Over the last eleven years the Marvel Cinematic Universe has incorporated numerous standalone franchises and stories into its overarching narrative with multiple heroes becoming the subject of their own individual series during that time. However, only three individual heroes have earned a full trilogy to date, Iron Man, Captain America and Thor. While the “Thor” films are entertaining they have always taken a back seat to both the “Iron Man” and “Captain America” trilogies which showcased the MCU’s two most popular heroes in their own story arcs and in many ways helped shape the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole. Iron Man and Captain America have long made up two sides to the same coin with fans usually being more supportive of one over the other while still respecting both heroes and their legacies. Hell, the third “Captain America” film even built on this relationship making Iron Man and Captain America the primary figures of the titular Civil War. As it looks like both Tony Stark and Steve Rogers will end their MCU journeys with “Avengers: Endgame” I wanted to pay homage to the two heroes that have come to define the MCU the most since 2008 and see which of their trilogies is truly the best. This is the “Captain America” Trilogy Versus the “Iron Man” Trilogy
Today I’m going to compare the three “Iron Man” films and the three “Captain America” films as collective sets to each other. The focus here won’t be simply which trilogy has the best movies, although that does play a factor of course. I’m going to look at several smaller factors to determine once and for all which series is the best of the MCU. For today’s battle I will rank these films using five categories: the portrayal of the hero, the hero’s journey, the villains, the overall aesthetic and quality of the films and finally which series proved to have the biggest impact and significance in the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe while telling its own story. The one with the most points at the end is the winner. Which of the two trilogies is your favorite from the MCU? Let me know in the comments below and if you disagree with my assessments please feel free to speak your peace. Alright, let’s Marvel Month continue and let the battle begin!
ROUND ONE: THE HERO
For this round I’m not looking at which of the two heroes are stronger or better. I’m looking more at how they are portrayed. Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, has been played by Robert Downey, Jr. in a career redefining performance from the beginning while Chris Evans has played Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, in all of his films as well after initially turning down the role for fear of the impact of franchise acting on his personal life. Since the two made their big screen debuts they have been virtually inseparable from their respective comic book counterparts, but which actor truly captures their hero the best? This was one of the hardest battles to decide so let’s see who came out on top.
Let’s start with Chris Evans as Steve Rogers. When casting Captain America is was made clear the filmmakers wanted an America to play the Star-Spangled Avenger and Evans was one of many who were considered for the role. He initially turned down the opportunity but eventually came to his senses and has played the de-facto leader of the Avengers in eight films to date if you count cameo appearances in “Thor: The Dark World” and “Spider-Man: Homecoming”. Evans said he approached the Steve Rogers character with the intent of avoiding too much schmaltz or over-the-top patriotism and for the most part he succeeded giving us a humble, down to earth soldier who simply wants to do the right thing. Over the years we’ve seen Cap evolve from a scrawny wanna-be soldier into a true leader and Evans has done a fine job bringing that dedication and personality to life on the big screen. However for a patriotic hero Captain America has seldom leaned too heavily on his relationship with the stars and stripes which isn’t always necessarily a bad thing as it has allowed Evans to explore more of Steve Rogers’ emotional core and what makes him tick. In the end the MCU’s Captain America is a noble and righteous man who serves as a fine role model and Evans has been nothing short of inspiring in the role.
But, as much as I LOVE the cinematic Captain America, Robert Downey, Jr.’s take on Tony Stark is not only iconic but maybe a little more layered and complex. Downey endured his own battles with addiction and poor behavior in real life which he clearly worked into his portrayal of the sarcastic but determined billionaire, playboy, philanthropist that becomes Iron Man. Downey oozes charm in this role and has jumped into the part time and time again seamlessly showing both personal growth and struggles with vices during that time. We see Stark battle anxiety, his own ego, a few personal demons and the regret of not having the relationship he wanted with his father mostly over the course of three films but also even beyond that. It’s this complexity and layered approach to the character that has made him both a relatable and sufficiently flawed superhero we can all get behind. To say the least this is also the role that helped revive Robert Downey, Jr.’s career and it’s not just because of the popularity of the character either. Downey had to earn respect in this role and even took a few chances to capture the eccentric nature of the MCU’s first hero (well in movie release order anyway).
