I recently watched both Captain America and Cowboys & Aliens*, and what struck me was their handling of morality. If you’re just looking for a review -- Captain America was pretty fantastic. Cowboys & Aliens was definitely enjoyable, and the parts where it fumbles are the same as in any action movie. In other words, suspend your freaking disbelief already and accept that these people are somehow more athletic than is humanly possible.
I think the reason Captain America resonated so much was that you could genuinely turn off your brain and just enjoy it. It’s a fun action movie, but more importantly it taps into an older era of storytelling: the good guy vs the bad guy. We’ve had so many anti-heroes, so many likable villains, so many gray characters --- for once, the good guy is the good guy, and the bad guy is the bad guy.
We don’t feel any sympathy for Red Skull. He’s driven, sure, but there’s no underlying rationale that would make us even begin to empathise with him. Don’t get me wrong -- I love Magneto because his past makes his actions so ambiguous -- but it’s nice to have a character that you can feel good about hating.
On the flip side, Captain America isn’t a tortured hero in the conventional sense. He spends no time worrying about the morality of his actions -- he reacts, instantly. When they threw the mock grenade, he immediately covered it with his body. His instinct is to do whatever is necessary for the greater good -- even if his own desires might wish otherwise. This man’s moral compass never wavers.
Part of this is explained with the super serum -- it amplifies the traits of the individual that takes it. So a bad man is worse and a good man is great. This suggests that good or evil is inherent in an individual -- it’s part of their character.
This is where Cowboys & Aliens takes a vastly different tack.
We soon learn that our intrepid protagonist, Jake Lonergan, is actually a wanted man -- sure, the murder rap was a bum charge, but the robbery accusation certainly was deserved. Not only did he steal, he betrayed everyone in his gang to keep all of the loot for himself. The fact that he was hoping to start a new life with his woman does little to mitigate the wrong -- even she recognizes that, and urges him to take the money back.
His abduction has left him with no memory, though, and his actions from that point are based on survival rather than any kind of moral decision. He resists arrest because he doesn’t know who he is -- doesn’t know what they want with him. This is less premeditated defiance and more survival instinct. The first men that found him were going to march him back to town, injured as he was, in order to see if there was a bounty on him -- he is naturally suspicious of anyone else’s actions.
Through the course of the movie, Jake’s moral compass shifts from being self-interested to being self-sacrificing. He carries the injured Ella, even though her odds are poor and he’d have a better chance of survival without her. He risks his life going back to the gang he had just pissed off to encourage them to follow him once more. He goes directly into the den of the aliens to free the captured townsfolk, even though he knows his own woman is dead.
As the preacher Meacham says, it doesn’t matter who you were.. it matters who you are.
In the same vein, Woodrow Dolarhyde, the stereotypical cattle baron, is portrayed as being a hard man, prone to torturing staff and keeping an entire town in fear. When his son is taken, we start seeing the good in him; he is a hard man with hard lessons, but those lessons are meant to help you. We learn of his time in war, how he took in Nat Colorado, and suddenly his behavior is filtered through a layer of understanding. Still, it’s not until Nat Colorado defends him that he realizes the error of his ways and allows his exterior to soften somewhat and he becomes a benevelont, fatherly pillar of the community instead of a tyrant.
Not even the aliens can be really classified as evil. Sure, they capture and torture people, but as Ella says, we’re like insects to them. Imagine, for a second, what insects must think of humanity.
Still, where Captain America highlights the character inherent within individuals, Cowboys & Aliens focuses on redemption and on change. There is a very clear bad/good and right/wrong in Captain America, while Cowboys & Aliens muddies the distinctions. Either way, both are worth watching.
Oh, and if you haven’t already seen this -- watch it.
* Yes, I totally ignored Matt’s call to boycott this movie.