‘The Lone Ranger’ and the problem with blockbuster violence

Have you ever seen a Disney movie where the villain cuts out a man’s heart and eats it? If you saw the studio’s supposedly family friendly box office flop “The Lone Ranger” over the weekend, then the answer is yes.

That gruesome, organ-eating act is one of several scenes in the Gore Verbinski-directed film – including the methodical murder of a group of Texas Rangers and the wholesale slaughter of not one but two Native American tribes – that depict over-the-top yet somehow completely bloodless violence. For a movie with a body count well into the hundreds, “The Lone Ranger” amazingly sheds very little actual blood on screen.

But all that death and destruction is OK because the rest of the movie is so entertaining, right? Despite being far and away one of the most violent movies ever produced by Walt Disney Pictures, “The Lone Ranger” keeps the rest of the proceedings decidedly light, fun, and in line with the cowboy character’s afternoon radio origins. For every dozen or so gun or explosion-related deaths, there is a scene of Johnny Depp’s Tonto hilariously talking to a horse or Armie Hammer’s exasperated John Reid being dragged into yet another theme park-like action set piece.

This constantly yo-yoing tone – between grim and brutal to funny and fun – might be one of the reasons why “The Lone Ranger” failed to connect with moviegoers, and is symptomatic of a larger trend amongst big tentpole movies.

Unsurprisingly, the tonal issues with “The Lone Ranger” probably come down to money. In the world of $250 million dollar movies, failure is not an option. When marketing costs are factored into budgets, it means that a movie like “The Lone Ranger” sometimes needs to earn back double its budget at the box office just to make a profit. To reach that lofty goal, studios design these summer tentpoles to be as accessible as possible to the largest audience possible; meaning the films need a big star (Depp), a solid formula (“Lone Ranger” is essentially a “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie set in the desert), and most importantly, the coveted PG-13 rating.

Sure, it's a cookie-cutter approach to blockbuster filmmaking, but it's an equation that has worked out very well for Disney, Depp, and Verbinski in the past. The “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, with huge $140 million to $300 million budgets, raked in between $650 million and $1.1 billion each.

The PG-13 rating means that graphic violence is absolutely out of the question -- that stuff is reserved for R-rated movies. Here the violence, no matter how terrible, is not dwelled upon. The death and destruction present in "Lone Ranger" is pretty awful when you actually think about it, but the audience quickly forgets all about it when Depp's vaguely racist Native caricature Tonto starts doing something amusing in the next scene.

Somehow, "The Lone Ranger" is a family movie where cannibalism is OK (as long as it happens in silhouette), Native Americans willingly offer themselves up as cannon fodder (just like the good ol' days of Hollywood), and our heroes survive train wrecks, explosions, and gunfire that would (and does) kill everyone else. There's no time for consequences when Johnny Depp is playing a weirdo, right?

"The Lone Ranger" is, at its core, a very violent film wrapped in a kid-friendly blanket - a study in polar opposites. It's a film whose evil railroad tycoon villain (played by Tom Wilkinson) is cartoonishly named Mr. Cole (Coal), and where both heroes are the product of brutal murder/revenge scenarios. There are definitely shades of that more innocent movie on screen – like when Reid and Tonto triumphantly crash the rail baron's spike-driving ceremony to the tune of the famed “William Tell” Overture – but while watching the movie's climax you can't help but be reminded of all the really terrible stuff that led up to that point.