I love Chris Evans as Captain America, but when comparing him to Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark it’s a difficult battle to decide but one that leans more in Downey’s favor. We do learn a lot about Cap during his films and Evans does a fantastic job delving into Rogers’ emotional state time and time again, but Downey more than owns his opportunity to bring Tony Stark to the big screen capturing not only his playboy persona but also his flawed perspective and selfish nature. Captain America remains one of the most fleshed out characters in the MCU thanks to Evans, but Downey has made Tony Stark probably THE most developed hero of the series giving him the win in round one.
SCORE: Captain America – 0 Iron Man – 1
ROUND TWO: THE HERO’S JOURNEY
While portraying a hero right is always an important part of the narrative, doing justice to the hero’s journey is probably the most essential aspect of making a good superhero trilogy. You can have a charming hero and memorable villain, but without a good narrative it’s hard to sell a series. Both trilogies I’m talking about today did a great job presenting the origins, growth, and concluding revelations of their individual subject’s backstories. As is the nature of Versus though only one hero’s journey can stand as the most impressive. So which hero had the more engaging, memorable and powerful journey in their trilogy? Let’s find out.
Captain America’s journey is an interesting one because his adventure spans two eras of America and even different genres as the trilogy plays out. Cap starts off as a scrawny young man just trying to do what he thinks it right. He eventually gets the chance to be the soldier he always wanted to be by taking part in the Super Soldier program which gives him incredible strength and endurance. Even then he becomes nothing more than a marketing tool for the sale of bonds until he takes on a solo mission against orders earning his stripes as Captain America and even incorporating his iconic shield into his look. After his battle with the Red Skull leaves him frozen for decades he awakes in modern day, adjusts to society and joins S.H.I.E.L.D. only to see that organization fall to H.Y.D.R.A., the organization he worked to destroy in World War II. Finally, he sees the team of heroes he has led, the Avengers, fall apart due to government intervention in “Captain America: Civil War” which pits him against his own allies as he tries to do what’s right. That’s a lot of things for a righteous hero like Cap to have to manage over time and it makes for an epic journey of evolution for a man just trying to do what’s right. Honestly this is the kind of story made for a hero like Cap who is steeped in patriotism and the American way. He goes from the perfect symbol of American pride to being vilified for trying to preserve that way of life and finally questions the integrity of a system trying to privatize the idea of heroism. Caps journey from start to finish is an epic one that challenges him and his values as well as the viewers who watch a symbol of American pride question what is right and wrong in our own society. The only asterisk is that the final film, “Civil War”, depends heavily on other characters to drive his story including Iron Man, but even then that only gives even more closure to Caps personal journey when he is forced to fight even his own friends to do what’s right.
With Tony Stark the journey is a lot more personal with fewer larger stakes than Cap’s. Stark’s first adventure remains one of the best and most entertaining standalone films in the MCU and provides a lot of background concerning his inspiration for becoming a hero. He starts as a self-centered egomaniac but has a change of heart and perspective when he sees his own weapons kill American soldiers and has to escape captivity despite having metal shards threatening to pierce his heart and kill him. He becomes Iron Man with the goal of doing something genuinely good with his knowledge and skills rather than creating weapons that make war a necessity. In the second film he faces the possibility of government intervention explaining that he has “privatized world peace” while also facing the potential of death due to the shrapnel in his chest or poisoning from the pallidum in his Arc Reactor. One of the most interesting aspects of the second film is Stark preparing for his own demise turning over leadership of his company to Pepper Potts and even willingly allowing Rhodey to steal an Iron Man suit symbolically handing over his heroic legacy to his best friend. Stark eventually discovers a new element that allows him to live without the risk of poisoning and saves the day, but his inner turmoil continues in “Iron Man 3” which uses the events of the first two films as well as “The Avengers” to tackle Stark’s issues with anxiety, a running theme in subsequent movies featuring the character and a replacement for Stark’s alcoholism from the comics. The third movie forces Tony Stark to truly decide who he wants to be and to face a dangerous enemy who is the direct result of his past misgivings. For Stark his entire journey involves a circle of regret and consequences and his maturing into a responsible man and hero which is a fine story for any hero even if it’s on a much more personal and smaller scale than Cap’s adventures.
