The Lone Ranger is one of the biggest tentpole releases of the year. With a trimmed budget of $215 million, it needed to be a big hit for Disney to even break even. But over a five-day opening weekend it made just $48 million, a figure that is shockingly low to those of us who keep an eye on these things. There are plenty of possible reasons why, including the fact that The Lone Ranger doesn't necessarily appeal to younger audiences. But certainly, following the insane success of their Depp-fronted Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, Disney was expecting Johnny Depp to be the major draw. But with what looks to be his second flop in as many years, it appears Depp's star power is failing. I say it's his own damn fault. He's overreaching on his star power, thinking he can do no wrong, and that wackier/wilder equals better. It's a costly mistake that Mike Myers made before him, and Depp may be heading for a Myers-like decline. Hear me out.
Johnny Depp is a fascinating performer. He went from dreamy TV star of 21 Jump Street to captivating leading man by purposely selecting peculiar parts and projects, like Cry-Baby, Edward Scissorhands, and What's Eating Gilbert Grape. In the 90s he balanced commercial prospects like Mike Newell's Donnie Brasco with more offbeat productions like Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. From there, Depp developed the kind of career many actors dream of. It seemed he'd emerge from his own private island only to play the parts that really appealed to him. He was an artist, not just an actor! Commercial appeal and box office drawing power was no real concern of his. (Proof of his inability to inspire financiers can be found in the documentary Lost in La Mancha, which had Gilliam fighting tooth and nail to get his ill-fated Don Quixote movie made for the first time.) Then came his tipping point. In 2003, Depp went from respected but quirky leading man to a full-fledged A-list star with Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.
It's become part of the film's legend that Disney execs initially loathed Depp's take on Jack Sparrow. Michael Eisner reportedly screamed, "He's ruining the film!" while perusing dailies. But producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski backed Depp's Keith Richards-inspired pirate performance. Ultimately, it was this deeply strange portrayal that launched the film inspired by a theme park ride as an immensely successful franchise. Everyone loved Jack Sparrow. While the subsequent sequels drew less and less positive reviews from critics, audiences worldwide turned out in droves, resulting in Pirates 2-4 making about a billion dollars each. With that kind of bankability, the sky was the limit for Depp. And what did he do? He made Dark Shadows.
Re-teaming with recurring collaborator Tim Burton, Depp—as producer and star—aimed attempted to adapt the cult TV series into a comedy. He played Baranabas Collins, a role he'd dreamed of since childhood. But the results were absolutely atrocious. Critics loathed the film. In Eric's review, he offers, "Terrible as the pacing, structure and plot are, the real weak link in the chain is Barnabas himself. Depp isn’t bad in the part, but movie-goers are never given any reason to appreciate him as a character because nothing he does makes much sense."
Despite Depp's presumed box office drawing power, the $150 million film only made $79 million domestically. While it's international numbers pulled that up to $245, it's still generally regarded as a failure of star power. Then Depp has followed it up with another bizarre big budget movie which he produced and in which he plays a cartoonish figure too strange to connect with. His acting canon has devolved from thoughtful and compelling portraits of unusual heroes to a collection of wacky faces, weird accents, and topped off with the racially insensitive portrayal of the insane Indian outcast Tonto. It turns out Johnny Depp is not a performer who can do no wrong.
Now consider the career of another TV star turned Hollywood power player Mike Myers. From Saturday Night Live he made a successful leap to the big screen with Wayne's World. There were early signs that Myer's own belief in his unerring comedic talent could prove a problem. He notably had Penelope Spheeris blocked from directing Wayne's World 2 after the pair fought over the edit of the wildly successful first film. Notably, no one calls the sequel a classic of any sort. Later, the success of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery gave Myers a new level of fame that gave him a lot more creative freedom and bigger budgets for his next creations. He became a producer for the franchise. While the sequels grew dumber and more outlandish, they made exponentially more at the box office. Leaping from $53 million to $206 mil, then $213 million. Sure, these sequels were less welcomed from critics (Rotten Tomatoes rankings sank from 70% to 51% and 54%), but Myers was on fire! He could do whatever he wanted! So, the actor/producer made The Love Guru. It has an over-the-top sensibility, racial insensitivity, and leaves you wondering who this movie was made for. Sound familiar?
With a budget of $62 million dollars and stars like Jessica Alba, Justin Timberlake, and Ben Kingsley, it made $40 million worldwide. Basically, it flopped hard. A.O. Scott of The New York Times called it "downright anti-funny," and Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool News predicted it would be a career-killer for Myers. It basically was. Since then, Myers has resurrected Austin Powers for music videos with Britney Spears and Madonna. But a small role in Inglourious Basterds is the only film appearance he has made, not counting his recurring voice work in the Shrek franchise. Myers overplayed his hand. He decided he could do no wrong, went too far, and made a comedy I've yet to hear anyone defend. (Though the discussion of The Love Guru on How Did This Get Made is definitely worth a listen.)
Similarly, Depp is buying into his own reputation too much. Yes, we've loved him for the odd outsider characters he could create—but that was when they felt relatable despite all their quirks. These days Depp's characters are just a jumble of facial tics and one-liners without a beating heart to draw us in. They are just cartoonish clowns. As much as it pains me to say it as a long-time admirer of Depp, it's not fun anymore. He makes me wish he'd just return to his private island and leave us moviegoers alone. If follows Myers' example, he'll do just that, resurfacing only to revive Jack Sparrow and maybe bring about Rango 2-4.
UPDATE: Discussion of the portrayals of race in The Lone Ranger and The Love Guru has been edited since this piece was published.