Why I Prefer “The Avengers” to “Civil War”

(For that matter, I prefer “The Winter Soldier” as well, though pretty much entirely because of superior pacing.)

In my previous review of “Captain America: Civil War”, I opined that “The Avengers” was the better film, and after some thinking, I stand by that opinion. Good as “Civil War” was, “The Avengers” is still the best movie Marvel has done to date.

For me, it comes down to what you value most in a movie. In superhero movies, you need good action scenes. Need them. You just do. If your action scenes are “meh”, you better be damn good in every other category to make up for it (hi, “The Dark Knight”).

As far as action scenes go, the Russo brothers have the edge by far. The big action set piece in “The Avengers” is the alien battle at the end. The battle had little personally at stake. Yes, there were big general stakes, for lack of a better word. New York will be destroyed if the alien invasion isn’t stopped. This is important! But as far as the main characters go, a loss isn’t actually going to affect their relationship much, because their character arcs are already complete. Tony basically says as much in his excellent one-on-one with Loki earlier in the film (Whedon is the master of dialogue, arguably the best dialogue writer in the business).

This was no clash of ideologies, like the Mal/Operative fight in “Serenity” (remember, the general stakes there were actually fairly low – Mal wasn’t saving the world, but revealing a secret). In that fight, the battle is a battle of philosophies: Utilitarianism vs. natural law. This isn’t the case in “The Avengers”. It’s a battle of superheroes vs. monsters trying to kill everybody. The climax had already been reached when the Avengers assembled before the battle.

In “Civil War” the stakes are extremely personal. Friend vs. friend. We have poor Tony, desperately doing everything in his power to prevent Cap’s death (Robert Downey Jr.’s delivery of “Because it’s us” is absolutely perfect, a line that could have been trite but in the hands of such a superb actor is gut-wrenching). We have Cap, trying to avoid a fight but simply unable, because he sees a bigger picture that Tony can’t believe. There’s world-saving in the background, but the foreground is the very personal battle of people who don’t want to fight but have no choice in the matter.

(By the way, to defend a common criticism of “Civil War”, Tony bringing in teenage Spider-Man is hardly worse than Cap bringing in Scarlet Witch, who can’t be much older, if she’s older at all).

Plus, the choreography is much better. That’s a truly amazing fight scene, one of the greatest fights in the history of the genre, as are the ones in “The Winter Soldier”.

So much for the things “Civil War” gets better. Now why do I prefer “The Avengers”?

One reason is simple: “The Avengers” is perfectly paced. Perfectly. There is not a line, not a moment, that is wasted, one of Whedon’s hallmarks (“Serenity” is also a perfectly paced film). Everything has a purpose. If a relatively minor character like Agent Coulson is given an amusing scene early in the film, it not only helps humanize him, it also helps drive a large portion of the plot later in the film. If the airship is falling out of the sky, it isn’t just an entertaining action scene, it’s the culmination of Loki’s plan. Hawkeye becomes sympathetic with hardly any dialogue at all; every single scene, every interaction, both establishes character AND moves the plot. The economy of writing is masterful.

Pacing is, perhaps, “Civil War’s” biggest flaw. Get ready; this next paragraph contains SPOILERS. Those who have not seen the movie are encouraged to skip it.

Probably a good half hour of the film could have been cut entirely. The airport fight could have been moved to the super-soldier base, and instead of a gap in-between we could flow directly from there to the final Cap/Bucky/Iron Man fight and the big reveal. Simply have them get separated somehow; I can think of a few ways. When all three are in the building, they find the super-soldiers, and realize, Surprise! Steve was right all along. They briefly reconcile. Then they look closer; something isn’t right. These soldiers have bullet holes in their heads. They’re already dead. And then Zemo steps out of the shadows…

The rest of the movie proceeds normally from there. This has two advantages. First, it gets rid of the less interesting filler between fights. Even if you don’t want non-stop battles you can’t deny that a brief respite followed by the reveal would be overall more interesting than the long, arguably pointless series of scenes in between. And second, it helps the climax. After the magnificent airport battle the final battle seems underwhelming – but put them right next to each other and you essentially have one big battle capped with a personal standoff between friends. Suddenly it feels like a real climax instead of a (admittedly minor) step down.

