THE HUMAN TORCH, JAMES BOND AND INDIANA JONES WALK INTO A THEATER…
Captain America: The First Avenger
Cowboys & Aliens
Dual review by Joel Frost
Spoiler Alert: “Captain America” is awesome and “Cowboys & Aliens” isn’t.
How can that be, you ask? Isn’t “Captain America” kind of obvious, while “Cowboys & Aliens” has vast potential as a genre-bending slice of kickass? One could suppose so, yes. One would be wrong. I know: your mind is blown. All summer you’ve been thinking that “Captain America” was buried in late July for a good reason, but C&A, despite being even more deeply buried in the last month of Hollywood’s summer, couldn’t possibly be anything but wildly entertaining. You knew Jon Favreau and Steven Spielberg were involved. You knew 007 was in it. You knew INDIANA effing JONES was in it too. What could possibly have gone wrong?
To explore that is to take a dive into the backwards world of summer movies. I’ve given up trying to predict which warm-weather blockbusters will turn out as good or better than they seem, and which will falter in droning dullness, mostly valuable as an excuse for air-conditioning. Every year there’s at least one welcome surprise and at least a few disappointments. For every “Iron Man”, there’s more than one Indiana Jones & The Crystal Skull.
It’s hard not to grasp for easy answers, when analyzing such successes and failures. Hubris can often seem to play a part, in that the most obvious summer films, with the biggest budgets and least to lose (sequels have inevitable audiences) frequently fail to earn their keep. Thrown together hastily for the cash-in and lacking in inspirado, a sequel is often a cruel joke on the eager viewer; we know you liked the first one, we know you’ll come to this one, we don’t have to try very hard, thanks for your money.
“Captain America”, while not a sequel, is one of several Marvel Comics-based films that have all been pointing to and leading up to next summer’s “The Avengers”. Easy to take it this way then – “Captain” could have been thrown together as the last obligatory link before the big one drops, next year. Marvel has garnered so much attention and general good will leading up to “The Avengers”, that it probably could have withstood a half-assed Captain America film. He’s not the deepest of Marvel characters, from a modern/cynical perspective anyway. I mean, he doesn’t brood like Wolverine or have the Freudian complexity of Tony Stark/Iron Man. Steve Rogers/Captain America is meant to be straightforward and simple, the embodiment of what is good about this country at its core. Captain America isn’t tortured by inner conflict about right and wrong, just like this country isn’t… right?
“Cowboys & Aliens” is the film that Jon Favreau jumped ship on “Iron Man 3” to make. Again, STEVEN SPIELBERG and HARRISON FORD are part of it. When’s the last time those two hung out on a film set? Oh yeah, during the aformentioned fridge-nuker called “The Crystal Skull”. Well, never mind that. In this one, you see, Ford is a crotchety, no-nonsense cowboy, who comes into conflict with JAMES friggin’ BOND! Then, just when you thought things couldn’t get awesomer, ALIENS show up! WOOHOO! Right? I mean, in concept it’s a clear winner. Eviscerating the western genre by adding the spice of Independence Day-style madness has to be a good idea. We live in a world where Pride & Prejudice & Zombies is a best-seller (fast-tracking toward your local multiplex screen, too). Typical westerns and alien flicks have been done, over and over. Mashing these ideas together, with a cast like this, overseen by a reliable giant of movie awesomeness and a (relatively) young turk who so far hasn’t done much wrong all ought to have added up to at least an hour and a half of shimmering, giddy fun at the movies.
It just doesn’t shake out like that.
Perhaps the answer was in front of us all the time, though. Captain America was conceived in the 40s as an allegory about the rise of the underdog nation against a real, actual evil in the world. Steve Rogers was the little guy, literally, who rose up to beat down the bully. He needed a little help from the Government, but that aspect of the myth served to punctuate to a scared potential GI that Uncle Sam had your back. Between the never-say-die spirit of America and the coordinated assistance of the higher-ups, those damn Nazis didn’t stand a chance. Upon close examination, Captain America’s story stands the basic test, which is, in utterly stupefying simplicity: Does it work? Well, yes. It just does. This film displays the soul of a man, and therefore the best hopeful aspiration of a country, in easy fashion. For a patriotic ideal, it’s not bogged down with rah-rahing the flag. An audience member can relate to the guy, and really, that’s what a summer movie – or any movie – truly needs. The core of Captain America is likable, and Joe Johnston (director), Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely (writers) don’t fuck this up. This film is casually earnest, rather than earnestly earnest, which means there’s room for fun. Captain America is not taken too seriously – he’s a comic book character, after all – but he’s also given his due. Yes, he carries that big ol’ Stars n’ Stripes shield around with him, but he won’t beat you over the head with it. I mean, unless you’re a crazy super-Nazi, and those guys have it coming anyway.
At each moment that “Captain America” could run against a wall of way-too-seriousness, it adroitly dodges. In just about every similar moment in
“Cowboys & Aliens”, it trips and sneers.
Without getting too nit-picky, lest I geek us both into submission, let’s just say that somehow, “Cowboys & Aliens” isn’t much fun. How is that possible, you might wonder? Hell if I know. It’s as if the film doesn’t realize what’s actually going on in it. I mean, there are ALIENS from OUTER SPACE in the old west! Aside from a few long looks, mild confusion, and dropped-jaws, the cowboys in the movie don’t seem especially impressed by this rather obvious and inherently consternating development. Now sure, these folks haven’t spent any time at the movies, so they can perhaps be forgiven for not immediately understanding what they’re looking at (“demons” is a term that’s bandied about without much serious trepidation), but good grief, the relative and pervasive lack of alarm in our rag-tag posse of cowboys (and “indians”) is downright annoying. Sam Rockwell, often given to crazy fits of what-the-fuck-is-going-on-ishness in any number of his previous films, is about as casual and sober as you or I might be if Megatron tapped us on the shoulder in the popcorn line. Note to Sam: Freak out a little. Note to Jon Favreau: Why the hell didn’t Sam Rockwell freak out a little? Such over-the-top carrying on by a wacky pro like that helps to convey to an audience that, well, things are nuts, rather than just that there are some fairly standard ETs up there on that screen we all paid good money to sit in front of.
So yeah, “Cowboys & Aliens” had lots of ingredients for a crazy, wild ride. “Captain America” seemed to be a bit more narrow. That isn’t the way it works out. For every opportunity that C&A squanders, there was a cheer or laugh or gasp from the audience that I sat with during “Captain America”. It out-Indied Indy, easily. Next time, I’ll read a review or two before I eagerly submit to the next crazily-conceived summer flick. In the meantime, pass the flag Ma. I’m waving it
for “Captain America”.
Three stars for the Captain. One each for the Cowboys & the Aliens.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER
Directed by: Joe Johnston
Release Date: July 22, 2011
Run Time: 124 Minutes
Distributor: Marvel Enterprises
COWBOYS & ALIENS
Directed by: Jon Favreau
Release Date: July 29, 2011
Run Time: 118 Minutes
Distributor: Universal Pictures