After a deservingly hyped Civil War, let’s answer the real question: Who has the better solo franchise – Iron Man or Captain America?

Tony Stark and Steve Rogers have interesting parallels that put them on opposing sides of the same coin. One is a trust fund kid who grow up to be narcissistic, womanizing yet likeable jerk (thanks to RDJ). The other is a poor outcast who turned out to be a naive yet endearing do-gooder (thanks to Chris Evans) in spite of it.  Iron Man was created in a capitalism driven modern era. Captain America emerged in a time of old fashioned values. Stark relies on technology, always looking towards the future partly because he wants to stay away from his past. Rogers relies on biological enhancements tied to his past, evidenced by his unwavering attachment to Bucky even at the expense of his shield. Naturally, the cynical genius clashes with the idealistic soldier.

Likewise, they both delivered their own brand of franchises. Iron Man is all slick and modern. Captain America is old school and gritty. So who can claim the bragging rights?

The Debut

Iron Man gave us a taste of what the Marvel Cinematic Universe has in store – perfect casting, well-funded CGI action, and superhero powers. Robert Downey Jr. was born to play Tony Stark, a human representation of the mecha nerd’s ultimate fantasy. Iron Man’s origins story is predictable, but it tackles a relevant issue just enough to make his narrative compelling without taking itself too seriously. The seamless CGI and pyrotechnics provide plenty of escapist entertainment. At the center of all this is an easily endearing Stark whose inventive ambition makes Iron Man interesting, which resuscitated RDJ’s career.

Not long after, Captain America pops up. The First Avenger has a retro vibe and old fashioned blockbuster entertainment, with the introduction of a more endearing supporting cast – Peggy Carter and Bucky Barnes. After flailing around with a modest but unremarkable career, Chris Evans hits the jackpot as Steve Rogers. However, his debut is also a by-the-numbers flick that looks more like an appetizer to pass the time before the main course – The Avengers.

Round 1: Iron Man wins this round as the more enjoyable action hero flick for both comic fans and uninitiated moviegoers. This is not to say that Steve Rogers/Captain America doesn’t have potential. The straight laced superhero’s first swing isn’t just as exciting as Stark’s first flight.

By The Numbers: 

  • RottenTomatoes: Iron Man 94% (Audience Rating 91%) First Avenger 80% (Audience Rating 74%)
  • Metacritic: Iron Man 79% (Audience Rating 8.5/10) First Avenger 66% (Audience Rating 7/10)
  • Box Office Earnings: Iron Man $318.4 M First Avenger $370.6M

 

The We Made a Lot of Money so let’s Make a Sequel Redux

Iron Man 2 is the weakest link in The Avengers line-up. The sequel had the right idea – tackle the trials and tribulations of a publicly outed superhero who has to juggle worldwide fame and heavy responsibilities. As par for the course, these are given by a power that is also his curse. Unfortunately, this was poorly written by Justin Theroux. Instead of expounding on this premise, we get A Day in the Life of Tony Stark: The Series, in which we find out what he does for fun. Eventually he figures it out and defeat one-dimensional villains.

On the other side, Captain America: Winter Soldier shifts gears for a much more timely narrative that reflected today’s paranoid world. The Russo Brothers took over the director’s chair and the results were a big improvement. Cap finally gets a worthy adversary, which provided hard hitting showdowns that was missing in the first movie. It’s the classic bestie turned enemy trope, but Sebastian Stan has good chemistry with Chris Evans that you end up rooting for the Stucky bromance. We’re also introduced to his foil – The Falcon.

Round 2: Winter Soldier obviously wins second round, making it a draw. The sequel moves Captain America’s character and story forward. Iron Man 2 isn’t a sequel at all, it’s an expansion pack with Tony Stark moping around until he finally got his shit together.

By The Numbers: 

  • RottenTomatoes: Iron Man 2 72% (Audience Rating 72%) Winter Soldier 89% (Audience Rating 92%)
  • Metacritic: Iron Man 2 57% (Audience Rating 6.5/10 ) Winter Soldier 70% (Audience Rating 8.5/10)
  • Box Office Earnings: Iron Man 2 $623.9M Winter Soldier $714.4M

 

The Obligatory Trilogy 

Iron Man bounces back with the third movie as “a techno-thriller set in a more real world than even The Avengers,” writer Drew Pearce said.  It’s enjoyable, with a family friendly vibe and character centric plot. The bad guys have vague motivations, but its compensated by Guy Pearce and Ben Kingsley. It’s a darker story than the rest of the films in the franchise, but its a refreshing change of pace thanks to Shane Black.

Captain America responds with Civil War, an all out closing. It’s a superhero movie with surprising depth while still retaining the gritty action of its predecessor. Marvel can’t help but high jack every movie to connect their cinematic universe and sustain a multi-million dollar franchise building machinery. Fortunately Captain America has amusing side characters to make up for it.

By The Numbers: 

  • RottenTomatoes: Iron Man 3 79% (Audience Rating 79%) Civil War 90% (Audience Rating 91%)
  • Metacritic: Iron Man 3 62% (Audience Rating 6.4/10) Civil War 75% (Audience Rating 8.3/10 )
  • Box Office Earnings: Iron Man 3 $1,215.4B Civil War $940.9M

 

The Winner Is…

 

Ironically, the straight laced Captain America has been the most compelling superhero of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date. He has humble origins, dealt with a modern world that challenged his own beliefs, and faced his own fallibility.

Iron Man has taken a similar trajectory. The prototype was made from scraps of metal and DIY computing wizardry, the first mechanized suit challenged his emotional and physical limitations, until Tony finally took the shrapnel off to embrace his own abilities rather than rely on it.

However, Captain America has a better franchise that consistently pushed the character in interesting directions while maintaining a continuity, culminating into a trilogy. His stories has thought provoking themes, which provided an interesting juxtaposition from his ideals. In turn, these events provided the much needed rough edges to a cookie cutter character. His straightforward powers – super strength and a huge metal Frisbee – doesn’t need to rely much on CGI, providing physical action scenes. One of the main reasons why Civil War is so great because it delivered good old fashion mano-a-mano that reminded us why we loved superhero movies in the first place.

Iron Man has three disparate sequels in a franchise that lost steam as it went on. It lost sight of the character as the overarching theme became a fancier and better suit. Yes, that’s what Iron Man is about in the first place, but the suit doesn’t stand out as much as it did 8 years ago. Also, the main reason why it’s enjoyable is because of RDJ. In the end audiences still need a human character to connect with, which is what made The Avengers the best Marvel movie to date. CGI is useful but ultimately uninvolving if you rely on it too much.

The numbers agree too. Iron Man did earn more with a total of $2,157.7B while Captain America followed closely behind with $2,025.9B. But that’s just a smidge especially when the skinny kid from Brooklyn outpaces the billionaire playboy in the ratings and overall quality of the franchise.

Iron Man kick started the Marvel Cinematic Universe which forever changed how superhero franchises are made, but Captain America is the better finisher.

Image from Ippudo.

Box Office stats are worldwide grosses from Box Office Mojo.

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