Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy vs. The MCU Captain America Trilogy

When Christopher Nolan took over the Batman cinematic project, he revived a character who had been diminished in his previous film appearance (Batman and Robin) and resurrected the Bat, showing the world that comic book films could stand up with other genres in terms of artistic quality, critical praise, box office clout and franchise sustainability. He helped make comic adaptations credible. In his own words, he said, “We wanted to show things that people wouldn’t expect to see in that kind of film”. Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises have gotten a reputation as the pinnacle of comic book adaptations.

However, there is a challenger to the title of best super hero trilogy. The three Captain America movies have also raised the bar in terms of what can be done with a super hero movie. They’ve managed to combine genres, being not merely super hero films but also (in order) a war film, a spy/espionage thriller and a socio/cultural allegory. Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War are great examples of how a single super hero character can be utilized in variety of ways, keeping the franchise fresh.

Both series are superb. They represent the best Marvel and DC have to offer. So which is the best comic book-based trilogy?  Let’s see.

Despite the fact that they are the two most prominent non-super powered super heroes for their respective companies, both are very different characters. Batman was born in a very personal and tragic moment of violence that dictated the path of his entire life. Captain America had a much grander reason for becoming a hero…World War Two! Batman’s beginning is about how your pain can transform you. Cap’s beginning is about a need to be relevant and to make a difference. As a weak, skinny little guy who’d been looked down on all his life, and who was refused entry into the military at a time when his country needed him most, Steve Rogers needed to redeem his seemingly irrelevant life by becoming someone who could make his mark; as a man, as a hero and as an American. 

You could make the argument that Cap’s motivation of self-actualization is purer and more honorable than Batman’s desire for revenge. However, that might be looking at it too simplistically. Bruce’s psyche was badly fractured because he was a six-year-old boy who watched his parents get gunned down in a completely senseless act of random violence. Yet despite how emotionally damaged he is, he always does the right thing, has a great love of humanity and refuses to kill. (Ignore the Snyder film!) Cap, on the other hand, actually got the redemption he sought for so long. Therefore, you could say that it’s more admirable and laudable that Batman has managed to retain his morality and goodness than it is for Cap to have done the same.  Bruce had to overcome massive psychological damage while Steve became an Adonis.

Both have to make what is known as the classic “Hero’s journey”, which is the path toward their ultimate purpose and destiny. What do they want? What are they looking for? Batman’s long-term goal is to save Gotham City. The same crime-infested city that stole his parents becomes the guiding goal of his life. Another person might have come to hate this city and just abandoned it. After all, as a rich kid, Bruce could have moved anywhere else in the world. Surprisingly, Bruce devoted himself to fixing the city rather than giving up on it. When the League of Assassins tries to burn Gotham to the ground as a lost cause, Batman never loses hope that Gotham not only can be saved but that it is actually worth saving.

As for Cap, his goal is once again grander and less personal than Batman’s. Steve became Captain America because his country was at war. His enemy was the Axis powers of Nazi Germany, Italy and Japan.  He sacrificed himself to stop the Red Skull and Hydra, which led to him becoming frozen for 70 years. After he was awoken, Nick Fury got him “back into the world” by making him an agent of SHIELD, so he could continue protecting his country. When SHIELD is proven to be corrupt, he is willing to fight his own organization because he thinks it’s best for his country. Eventually, as a member of the Avengers, he takes a more global view and wants to protect the whole world, not just the USA. In Captain America: Civil War, he becomes willing to do what was once unthinkable to him…he defies the US government because he feels working exclusively for America would hinder his ability to help the rest of the world. Cap’s thinking has evolved.

Another big difference between the Nolan Batman and the MCU Cap is that Batman does not really want to do what he is doing and would love to pass the responsibility on to someone else but there is no one, so he continues to shoulder the burden for the good of Gotham. He finally finds his peace with his past at the end of The Dark Knight Rises, because he realizes that he had already saved Gotham by the example he set and he didn’t need to wear the mask any more. After years of thinking he wasn’t the hero Gotham needed, he ultimately found out that he had been the whole time. He achieved his goal and could finally look forward to a life where he doesn’t have the burden of being either Bruce Wayne or Batman.

As for Captain America, there is no end in sight for his crusade and he clearly has no intention of quitting. He wouldn’t even let the US government slow him down with their new accords. Although he is no longer the ultimate American hero, he is still a protector of the world, albeit in a more secretive way. By the time we get to Civil War, Cap has become a mentor to the next generation of heroes.

