During the summer of 2011, Jon Favreau’s Cowboys & Aliens was set to be one of the biggest movies of the season. It was the follow-up to Favreau’s hugely popular Iron Man 2 and played extremely well at that year’s San Diego Comic-Con a few weeks earlier. But despite the all-star cast featuring Daniel Craig, Olivia Wilde, Harrison Ford, Sam Rockwell, and Paul Dano, Cowboys & Aliens opened to disappointing box office and a mixed critical response. What went wrong?
In an interview on the WTF podcast with Marc Maron, Jon Favreau says that Cowboys & Aliens should’ve had a lighter and friendlier approach rather than a self-serious one. And after the success of Iron Man and its sequel, the director “had been spoiled” with success. Favreau admits:
With so many [actors] associated with it, it was seen as the big dog and we felt we were underdogs with how obscure the material was …The name that was so interesting made everyone think it was going to be a comedy and maybe it would’ve been better served with a different vision … It’s always a trick of ‘how can you get the big summer movie, with the big budget, where you can play with all the toys yet do something interesting with it… [Looking at Iron Man] part of me felt that it was going to bomb and part of me felt like this is going to be the best movie in the world.
Audiences did not respond well to Cowboys & Aliens mainly because the title suggested a comedy and not a highbrow space western. The film failed because it was a deeply mediocre sci-fi movie. It felt like it wanted to please everyone while not adhering to what would make it an entertaining story.
This movie also suffered from the streak of genre movies that received glowing reviews and excitement from San Diego Comic-Con, but couldn’t replicate that success with general audiences, a phenomenon since dubbed the “Comic-Con Bubble.” The same thing happened in 2010 with Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and in 2012 with Dredd 3D.
Cowboys & Aliens grossed $174 million worldwide, compared to the first Iron Man’s $585 million worldwide box office.