This was another tough battle to decide but as much as I loved the larger scale and evolution that Cap faces in his journey the fact is that the “Iron Man” trilogy was a much more personal and character focused story examining Stark’s experiences with the personal torture of regret in an attempt to redeem himself. This provides a bit more depth than Captain America’s questioning of his own morals to do what he has always strived to do, the right thing. Cap’s movies have a lot of great things that work and the story of a red-white-and-blue blooded American standing against his own country to protect it is inspiring to say the least, but when you strip everything away and just look at his personal journey compared to Stark’s while I can’t help but relate to Steve Rogers’ struggle to keep his moral center in the face of opposition it’s Tony’s struggle for personal forgiveness and to reshape his entire identity for the greater good that shines just the tinniest bit brighter. “Iron Man” takes an early two-point lead.
SCORE: Captain America – 0 Iron Man – 2
ROUND 3: THE VILLAINS
Some say a superhero is only as good as their villain and in a lot of cases that would be accurate. However, the MCU has a horrible reputation for providing underdeveloped or forgettable bad guys for the heroes to face. I will say though that some of the best villains in the franchise have come from the “Iron Man” and “Captain America” trilogies although they also have their share of wasted baddies as well. For round three I’m going to see which of the franchises has the better bad guys that test the hero’s resolve. Let’s see which villains won out.
Captain America has faced off against some truly fun bad guys in his time starting with his most iconic enemy, the Red Skull. Red Skull is the exact opposite of Captain America in every way evident by the negative impact that Super Soldier Serum had on him compared to Steve Rogers. Everything about him serves as the opposite for the Captain’s personality and visage which makes him the perfect foil for the hero to face in his first outing. His personality, God-complex and design make Red Skull one of the best and most memorable villains in all of the MCU in my opinion. In Cap’s second venture, “The Winter Solider”, he faces several villains including Brock Rumlow (Crossbones), Alexander Pierce and the titular Winter Soldier who is revealed to be his thought-dead best friend Bucky Barnes. All three have memorable qualities about them and test Cap on different levels, especially Bucky who forces Cap to take on someone close to him and decide whether he wants to hold back or do anything he can to stop him. That same concept challenges Cap in his third film, “Civil War”, where he seeks to protect Bucky from the wrath of fellow heroes Black Panther and even Iron Man himself. The real villain though is Helmut Zemo who seeks revenge on all of the Avengers for the events of “Age of Ultron” and is honestly a middle of the road villain who never really directly engages Cap in battle, although he is the catalyst that pits Cap against Iron Man. To put it bluntly Captain America’s films might not always have the best villains but most of them are memorable, well developed and provide a real challenge for the hero in more ways than one.
The “Iron Man” trilogy however is notorious for bland villains. While Obadiah Stane, the Iron Monger, is one of my favorite villains from the MCU because of his relationship with Stark and how effectively he sets the standard for many villains that followed the bad guys that haunt Stark in the second and third films are much less memorable. Whiplash is one of the most infamously disliked villains in all of the MCU although Justin Hammer serves as a fun counterpart and competitor to Tony Stark despite taking a back seat to Whiplash as a “man behind the curtain” figure. The real flaw that left many fans irritated though comes from the third movie where it was teased that Iron Man’s most notorious foe, the Mandarin, would be the main bad guy. Come to find out the film’s big twist makes the Mandarin a puppet literally played by an actor as nothing more than a face for the real villain to hide behind. Instead the bad guy is Aldrich Killian, the head of A.I.M. and a scientist that Stark had wronged in his younger years. Killian isn’t a horrible villain and he does have a fun connection to Tony’s personal journey, but even on repeat viewings it’s frustrating that we have to settle for him instead of the Mandarin as we were promised. Another interesting note is that all three movies feature a puppet master figure with Stain pulling the strings on the Ten Rings, Justin Hammer at least trying to control Whiplash and Killian controlling the Mandarin. Until I put this battle together this is a neat themes I never really caught on to. Even still, Iron Man faces some truly intimidating foes that challenge his capabilities and present real threats, but for the most part they’re not very memorable and there were clear better options for antagonists that would have probably made for much better foes in the grand scheme of things.
This battle was an easy one. While Captain America’s villains weren’t always the most memorable, they were always better than the bulk of Iron Man’s foes. The Red Skull alone is one of the MCU’s most memorable and popular bad guys while Iron Man wasted its most iconic villain on cheap slight of hand. Cap’s rogues’ gallery get him his first point in this battle.
