Yet another American pop culture icon mercilessly murdered by Big Movies. Is the day of the old-time radio and pulp hero finally over? With reports that Disney’s The Lone Ranger is bombing, burning a $150 million hole in the company’s pocket, one cannot help but think of last year’s disastrous John Carter. Sadly, there may be something going on here beyond simple corporate incompetence. When was the last successful radio/pulp movie crossover? Tarzan hasn’t been done well since Johnny Weismuller back in the 1930s. Alec Baldwin’s 1994 The Shadow flop may well be the cause of the actor’s unquenchable rages. Don’t even think about Billy Zane’s The Phantom, Warren Beatty’s surreal Dick Tracy, or the sad 1980s Allan Quatermain attempts.
As someone who grew up in the 1970s watching reruns of Clayton Moore as The Lone Ranger (and George Reeves as Superman), as well as listening to the golden age of radio (Suspense, Inner Sanctum, The Great Gildersleeve, The Shadow, et al.) and reading Dick Tracy, I’m sadly out of touch with most popular heroes of today. What I can’t understand is why the vast majority of the old stand-bys now flop so badly. The Batman was saved only by Christopher Nolan’s genius, but even Nolan may not be able to resuscitate Superman. James Bond, while a generation younger than other action heroes, also had a near-death experience before Casino Royale and Daniel Craig showed the world it could love a blonde Bond.
Do these golden oldies simply not translate to a more cynical society? Has the moral relativism drilled into two generation of students also corrupted their ability to thrill to good-v-evil plotlines (no matter how simplistic)? Or, perhaps it is a more technical problem. Are today’s producers and directors just corporate suits out of touch with the spirit that animated these daredevils? Do they think slow-motion fight scenes, special effects, and big explosions are all you need to make secret decoder rings relevant to today’s Call of Duty-obsessed youth? Maybe I’m just a cantankerous middle-aged man, but I’m disheartened to see America so blithely move on from John Reid to Xander Cage, even if the relatively youthful Peter Parker and Charles Xavier have held their own.
Of course, every generation probably has the same lament. Were my grandfather writing this post, he’d decry the fact that no one cares about The Perils of Pauline or Bulldog Drummond. And my father still can’t understand why I never enjoyed 16-part serials. Yet aren’t we giving up something by burying all those early-20th-century (and sometimes earlier) adventurers? Especially the ones who spoke to an America just emerging on the world stage or struggling through the Great Depression. Maybe they had their day, and did the job called for. Like the Western (a truly American art form), they are now riding off into the sunset. I hope they’re having a great gathering at a retirement home for yesterday’s heroes.