When talking about superhero trilogies, the ones that stand out as ‘truly great’ are rare. Iron Man’s trilogy came out full swinging, and then descended into perpetual anti-climax. Wolverine’s trilogy was an abominable mess at its start, but then surprised us all by ending on a tear-jerking high note. And The Toxic Avenger’s trilogy was just… Well, it happened. With such slim pickings, it’s no surprise that the only superhero trilogies that truly stand above the rest among us comic book nerds are the Captain America trilogy, and the Dark Knight trilogy.
And, to a lesser extent, the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy. But I prefer to forget that it was a trilogy.
Anyway, that brings up an interesting question. Which superhero movie trilogy was the better of the two? The Captain America trilogy, or the Dark Knight trilogy? It’s not an easy question to answer. So, let’s dive in. Let’s begin by comparing Batman Begins and Captain America: The First Avenger. Each film did the impossible. They took characters that had become hokey jokes in our pop-culture, and legitimized them.
“It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.”
What I liked about Nolan’s Batman Begins was that it took an icon, and then took us on a journey with it. We grew as the character grew, and we were submerged in a world that was seedy, dour, grimy. Yet, it was still roomy enough for a ray of hope to come and rise above it all. All of the character interactions were handled amazingly, the plot was enthralling, and the themes were riveting. There hadn’t been a superhero movie quite like it before. The one flaw I can pick out is that the characters sometimes felt like marionettes. Aside from that, Nolan put on a damn good show that promised better things to come.
“I can do this all day.”
The First Avenger was a very different type of origin story from Batman Begins. Drawing inspiration from 40s serials, Indiana Jones and the Rocketeer, Joe Johnston decided to tell a story about the every-man underdog, going on an adventure with the hope of making himself into something better. Unlike Bruce Wayne from Batman Begins, Steve Rogers isn’t just a symbol here. He’s a person that can be related to. He stumbles, he struggles, but, he always gets back up. You can’t help but root for him as the story progresses. Cap becomes the irreplaceable patriot that we all know and love.
The plot of the movie might be simple, but it definitely gets the job done. The supporting cast does a great job here. The movie’s only flaw is that the second act feels very rushed. I wanted to see more of Cap taking down Hydra bases, and it could’ve used a lot more time to flesh itself out. However, the serialized nature of the movie makes that flaw a bit more forgivable. Even in spite of inevitable reboots, this movie will go down as the quintessential Captain America origin film.
“Some men just want to watch the world burn…”
The Dark Knight and Captain America: The Winter Soldier are the next two to compare. It’s not easy, because each of these movies are near flawless. They bring our heroes through even harder trials, weave stories of epic scale, and pose complex questions that aren’t easy to answer.
The Dark Knight is easily the best entry of the Dark Knight trilogy, and quite possibly Nolan’s best work. The best part about the Dark Knight is that it builds on Batman’s struggles with fear and the ethicalness of vigilantism, and puts them in the light where they can’t be ignored. Heath Ledger’s Joker is the perfect example of this. He serves as the perfect foil to Batman. It helps that Heath’s Joker is one of the greatest performances of modern cinema.
The Dark Knight is extremely immersive. There’s not a single dull moment, and the entire feature builds up to a powerful climax. It’s intense, emotional, thought-provoking, blood-pounding, and everything you could want out of a Batman movie, and far more.
“The price of freedom is high, but it’s the price I’m willing to pay.”
Taking a page from The Dark Knight, the Russo brothers created a superhero thriller of their own. It was a wonder to behold. The action and cinematography are breathtaking, and every scene keeps you on the edge of your seat. The story really progresses Steve Rogers’ character by cementing him as a man out of time. Having been part of the greatest generation, he can’t relate with the world around him. He’s steadily been forced to become distrusting of the very things he once represented. This includes even his former friend.
The ending of the movie is heartbreaking. There are few other superhero movies that do as good of a job as The Winter Soldier, and I wonder if we’ll ever get a better Captain America movie that’s better than this one.
My only real issue with The Winter Soldier is that its grounded tone strikes a stark contrast with Johnston’s vision for The First Avenger. However, that’s merely due to the shift in directors. It’s not something that can be blamed on the movie itself.
“A hero can be anyone. Even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat around a young boy’s shoulders, to let him know that the world hadn’t ended.”
Finally, we need to compare The Dark Knight Rises and Captain America: Civil War— the conclusions of each trilogy.
The Dark Knight Rises shows us a Bruce Wayne that has been broken by the world around him and become hopeless. The crux of the movie centers around Bruce Wayne healing from that brokenness by rising above it and returning to what made him into the hero that he is. Bane proves a formidable antagonist for Batman. The two are caught in a struggle for Gotham, and Batman’s love for Catwoman adds an interesting dynamic to the character.
As always, seeing Nolan’s interpretation of Batman is a joy. The visuals, acting, and cinematography that he’s able to bring on-screen is impossible to replicate. However, the movie is very hard to follow at times, and it doesn’t have the same punch as the previous two films. Its greatest strength is the way in which it ties up all of the loose threads from the series, and gives a proper goodbye to the characters that we’ve come to love. Its overreliance on this strength is also its greatest flaw. The Dark Knight Rises has some powerful things to say if you look hard enough, and it ends on a high note. Many of the notes leading up to the finale felt somewhat lackluster.
“Our job is to save as many people as we can. Sometimes, that doesn’t mean everybody.”
Captain America: Civil War was incredible. It managed to stage a conflict between twelve Marvel superheroes while still remaining focused on Captain America’s conflict with his former friend, Bucky. The addition of Tony Stark to this film adds a needed extra layer of depth, by showing just how torn Captain America’s loyalties really are. The plot of the movie helps drive this point home by making Captain America choose between turning himself and the Avengers in to the Government, or becoming a fugitive. The Russo brothers make sure to show both sides of the argument, and, it’s all tied together with an emotional punch at the climax.
The movie isn’t without flaws, though. At times it feels overstuffed and all over the place, with the Avengers sometimes making Captain America take the backseat. The action isn’t as fresh and inventive as it was in Winter Soldier either. The film ends with certain threads still unanswered, which is a very sloppy way to end a trilogy. While it can be argued that Civil War is better than The Dark Knight Rises, it could’ve used a bit more polish.
Ultimately, I feel that The Dark Knight trilogy was superior to the Captain America trilogy. Neither trilogy is without its flaws. Nolan maintained a consistent, poignant vision throughout his series, and yet still managed to have each entry stand on its own. And, while The Dark Knight Rises might not have been the high note for the series to go out on, it made for a satisfying conclusion to the series.
The Captain America trilogy definitely gives The Dark Knight trilogy a run for its money. Between the changes in tone, directors, and focus, the trilogy ultimately is too constrained by the overall scope and needs of the rest of the MCU.
At least we can all agree that they’re both better than the Hellboy ‘trilogy’! Am I right? …Too soon?
What do you guys think? Did you prefer The Dark Knight trilogy, or the Captain America trilogy? Leave your thoughts down in the comments below.
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