Yesterday, my esteemed colleague Matt Goldberg wrote an essay asserting that the Captain America trilogy is better than The Dark Knight trilogy. What follows is my rebuttal, in which I assert the opposite: Matt’s wrong, The Dark Knight trilogy is superior to the Captain America trilogy.
The most obvious point of contention here is that the Captain America trilogy barely qualifies as a trilogy. Captain America: Civil War is an ellipsis, not a period, and does not bring Steve Rogers’ arc to a close. I’d even go so far as to argue that Civil War is more of an Iron Man film than a Captain America film, as Tony drives the emotional backbone of the story—the movie literally opens on Tony Stark! Meanwhile, The Dark Knight Rises is a very definitive period—it concludes the Batman arc that Christopher Nolan began with Batman Begins, and does so with the same creative team intact.
Indeed, there’s a consistency and, frankly, higher quality of filmmaking to The Dark Knight trilogy that’s lacking in the Captain America films. The screenwriting team of Nolan, David S. Goyer, and Jonathan Nolan crafted the stories and scripts for all three films, cinematographer Wally Pfister shot each movie, and Nolan, of course, guided it all through his authorial voice as the trilogy’s director. That’s not to say each film is the same, but there’s a consistency of vision and character in The Dark Knight trilogy that allows for a more full and satisfying arc, even if the concluding installment is admittedly much messier than the first two films.
From a visual standpoint, each of Nolan’s Batman’s films is far more compelling, distinguished, and ambitious than anything in the Captain America movies. Director Joe Johnston attempts to capture the tone of a World War II film with Captain America: The First Avenger, but the illusion never succeeds due to ugly digital photography that fails to marry the visuals with Johnston’s thematic ambitions. And while directors Joe and Anthony Russo find greater success in striking something more along the lines of a Bourne movie’s visual palette with The Winter Soldier and Civil War, it still doesn’t hold a candle to the sophisticated vitality and grandiosity of The Dark Knight trilogy.
In terms of character, Heath Ledger’s Joker is an iconic performance that has already solidified its place in cinematic history. Aaron Eckhart brings tremendous dynamism to the Harvey Dent/Two-Face role and wildly succeeds in selling the character’s entire emotional arc within the span of one film. Cillian Murphy’s fearlessness of Scarecrow makes him all the more dangerous and thematically appropriate, Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman is endlessly compelling, Michael Caine’s turn is the definitive Alfred, and Gary Oldman’s Gordon as realized is a magnificent foil/ally to the Caped Crusader.
Alternatively, the Captain America films have yet to introduce a single villain as complex and memorable as Ledger’s Joker or even Eckhart’s Two-Face—even in Civil War, Bucky/The Winter Soldier is never anything more than a personality-less punching machine. Even the supporting roles are routinely forgettable as full character arcs are shorted in favor of continuing the story in future installments of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
And that’s one of the main reasons why The Dark Knight trilogy is superior. The Captain America trilogy, by design, is part of a larger cinematic universe. A character like Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is not going to run through a tremendous amount of story in Winter Soldier because she still has to continue to evolve in Avengers: Age of Ultron, Civil War, etc. And that’s okay—this is how the Marvel Cinematic Universe works, with films acting more like episodes in a larger TV series than standalone features. But it only allows for a limited amount of closure in each film, meaning you’re unable to fully realize something as disturbing or impactful as Harvey Dent’s fall from grace in The Dark Knight.
Indeed, Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers is really the only character who gets to enjoy arcs in the Captain America films (save for Civil War which, again, is more of an Iron Man movie), and even still is a far less interesting and compelling character than Christian Bale’s Batman. If Captain America represents who we should aspire to be, Batman represents who we are. That, I’d argue, is not only more interesting, but also more insightful. The entire lesson learned at the end of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy is that one man can make a dent, but it takes a movement, a city, to truly enact change. Steve Rogers is a do-gooder who doesn’t like bullies and has distrust for fascist oversight. Darker doesn’t always mean better, but it sometimes does mean more complex, and the shortcomings of Bale’s Bruce Wayne make him far more compelling and, most importantly, relatable.
Admittedly The Dark Knight Rises attempts to juggle too many thematic issues at once while short-changing its villains towards a predictable outcome, but when taken as a whole with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, the thematic throughline is realized fully and truly. Bruce Wayne attempts to right Gotham by becoming a symbol for the city, but the existence of Batman only brings about more intense destruction. In the end, the city can only thrive with unity and teamwork, with many people motivated to enact change, not just one man.
When it comes to the individual Batman films, particularly Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, the themes are far better realized than in any of the Captain America movies. Again, this is a consequence of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A film like The Winter Soldier can attempt to tackle larger issues that speak to the world we live in, even broaching post-9/11 fears, but it’s also intently focused on introducing new superheroes, explaining the shady organization known as Hydra, and concluding in another lackluster, explosion-filled aerial battle.
In The Dark Knight, the theme of escalation informs everything. Ledger’s Joker is a man possessed, chaos personified, and the existence of someone like The Batman is precisely what allows for The Joker to exist. This not only takes a toll on Wayne’s psyche, but also draws clear parallels to America’s place in the post-9/11 world that resonates fully. Nolan’s tackling hard truths to which there are no easy answers, and instead of concluding in a knock-down, drag-out fight or a race against the clock to prevent a nuclear weapon from detonating (those come in The Dark Knight Rises—hey, this trilogy ain’t perfect!), The Dark Knight ends with one of the most emotionally charged and disturbing confrontations in modern blockbuster cinema. And even then, Nolan doesn’t wrap things up in a neat bow—the death of the villain (in this case Dent) isn’t the end of villainy, because Batman reflects real life.
One man cannot save the world, and while Captain America is inspiring, it’s a fantasy—an enjoyable one to be sure, but a fantasy nonetheless. And while the Dark Knight trilogy is a piece of fiction, Nolan’s emphasis on keeping the superhero adaptation grounded results in a piece of fiction that’s thrilling and chilling to the core not just because it’s spectacular filmmaking, but because it all seems so familiar.
This marriage of blockbuster cinema with prescient themes makes the Dark Knight trilogy all the more worthwhile, and while the Captain America films broach thematic subject matter that’s also relevant to the world we live in, it’s far more focused on continuing the TV series known as “the Marvel Cinematic Universe.” Which, again, there’s nothing wrong with this concept in and of itself, but when stacking up the three Captain America films (thus far) against Christopher Nolan’s since-concluded Dark Knight trilogy, the latter excels via cohesiveness, closure, and craft.