This also goes back to economy of dialogue. “Civil War” is not nearly as good as “The Avengers” at bringing in new characters. People new to the MCU would have no idea who the heck that shrinky guy is, or anything about him; sure he’s funny, but we know next to nothing about the character. How did he get there? Why do we care about him? To those unfamiliar with “Ant Man” (a fun film itself), he feels random and out of place. They do better with Spider-Man but Hawkeye is similarly undeveloped. You get no sense of who he is.

“The Avengers”, in contrast, can be understood perfectly by people who have never watched the previous films. Black Widow’s introductory scene basically explains her entire character in a nutshell. The Hulk’s development is perfect. I had never seen the previous Hulk movie, but I figured out who the character was because of the hints dropped throughout the film. We realize quickly that, for some dangerous reason, He Can’t Get Angry. Captain America is developed less in scenes than lines of dialogue. He’s a man out of time; he’s a soldier; he’s a leader; he hates bullies. There. Captain America. “There’s only one God, ma’am” is a brilliant line that showcases Whedon’s pitch-perfect understanding of exactly who these characters are. Nobody is better at ensemble casts than Joss Whedon.

“Civil War” has the smarter and more serious plot, but it depends more on characterization from previous films than its own writing. There were some zingers, but Whedon had the more memorable dialogue, and I got the sense that Tony’s arc especially was driven more by Robert Downey Jr.’s acting, and the events of “Iron Man 3”, than the dialogue of “Civil War”.

It’s true that a smarter plot is nothing to sneeze at, and it’s true that the Russo brothers certainly understood their characters and put them through the emotional wringer – but proper characterization is more important than plot: If you believe the characters will act the way they do, you excuse plot holes, because you want to be entertained without feeling betrayed. If your characters are consistent, your plot need only be entertaining, and while Loki’s plan made no sense, it still felt like something Loki would do – but a great plot is nothing if your characters are not acting in character.

This never happens in “Civil War”, but it also doesn’t do as good a job in its dialogue or its characterization. In those more important aspects, “The Avengers” is superior (it helps that they boast the only truly interesting MCU movie villain). I was wowed by the ending of “Civil War”, but I was entertained more by “The Avengers”, and that’s ultimately why I came to the movies.

I love both movies. “Civil War” is an excellent film, a tier 1 MCU entry and one of the better superhero films of all time. But “The Avengers” is the best of the best, a masterclass in dialogue and characterization and one of the more pure “comic book” films of the genre – as in, I felt as if I was watching a comic come to life. And while I understand why one would prefer “Civil War” for those reasons, as well as the far superior pacing, “The Avengers” is still ultimately the superior film.

This just goes to show the quality of the MCU. If “Civil War” isn’t their best film…well, that’s why they’ve had one of the most successful runs in movie history.

  • Although I agree with many of your individual points, I have to disagree about Avengers being the superior movie.

    The main thing is this: the plot of The Avengers doesn’t make any freaking sense at all. It’s not just Loki’s plan. As soon as you stop to actually think about the film it all falls apart, and in a really bad way. Seriously. Watch the movie again and focus on the actual plot. Each and every scene, if you’re thinking about it, you’ll come back with a, “wait… why did he actually do that?”

    The one absolute strength of the movie, which you nailed, is that the characterizations are so good and the movie is so amazingly FUN that you simply don’t stop to think about these things while you’re watching it. But while that is a fantastic trait for a movie to have, it does not change the fact that the film is ALSO deeply flawed.

    Neither Civil War nor its predecessor (Winter Soldier) have this flaw. In fact, their stories are both quite solid, and the plots make quite a bit of sense. So while they don’t quite reach the perfection of characterization that The Avengers does, this minor flaw is offset by not having a huge honking major flaw. In the end, that makes them the superior films.

    Now, one other comment about the length of Civil War. I absolutely disagree about merging the two major fight scenes in the way that you describe. By doing so, you’d lose two major elements that are both pretty important to the film.

    First, you’d upset the pacing (a different thing from length). A break that short from the action simply isn’t enough – not after the airport battle, or anything on that scale. The audience needs to breathe for a minute.

