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.
In Iron Man 3, we are introduced to an Osama Bin Laden-like terrorist named the Mandarin (played by Ben Kingsley), who is carrying out attacks on American military bases. But halfway through the film, we learn--spoiler alert--that the Mandarin is just a decoy character dreamed up by a scientist to provide cover for his experimentation on war veterans. The film's writer/director Shane Black explained this major plot twist as "a message that's more interesting for the modern world, because I think there's a lot of fear that's generated toward very available and obvious targets, which could perhaps be directed more intelligently at what's behind them." The Iron Man franchise laid the groundwork for this subtext from its first film, which featured Jeff Bridges as a greedy arms dealer who was arming the a Taliban-like terrorist group to drive sales.
White House Down shows just how deeply this notion of villainy has taken root, particularly in contrast to past entries in its genre. The film initially offers a smorgasbord of motivations for its team of villains who hold the White House hostage--one is a white supremacist, and another is a disgruntled ex-soldier--but it ultimately shines a light on the collusion between corrupt government officials and defense contractors who are trying to launch a war in the Middle East to keep their coffers filled with money from government contracts. Again, the War on Terror is shown to be nothing more than a scheme by profiteers, not an ideological struggle and certainly not a necessary war. In explaining the issue to his buddy, President Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) even calls those profiteers out by name. "You ever hear of the military-industrial complex?" We have now, Mr. President.
It is quite a contrast to Die Hard, the 1988 action classic to which White House Down is most often compared. That film employed German thieves as the source of its terrorism, which fit nicely amid the Reagan era's popular support for increased defense spending to fend off a Communist threat. Similar films like Air Force One ("Die Hard in the president's plane") or Toy Soldiers ("Die Hard in a prep school") also address the fight against terrorism, but in their pre-9/11 mindset, the villains are foreigners with clear-cut political goals.
Though people often forget it, Westerns are also war movies, as they take place during the American-Indian Wars of the 18th and 19th centuries. So it should be no surprise that The Lone Ranger uses the same moral template as Iron Man 3 and White House Down. With the stated goal of becoming the wealthiest man in America, Cole launches a battle that seems a stand-in for all of the violence between American settlers and Indian populations. The message we leave with is that both U.S. soldiers and foreign enemies are pawns in the rich man's eternal quest to get even more for himself.