Don’t Mess with The Archetype: Why the New “Lone Ranger” Fails to Excite


The Lone Ranger is one of the most enduring characters of the American psyche.   Say “High Ho Silver” or hum the “William Tell Overature” and people think masked man and native American sidekick.

He represents a selfless man, motivated by a deep desire for order and justice that transcends structures of power, rises above the merely legal and extends to all.   He is a man of society, but also a man of nature, whose physical, intellectual and moral strengths save people.

The American Indian, called “Tonto” who assists the Lone Ranger, represents the natural human with a closeness to the earth but who demonstrates power under self-control for the good of all.   Together, they represent opposites who create a partnership out of necessity but who remain together out of dedication to bigger principles.  They are independent people, but they work selflessly for the common good.  They are archetypal characters appealing to people as part of our historical and cultural American identity.

Be careful how you handle such strong archetypal figures.  You can update them.  You can interpret them for a new era but do not mess with the essential elements which provide the numinous quality of the original character.  If you do mess with an archetype too much, the movie’s appeal will be limited.   See The Nativity (2006) with an emotionless, weak Virgin Mary, The Green Hornet(2011) with an incompetent, whiny buffoon.  Contrast these with the updated and revived Batman in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy or Mel Gibson’s Passion of The Christ.

The Lone Ranger is latest film proving my point.  Viewers might have forgiven the winding, chaotic plot full of loose ends, dead ends and false ends that never seemed to end if the hero had lived up to the archetypical expectations.   Tonto (played by Johnny Depp) more than the Lone Ranger shows some of the archetypal elements, a mystical connection to nature, strength and skill.  But that is weakened by a hoaky framing device which portrays Tanto telling the story in flashback as a near, captive in a circus side show.

The Lone Ranger as played by Armie Hammer, is naive and bubbling with none of the savvy resourcefulness of the original figure.  Though principled, he proves inept in both nature and society.   How could this man ever survive as a lone ranger, he needs a village just to clean up after himself.  There are exagerated mystical elements that are more fantasy than western: a horse on roof tops and in trees and the Ranger’s uncanny luck which repeatedly saves him from his own incompetence.

The Lone Ranger and Disney together might have said to the world “Here is a Family Film” but the scenes of brothals and prostitutes, genocide and references to cannibalism say something quite different.

What kid is going to want to get a mask and cowboy hat after seeing that film?  Maybe they will sell a few of Tonto’s dead crow headpieces.