SCORE: Captain America – 1 Iron Man – 2
ROUND 4: FILM QUALITY
This might seem like the obvious end all for a battle like this. I mean if one trilogy is better made that makes it the better trilogy, right? Not always. Besides, when I talk about “film quality” I’m not including aspects like the story or acting. I’m talking about the production: set pieces, atmosphere, cinematography, visual appeal etc. and both of these films have that in droves. The “Iron Man” films lean a bit more science fiction and CGI while the “Captain America” movies blend different genres and styles to present different narratives with more practical effects worked in. So, which one is more technically impressive? Let’s have a look.
The “Captain America” trilogy is an action-packed series that depends heavily on hand to hand, close quarters combat for the fight scenes and works to immerse viewers in its worlds through simplicity and more practical effects which gives it a very grounded feel. Yeah we still have a lot of special effects worked in, especially in “Civil War” and “The First Avenger”, but for the most part a lot of the films look fluid and believable and the CGI and green screen scenes aren’t too distracting. To me “The Winter Soldier” is the highlight entry in the series that depends more on practical, well choreographed fights and fun visuals than the first or third films but all of them feel like well shot and carefully crafted pictures with really the one stain on their presentations being the overabundance of cuts in the action sequences. “The First Avenger” has it’s own feel being from a different time period and the shooting style and color pallets reflect a more aged look while “Civil War” incorporates more special effects than the first two films but it never feels too bloated and that airport scene is the epitome of fun, focused action filmmaking at its best with a backdrop that plays well into the conflict rather than limiting it. Overall the “Captain American” films look great, they feel great and they’re all just so much fun to watch from start to finish over and over again.
The “Iron Man” movies are also a lot of fun in their own ways. Iron Man really required CGI in order to bring his suit to life so there are a lot more special effects incorporated into these projects, sometimes very distracting and other times blending in perfectly with the scene. The cool thing is, at least with the first two films, a lot of these effects still hold up today. The first movie specifically still looks incredible after over tens years. As the franchise progressed though more and more CGI was built into the visuals and the over-dependence on these effects does give it a more over-the-top science fiction-esque vibe preventing it from feeling as grounded or as realistic as “Captain America”. Instead we have a sometimes ridiculous and stylish presentation that tries to pump the action up with fake explosions, countless Iron Man suits and an editing style that can make it tough to keep track of the action at times. The overall feel and tone of the films isn’t bad, it’s more in the presentation that the “Iron Man” films feels a little flawed. The creative choices for settings, such as an oil rig ship yard and the Grand Prix of Monaco, also feel a bit forced. Many times it feels like the action was built around these settings rather than the settings being inspired by the action. Overall the “Iron Man” movies are fun and look cool, but they’re not as technically impressive or memorable as Cap’s movies.
While Captain America’s films do certainly go a little over the top themselves at times, they’re much more grounded with a sense of realism, careful pacing, and more practical approach to filmmaking than the “Iron Man” movies which tend to lean more heavily on style than they do substance. Cap gets the point here tying things up for the final round.
SCORE: Captain America – 2 Iron Man – 2
FINAL ROUND: IMPACT ON THE MCU
As much as we’d like to grade these two trilogies based solely on their own merit, the fact of the matter is that both of these series fall within an extended film universe and, as such, the events depicted within them are part of a larger world and should be presented as such. So, for this final battle I’m going to examine which of these trilogies managed to most successfully ride the line between being a standalone franchise while also offering world-changing story elements that helped move the MCU as a whole forward. With the score all tied up the winner of this match-up will be the champion.
