adventures were not bloody or graphic.”

The new film is more violent than you might expect, coming from Disney. But the Lone Ranger does adhere to a code, implicitly if not explicitly (as in the radio serial).

“The Lone Ranger represents America at its moral best,” Gitter said. “He never tries to kill a man, only wound him; he uses perfect grammar and diction and never drinks or smokes; and employs only silver bullets, to point up the preciousness of life.”

And then there is Tonto.

“Tonto is a difficult character now in 2013 and must not be made into the stereotype he once was,” Gitter said.

That stereotype was one of a noble savage, a popular depiction at the time but one that is woefully out of date. The filmmakers have tried to remedy this in the new film. Casting Depp probably helps, if not on the authenticity front, at least on the cool one. And, as mentioned, Tonto drives the story in the new film; without him, the Lone Ranger, as portrayed by Hammer, would be a well-meaning doofus, learned in the law (and, somehow, riding horses) but not much else.

To Steven Alford, a professor of humanities at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., even the portrayal of the old Tonto had a few things going for it.

“While little was done in the series to portray Tonto as other than a cardboard Indian stereotype, his mere presence engendered some level of respect for Native Americans among the series' young viewers,” Alford said.

“Hence, I think one of the appeals of the Lone Ranger is not necessarily the masked man but the understanding that the two differing cultural points of view represented by the two characters suggest that there is some underlying agreement about what is just and true, an appeal to an innate natural law independent of the cultural relativism that infects most public discourse.

“It remains to be seen how the lunatic energy Johnny Depp brings to his roles will affect the representation of a Native American by a white guy from Florida.”

Prediction: Depp's performance will mollify some audiences, but not all.

Coletta said, “The fact that Johnny Depp is playing the faithful Indian companion and not the Ranger himself may be telling. I think the new film may be placing more emphasis on comedy than the old stories did. With all the dark heroes on-screen now, perhaps it's time for a brighter hero again.”

Bill Goodykoontz is the Gannett chief film critic.

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