The Lone Ranger Seals It: America's New Favorite Villain Is a Rich Guy

Insidious American war profiteers have largely replaced terrorists and foreign invaders as the antagonist of choice in blockbusters this summer.
lone ranger tom wilkinson 650.jpg
Disney

Writer Ian Fleming is known to have once said, "Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action." If that's the case, three recently released Hollywood films--Iron Man 3, White House Down, and now The Lone Ranger--show that American moviegoers and moviemakers have identified a new enemy of the moment, and it doesn't come from overseas. These would-be summer blockbusters convey a leftward turn in thinking about the militarization and the War on Terror. The real enemy, Hollywood seems to be telling us, is within.

In discussing the progressive politics of The Lone Ranger, most critics have focused on the depiction of Native Americans, and with good reason. Over the history of the American Western, Native Americans have often been depicted as faceless savages whose efforts to defend themselves were merely obstacles to America's Manifest Destiny. Some cinematic efforts have been made to subvert this convention (The Searchers and Dances with Wolves are probably the most famous examples), but The Lone Ranger takes things a step further, making Tonto and John Reid (who will become the eponymous hero) dual protagonists. There is room for debate on this; some critics still feel that Depp's performance, with its use of "red face" and halted speaking style, is dehumanizing, but the increased role for Tonto is at least a step in the right direction.

This depiction of Native Americans in The Lone Ranger actually serves an even deeper revision of the genre, as it posits war as the underlying oppressor in American society. Here's how it's done: In making Tonto and Reid equals, the filmmakers are able to give them a mutual enemy. This is Cole (Tom Wilkinson), a railroad magnate trying to lay tracks from Texas to California. A treaty between the U.S. and the Indian tribes has prevented him from building on tribal lands, so he makes it look like the Comanches--Tonto's tribe--have broken the agreement, thus opening up their land for train travel. The turn of events will lead to war--and Indian genocide at the hands of the U.S. Cavalry. But who could make a fuss over the survival of an indigenous people when there are American dollars to be made?

It comes across like a Western as told by Howard Zinn, a shocking change for a genre that has leaned conservative in all things. Unlike previous Westerns, in which Indians were seen as an obstacle to American economic expansion, the historical perspective inherent in The Lone Ranger shows the same story from the other side and suggests that American business interests were the driving force behind the Indian massacres. There may be a lot of professors at liberal arts colleges who agree, but you'll be unable to find that point of view in more than a couple of movies through the Western's long history.

This may be a new perspective for its genre, but a variant of it has been amazingly common in other summer blockbusters, particularly those released this year. And its implications hit far closer to home than the events of the 19th century. You can learn a lot about a film's values from examining the motivations of its villains, and you can learn a lot about a society--or at least what Hollywood thinks society want to hear--when it produces three mainstream movies in a few months that gives its villains the exact same motivation. Iron Man 3, White House Down, and The Lone Ranger span cinematic categories--respectively, we have a comic-book film, a political action thriller, and a Western--but each of their stories portrays war, and implicitly the War on Terror, as caused by corporations and greed.

Presented by

Noah Gittell has covered film and politics for The AtlanticSalon, and RogerEbert.com. He writes regularly at ReelChange.net.

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