Twenty-three years ago, Johnny Depp wanted out. His breakthrough role on the Fox series 21 Jump Street had become an albatross: After four seasons of playing the same character, the stir-crazy Depp was ready for different roles, impatient to leave behind the more limited medium of television in order to embrace the infinite possibilities that movies could offer him. So what’s happened to Depp since? The actor who once looked down his nose at TV has now mined his last two big-screen bombs from old television shows — The Lone Ranger and Dark Shadows — and the decade-plus serialization of Depp’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has gone on far longer than nearly any TV series he could have shackled himself to. Have the rhythms of our once most unpredictable star now become routine?
The actor who once abhorred repeating himself now seems content to do so: Depp is prepping a fifth Pirates of the Caribbean (though the franchise hit a natural stopping point after the third movie), and even his 2011 film The Rum Diary proved a pallid attempt to recapture the addled magic of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. With The Lone Ranger, Depp had hoped to use his new take on Tonto to launch another sequel-ready franchise. To be fair, it’s a very different version of the character than the one offered by the fifties TV show: a Tonto with far more agency than the original but even more eccentricities, including wild face makeup and a habit of feeding birdseed to the clearly expired crow that rests on his head like a tattered, feathered tri-corner hat.
But while those eccentricities may have been new territory for Tonto, they’re nothing new for Depp. They’ve become part of the character actor package we now expect from him: With each big-budget part, Depp will employ a new voice, a new hat, and some new face paint, but the more Depp labors to make himself unrecognizable, the more we recognize the tricks he uses to do so. Tonto isn’t exactly like Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean, but they’ve both been assembled from the same familiar toolkit.
If Depp wants to freshen up his routine and regain some of his seeping star power, he’d do well to listen to his younger self and leave TV behind entirely: His passion projects like Dark Shadows and The Lone Ranger have engendered almost no equivalent passion from audiences. In fact, Depp’s insistence on making The Lone Ranger kept everyone involved from reading the warning signs. The box-office graveyard is littered with big-budget Westerns like 1999’s Wild Wild West and 2011’s Cowboys & Aliens, and The Lone Ranger is a property with next to no relevance for a modern audience. Moreover, Depp’s desire to play the sidekick — though he’s a gigantic movie star who demands first billing — created an uneasy power dynamic: The movie is ostensibly an origin story for Armie Hammer’s heroic Lone Ranger, yet the character is constantly undermined so that Depp’s Tonto can assume more importance. Just because Depp could play Tonto doesn’t mean he should have.
Still, there are some hopeful notes on the horizon for Depp, who recently turned 50. Next year, he’ll be seen in Into the Woods, which on the surface seems like more of the same — another Stephen Sondheim adaptation, just like Depp’s Sweeney Todd — but as the Wolf, Depp is taking an unusual supporting role in a stacked cast that also includes Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Chris Pine. More important, Depp’s got the intriguing Transcendence coming out next April, where he plays a scientist for first-time director Wally Pfister, Christopher Nolan’s ace cinematographer. It’s a welcome relief to see Depp lending his star power to an original sci-fi vehicle instead of some exhumed TV show or superfluous sequel; he’s even left his makeup kit at home for this one. Who needs it, when the unfamiliarity of the character and material could be surprising enough on its own?
And that’s what makes it all the more depressing that Depp is moving ahead on that fifth Pirates film; worse, he’s wrangled the talented Norwegian directors of last year’s Oscar-nominated Kon-Tiki to make it, though their unique skills would doubtlessly be better spent on a fresher property. For that matter, so would Depp’s: What good are all the franchises in the world if you don’t spend the capital they earn you on something truly worthwhile? At one point near the end of The Lone Ranger, as yet another train battle begins, the villain mutters, “We’ve been here before, haven’t we?” Wherever here is, Johnny Depp’s spent way too much time there. We’re ready for him to move on. Let’s hope he still wants out.