The theme of the Nolan Batman films is one of hope over chaos. Despite the rampant crime and the insanity of people like the Joker, Batman never gives up hope on Gotham and is eventually proven right. He goes through many setbacks and defeats but he never stops believing in Gotham. His father had asked young Bruce “Why do we fall?” The answer is, so we can rise again. Bruce believed that the seemingly hopeless city would rise again, and the third film proved him right.  

The Captain America films had two themes. Captain America: The First Avenger was about how loyalty and devotion can motivate a man to do miracles. Loyalty to his country and to his friend Bucky Barnes motivates Cap, turning him from a skinny wimp to a “chorus girl” in tights and finally into the living legend of WW2. The two latter films deal with the theme of “Who do I trust?” Cap has been thrust into a modern era which is a challenge to his long established values and beliefs. The things he once held sacred seem to be showing cracks in their foundations. Cap himself says, “For as long as I can remember, I’ve tried to do the right thing. I’m not sure I know what that is anymore.” Chris Evans commented on this, saying, “It’s about trying to find how he fits. He’s a man from the 1940s. He’s just woken up. For everybody else, it’s been a slow burn to get to where we are in 2014. But for him, suddenly there’s the internet, cellphones and The Patriot Act.”

Oscar winner Chistian Bale plays Batman as a reluctant hero. He seems very weary. Bale shows a lot of vulnerability in his face as Bruce Wayne, although his Batman voice sounds too cinematically silly. As for Chris Evans as Cap, this is his best-ever role. He embodies Cap beautifully, capturing the patriotism, morality and old-fashioned values of the hero of WW2.

The action sequences are bigger and more epic in the Captain America films but the Batman fight scenes–particularly in The Dark Knight–are more gripping by thier down-to-Earth and viseral nature. The Joker makes the best overall villain out of all the antagonists in the six movies, although Bucky the Winter Soldier makes the most personal one.

The second installment in each franchise provides a deep emotional and philosophical challenge. in the Dark Knight, Batman—the genius who can outthink all his enemies—finally comes face-to-face with a man he cannot comprehend. He is confronted by an enemy he can’t figure out, can’t reason with and can’t intimidate. He finds himself on the defensive; reacting instead of planning.

In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Cap faces two quandaries.  One is that SHIELD (which he had trusted) is really corrupt, and also that his best friend Bucky is now his enemy. These are two massive betrayals simultaneously hitting a man whose life was once predicated upon loyalty. Hydra hits Cap close to home, and mentally wounds him using Bucky, just as the Joker gave Batman a horrible emotional jolt by turning Harvey Dent into Two-Face.

Many people will say that Batman is the superior character because he lives in a more “realistic” world. Certainly Cap’s world of aliens and Avengers can’t pass for being “real”, as we know reality. However, even Christopher Nolan has pointed out that Batman does not live in the real world either.  According to Nolan, Batman does not exist in “a direct reality” because “the films are extremely heightened and extremely operatic “. He prefers to call it a “cinematic reality”, wherein he “gives the world of the films as much weight and validity as you would if the source material were not from a comic book”.

What’s the verdict?

I think the key to looking at these two trilogies is that Nolan planned his films one at a time. He said he had no plans to make a sequel while he was filming Batman Begins. He had no long term vision, and just wanted to make the best film he could at the time. He refused to set up any plot points that wouldn’t be answered by the end of each film. He declared his disdain for “sequel bait”.  While he did build on previous films, he never assumed that there would be a next film so he wrapped up his plots and themes individually.

As for the Captain America trilogy, it was always planned to be a franchise. The cliffhanger ending of the first film where Cap awakens in modern New York proves that the idea was always to include Cap in the larger MCU. This is where the biggest distinction between the two exists.

The Nolan Batman films work better as solo movies. You could most likely follow The Dark Knight Rises, even if you hadn’t seen The Dark Knight, but you’d have a harder time following Civil War if you weren’t familiar with the overall MCU. On the other hand, the Captain America films work better as a connected series because they built to a more epic and exciting climax in Captain America: Civil War than The Dark Knight Rises provided. Civil War also leaves the door open for future films, unlike Dark Knight Rises which wraps up the series. This is why the Captain America films are a better connected “world” than The Dark Knight.

So that’s the verdict. The Batman films are better when looked at individually; while the Captain America trilogy works better as a long-term franchise with a continuing narrative.