The Lone Ranger didn’t live up to expectations this summer, and Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, director Gore Verbinski, and producer Jerry Bruckheimer all agreed about what went wrong: It was the critics’ fault.
Promoting the film this week in Great Britain, all four men concluded that American movie critics unfairly bashed the expensive Western, leading to a disastrous opening weekend that crippled the movie’s chances with audiences and led to its paltry $87 million take so far. “I think the reviews were written seven or eight months before we even released the film,” Depp told Yahoo! UK.
“They’ve been gunning for our movie since it was shut down the first time, and I think that’s probably when most of the critics wrote their initial reviews,” said Hammer. “They tried to do the same thing to World War Z; it didn’t work, the movie was successful. Instead they decided to slit the jugular of our movie.”
Blaming critics – who will be thrilled to hear that they wield such influence – for a box-office dud sounds like sour grapes, but that doesn’t mean the Ranger team doesn’t have a point. The Lone Ranger’s troubled production shadowed many of the negative reviews, and though movie critics are hardly the types to engage in conspiracy, they are occasionally vulnerable to a form of groupthink that is facilitated and amplified by the speed and snap-judgment of the Internet. As Owen Gleiberman wrote in 2011 in the aftermath of the harrumphing over one of the Transformers sequels, “When a sameness of thinking takes over, as I think it did with Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, then the scathing tone of the reviews can be less an assertion of individual temperament and opinion – which, to me, is the definition of any review that matters – than it is a kind of mutually vicious tap dance, an agreed-upon stance. … That’s where the week’s Worst Movie Ever Made comes in handy. As I said, it’s generally a major hit, and so panning it looks like an act of fearlessness. BUT… because everyone else in the critical collective has agreed to pan it too, you can let your vicious one-liners fly and know that you’ll be in good company.”
There are certain films that become easy targets, due to their astronomical budgets (John Carter), politics (The Passion of the Christ), or sheer chutzpah (After Earth), and critics did seem to be licking their chops as the Pirates of the Caribbean crew reunited for a $200 million-plus Western that starred one of Hollywood’s biggest stars as Tonto, the traditional sidekick. But that doesn’t mean that The Lone Ranger and other such films are undeserving of criticism or that that criticism is invalid. The Lone Ranger was the latest bloated action-adventure that felt like an inverted pyramid – piles of spectacle heaped atop an underdeveloped foundation of a script. Even eager audiences – the opening-weekend crowds that CinemaScore surveys – were underwhelmed, giving the movie a lukewarm B+ grade.
By the way, let’s not confuse or overrate the role of the critics – at least where it impacts the financial performance of a movie. Critics have uniformly condemned movies that became blockbusters, while heralding films that the public completely ignored. Was the Lone Ranger reviewed any worse than Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen ($402 million), Twilight: New Moon ($297 million), or The Hangover Part II ($254 million)? And all the critic love in the world for this summer’s Before Midnight hasn’t been able to boost that movie’s grosses past the $8 million mark. Bruckheimer said The Lone Ranger is “one of those movies that, whatever critics missed it this time, will re-review it in a few years and see that they made a mistake.” I don’t doubt that they believe they made a solid, deserving movie – Depp calls it “brave” – but claiming that critics essentially poisoned the well only underscores the obvious fact that they are not an objective party who should be making their not-unreasonable argument. It also deflects a much harder truth for any artist, one that has nothing to do with critics: The public didn’t like me.