Before comparing the Captain America to The Dark Knight trilogy, let me be upfront and admit that they don’t easily compare in some key ways. Captain America has been under different directors while The Dark Knight trilogy came from one filmmaker. The Captain America films rely on other movies outside of its trilogy while The Dark Knight trilogy is self-contained. The third part of the The Dark Knight trilogy is a clear conclusion while Civil War is another episode in the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. But nevertheless, these are two key film trilogies, and they both speak to our post-9/11 world.
I believe that the Captain America trilogy is better than the The Dark Knight trilogy for two reasons. The first is that that the Captain America movies show us our better selves, and secondly, The Dark Knight trilogy doesn’t hold together in its third installment, The Dark Knight Rises, while the third Cap movie, Civil War continues to skillfully build upon and expand the character.
Both films deal with political issues, but where as The Dark Knight reflects our world, Captain America offers us a glimpse at something better. Of course, this all begins with the fundamental differences between Cap and Batman. Batman is not an aspirational figure. He’s a selfish loner who goes out and beats people up in a vain psychological quest to make amends for the parents he couldn’t save when he was a kid. Gotham is one big role-playing therapy session for a spoiled child, and while Bruce Wayne may tell himself that he does it to help others, that’s really more of a side benefit to the people of Gotham.
Captain America, on the other hand, is a soldier. He exists to serve others, and while that may involve bending the rules or sometimes going on the run, his moral compass is always to serve the greater good. This sometimes gets Cap slapped with the label of being “simplistic”, but I find that simple moral compass refreshing. I may not always agree with it (as was the case with Civil War where it would have behooved Cap to find a smarter way to deal with people opposed to his viewpoint), but I can at least respect it.
That’s not to diminish Batman. I like Batman as a character, and I find him fascinating. I also like Christopher Nolan’s take on the character as a realistic (within the bounds of Hollywood cinema; it is a blockbuster after all) approach to a war on terror, and exploring notions of fear is what make Batman Begins and The Dark Knight such strong films. They go to the heart of paranoia and doubt, and The Dark Knight comes out with a very cynical answer: people, despite proving themselves worthy, can’t be trusted by fascistic forces like Batman and Commissioner Gordon, who believe the city would crumble if their White Knight was shown to be an understandably disturbed individual.
Compare that with Captain America, who is consistently able to rouse the troops with his inherent goodness and morality. He’s both an inspirational and an aspirational figure, and it comes from a simple ethos in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: “I don’t like bullies.” Captain America doesn’t go out to fight bad guys in order to patch up some deep psychic wound. He does it because that’s simply who he is, and while some may find that uninteresting, I find it hopeful. I leave a Captain America movie looking up to Captain America; I leave a Batman movie feeling entertained but also a little disheartened.
Additionally, Captain America has the much stronger capper to its trilogy even though it leaves the door open for more Captain America movies. The big problem with The Dark Knight Rises is that it doesn’t really know what it’s about. Whereas Batman Begins is about fear and The Dark Knight is about the War on Terror, The Dark Knight Rises is about general unrest, and it can’t mine a great deal of drama out that conceit. It want to touch on income inequality and power dynamics, but it also wants to suddenly turn Batman into an egalitarian figure, which, by the own metrics of the previous films, he definitely isn’t.
Batman is a guy who had the money to disappear, the lack of personal connections to go into the wilderness, the self-discipline to train his mind and body to become a perfect weapon, and the funds to give himself tech and vehicles to carry out his one-man mission. That’s far from everybody. That’s so far from everybody you wonder how everyone doesn’t already assume that Batman is the wealthy loner who lives outside of the city.
Ironically, if anyone is actually an egalitarian figure, it’s Captain America. When Tony Stark tells Steve Rogers “Everything that’s special about you came out of a bottle,” he means it as a stinging insult, but Tony Stark doesn’t get that it’s the inherent goodness in Cap that makes him special, and that’s something money can’t buy. That’s not to say Captain America divides people up into “good” and “evil” (although there’s certainly those distinctions), but rather that you can follow Cap’s example. No one wants to follow Batman’s example (or at least you shouldn’t).
Civil War is the first film to humanize Cap and show his weaknesses. If The First Avenger and The Winter Soldier build him up to the point where some think he’s unreachable, Civil War brings him back down to Earth and shows that Cap’s love of his friend (and arguably, a friend who represents a life and past that Cap lost and longs for) can impede his judgment. But it doesn’t make him an unreachable figure. He still has allies and he still has a moral compass. He doesn’t get depressed, get beat up, does some push ups and saves the day like Batman in The Dark Knight Rises. You may not agree with Cap’s decisions in Civil War, but at least they come from a desire of wanting to help others.
Again, these movies have some key differences, but I think they speak to an interesting snapshot of our times, and I would like to think that the success of Captain America means we’re headed to someplace more hopeful. The Dark Knight Trilogy is an impressive achievement, and as we’ve seen from other Batman films, tackling the character isn’t easy. But I like where Captain America puts us and leaves us as opposed to Nolan’s dark, brooding world.
[Come back later this week to read Adam’s rebuttal, which says that The Dark Knight Trilogy is superior to the Captain America trilogy.]