Monday, July 8, 2013

On The Lone Ranger and Audience Appeal

For most of the past week or so, a lot of the conversation in my Twitter feed has revolved around The Lone Ranger and its failure at the box office. As far as I can tell there seem to be two main opinions on why the movie didn’t do well:

  1. The Lone Ranger bombed because it is not a very good movie.
  2. The Lone Ranger is a good movie, but people aren’t going to see it because of unfair bad reviews from movie critics and/or some kind of nefarious scheme by Disney to deliberately sabotage the film as part of some kind of corporate political power play.

I think the reason for The Lone Ranger’s failure to attract an audience is much simpler than that. The movie bombed because-and bear with me here-not a lot of people wanted to see it. I’m going to pause for a minute to let that sink in.

Whether the movie was good or bad has nothing to do with it. The opinions of movie critics have nothing to do with it. If those things were as important as people imagine, Michael Bay wouldn’t be able to find work as a director anymore. The Lone Ranger flopped because not a lot of people want to see a movie about the Lone Ranger. Period.

Hollywood would rather throw $300 million at a movie based on a preexisting thing as opposed to an original concept because it seems like a safer bet. The way it’s supposed to work is that you make your movie based on a preexisting comic book character or toy or whatever and millions of people say “Look, a movie about the Transformers, a thing with which I am familiar and for which I have nostalgic affection! Here’s my money!” And the next thing you know you’ve made a billion dollars.

The thing is, the making-a-billion-dollars part will only happen if the moviegoing public has a preexisting affinity for the preexisting thing your blockbuster movie is about. That’s why the Transformers movies rake in the dough, but Battleship tanked even though it was pretty much the same. The quality of the movie doesn’t have a lot to do with it. People will sit though three hours of Michael Bay’s seizure-inducing direction of a nonsensical Orci-Kurtzman script because they love watching Optimus Prime punch Decepticons and say “Autobots, transform and roll out!”

What I’m saying is that all preexisting intellectual properties are not created equal. Some of them (Star Wars, Batman, Transformers) are so well-liked that their mere presence will guarantee a hefty profit. Obviously, The Lone Ranger is not one of those. So why did Disney spends hundreds of millions of dollars on it? The answer is Iron Man.

Before 2008 nobody outside the comic fan community knew who Iron Man was. His film rights were only available because nobody wanted them. Iron Man was a surprise hit, but in retrospect it’s not that surprising. The film had a good script, a brilliant piece of casting in Robert Downey Jr., and who wouldn’t want to be a snarky billionaire with a high-tech flying robot suit?

The success of Iron Man showed that, in certain circumstances, a well-made film could get audiences excited about a character they’d barely heard of. Of course, Disney wanted to grab a piece of that, not just by buying Marvel, but by developing their own film franchise from an obscure piece of pop culture. Yes, they did it with Pirates of the Caribbean, but they failed with TRON:Legacy and John Carter. So they took the some of the people responsible for Pirates’ success (Johnny Depp, Jerry Bruckheimer, and Gore Verbinski) and threw the Lone Ranger at them. Or maybe they threw them at the Lone Ranger.

Obviously, it didn’t work. Why? Back to my original point: nobody wanted to see a film about the Lone Ranger. It has nothing to do with how well or how poorly the film was made. Iron Man was about a tycoon in a super-cool flying robot suit. The Lone Ranger is about a cowboy in a domino mask with a sidekick whose name means “stupid” in Spanish. One of those is appealing to modern audiences, and one is not. No amount of marketing will change that. The Lone Ranger is a character from the “Golden Age” of comics, pulp magazine, and radio, and those Golden Age characters are notoriously difficult to adapt for modern audiences. Studios tried it with The Shadow and The Phantom in the 90s and failed. Disney tried it with John Carter of Mars last year, and that failed, too. In fact, the only non-Batman, non-Superman, Golden Age character to enjoy a modern renaissance lately is Captain America. I think it has something to do with the fact that it’s easy to update Superman, Batman, and Captain America for the present day. Characters like the Lone Ranger (and DC’s “cowboy superhero” Jonah Hex, for that matter) are trapped in the past.

Now, I certainly don’t blame Disney for throwing The Lone Ranger out there to see if it would get any traction. And for people who liked the movie and hoped there would be sequels, I’m truly sorry. I went through the same thing when Superman Returns didn’t get a sequel. I wasn’t a fan of the whole idea of Superman as a deadbeat dad, but I enjoyed Brandon Routh’s and Kevin Spacey’s takes on their respective characters and would like to have seen more. But, if the film is a hit on Blu-Ray or on television, maybe the character will see life again in an animated series, comics, or some other medium.

But, like The Shadow, The Phantom, Fibber McGee, and Jack Armstrong The All-American Boy before him, the modern world seems finally to have passed the Lone Ranger by.

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