Let’s look at “Captain America” which created more conflict and narrative shifts for the MCU in its later two entries. While, yes, “The First Avenger” did help bring a lot of plot lines including the Super Soldier Serum featured in “The Incredible Hulk”, the legend of Tony Stark’s father and the Captain America shield prototype seen in “Iron Man” full circle to add to the world-building of the MCU the two sequels were much more heavily responsible for helping transform the franchise by redefining S.H.I.E.L.D.’s role in the series and even tearing apart the Avengers prior to “Infinity War”. “The Winter Soldier” turned thing on their head by exposing H.Y.D.R.A. as a parasite within S.H.I.E.L.D. effectively ending the organization’s role as the public face of the superhero community. Furthermore, it redefined Nick Fury’s place in the franchise and even name-dropped Dr. Strange, a hero that would get his own film later on. However, it was “Civil War” that truly changes everything for the MCU by pitting heroes against heroes, introducing both Spider-Man and Black Panther, establishing the Sokovia Accords that limit superhero activity and splitting the Avengers apart so that they would need to reunite later on. “Civil War” is also the first film to truly acknowledge the wider universe in a standalone feature. Up until that point a common complaint with the MCU had been that other Avengers didn’t step in to help individual heroes like Thor and Iron Man with their own conflicts. “Civil War” finally includes the other Avengers in a single hero’s standalone narrative and in doing so makes the MCU feel more cohesive and complete. Films that have been released since, like “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and “Thor Ragnarok”, have come to also include other heroes from the MCU in order to keep the idea of a wider universe intact while keeping the focus on a single character. With all that said it could be stated that the “Captain America” trilogy is one of the most influential series in the MCU canon to the overall narrative of the wider cinematic universe.
That’s not to deny the “Iron Man” series its rightful place as the original movie of the MCU. “Iron Man” was the first film in the series, the sequel was the first and only second film in Phase One, the third film was the first film in Phase Two and the trilogy itself was the first set of three movies in the MCU to be completed so the series hit a lot of milestones and led the way for many features and series that followed. The first “Iron Man” hinted at the existence of Captain America through a shield cameo, introduced Nick Fury and the idea of the Avengers, and its success alone helped make the MCU possible. The sequel acknowledged the existence of Thor and Black Panther, introduced Black Widow and War Machine and was the first to touch on the idea of government intervention for heroes, something Tony Stark initially fights before supporting it years later when he realizes the damage uncontrolled superhumans can cause. It’s with the third film however that the “Iron Man” trilogy’s connection to the wider universe falters. As the first film after “The Avengers”, “Iron Man 3” does a fine job delving into Tony Stark’s demons and how the Battle of New York affected him, but it completely ignores established elements that could have and should have played a part in the film from the wider universe. You think Captain America would have just stood around while the President was kidnapped? Or that S.H.I.E.L.D. wouldn’t have taken their own precautions to protect Tony Stark’s home after he threatened the Mandarin? Is Tony Stark the only hero who can stop the Mandarin when there’s literally a whole group of heroes who could have fought the threat? While the first two “Iron Man” movies are responsible for bringing the team together the third film is full of plot holes directly related to the MCU as a larger world. Sure, other films in Phase 2 suffer from this same issue, but nowhere is it more apparent than with “Iron Man 3” which tragically fails to fully incorporate the larger universe concept into its narrative in the wake of the first team up film in the franchise.
So when you get down to it while the “Iron Man” trilogy deserves respect and admiration for kicking off the MCU and establishing the base on which every feature film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been built it failed to successfully incorporate that wider universe into its later entries. The “Captain America” films on the other hand start off with a very character focused narrative but were much more effective at incorporating aspects of the larger MCU into later narratives even directly influencing the larger universe in ways that have bled into other MCU features since. With that the “Captain America” trilogy not only makes a comeback, but takes the overall win as the superior franchise.
SCORE: Captain America – 3 Iron Man – 2
WINNER: The “Captain America” Trilogy
I can’t say enough about how much I respect the “Iron Man” trilogy and what it has meant to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but in the end the “Captain America” movies came out the winner in a head to head comparison. It’s worth noting that the adventures of Tony Stark are fun pictures to behold. In my opinion the hero’s personal story arc and the portrayal of Stark are superior to Steve Rogers and his personal journey which is saying something given how awesome Chris Evans is as the Star-Spangled Avenger. But when you get down to the more cinematic details, the “Captain America” films look better, Cap’s villains are more memorable and the “Captain America” trilogy does a better job balancing its own three-part narrative while also remembering that it’s all part of a larger universe and whatever transpires has ripple effects throughout the MCU. Both of these franchises are awesome trilogies worth checking out and I’m sure there will be people who see this comparison differently than myself, but in this duel of Marvel icons it’s the patriotic super soldier that wins out over the genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist who started it all.