    Second – and actually far more important – you’d lose some bits of the story that are actually pretty critical.

    * The reconciliation of Stark and Rogers has to be REAL in order for the later break to have the same depth. It carries weight because Tony has committed to helping Cap. He’s not saying Cap was right all along. But he’s committed enough that he’s there in violation of orders. He’s really and truly made the reconciliation. Ending a fight and immediately turning around to aid Cap on the next leg simply doesn’t carry that weight and never can.
    * The rest of the team needs to end up in prison, to isolate Cap, Iron Man, and the Winter Soldier. Not just physically isolate them, they have to be emotionally and spiritually isolated. This is also an extension of my last point. Cap is isolated by his team being imprisoned, but Stark is just as isolated because he’s gone rogue. Without that, the final scene doesn’t carry the same emotional weight.
    * The rest of the team also needs to end up in prison to setup the ending – Cap rescuing them. As I mentioned in my own review, this is a key point as to why Cap was right all along. Nobody else CAN actually govern the Avengers, no matter what the law says. Cap singlehandedly frees his entire team at the end. How could the governments of Earth – even 117 of them – ever hope to actually control these guys? They simply can’t. Iron Man going rogue and Cap freeing everyone is necessary to show that.

    Finally, I disagree with your assessment that the final fight is anti-climactic. It’s less of an adrenaline ride, sure. But the emotion of it is FAR higher than in the airport fight, and that carries the day. The final fight HURTS in a way that the airport fight doesn’t – and never could, with that many participants.

    So yeah, to each his own. But I disagree with you strongly about which film is superior.

    • Anthony M

      Neither Civil War nor its predecessor (Winter Soldier) have this flaw. In fact, their stories are both quite solid, and the plots make quite a bit of sense. So while they don’t quite reach the perfection of characterization that The Avengers does, this minor flaw is offset by not having a huge honking major flaw. In the end, that makes them the superior films.

      I can fault you on none of these points. I don’t begrudge anybody for preferring “Civil War” for precisely those reasons; I don’t speak for everybody, after all. It’s a matter of pure value. To me, the superior dialogue and characterization of “The Avengers” gives it the edge, but there’s nothing wrong with saying that the plot holes bother you too much to call it the superior movie. This is one thing that really is subjective.

      First, you’d upset the pacing (a different thing from length). A break that short from the action simply isn’t enough – not after the airport battle, or anything on that scale. The audience needs to breathe for a minute.

      I disagree. I don’t consider these separate scenes, in my version. I consider the airport fight part of the climax. It all flows.

      As for the rest of your reasons…look, those are all solid literary, logical points. But it doesn’t take away from the fact that when I watched the movie, in between the airport fight and the final fight, I was marking time. I never had that issue with Whedon: The in-between bits were actually STRONGER than the action bits.

      This, by the way, is why I prefer “The Winter Soldier” as well. It too had great action scenes (even if not quite at the level of the airport battle), but I felt the pacing was far better; I was never marking time when I watched “The Winter Soldier”. And I found the villain of the film to be, if not EQUALLY emotionally resonant, suitably close for the movie to have personal stakes.

      If we could make a Whedon/Russo Brothers clone movie where the Russo Brothers directed the action scenes and Whedon did everything else, that would be the best.

      Not that Whedon is bad at action scenes, or the Russo Brothers are bad at dialogue, but Whedon is GREAT at dialogue and the Russo Brothers are GREAT at action scenes. Mash ’em up and Marvel goes to the next level.

      • Well, I do agree that Winter Soldier is the stronger of the last two Cap movies, although for me the difference is very small. And it mostly hinges on the scene in Peter Parker’s apartment – which is a great scene, but is also just plain JARRING in context with the rest of the film.

        • Anthony M

          Oh, the difference between “Civil War” and “The Winter Soldier” is razor thin, as far as I’m concerned.

          The scene in Peter’s apartment is an excellent example of the Russo Brothers being merely competent at something Whedon excels at. As you said, out of context, the scene is highly entertaining, but it’s not at all organic to the movie. It establishes Peter’s character in short, effective beats, but does so in a way entirely out of place with the rest of the film.

          Contrast this with the character introductions in “The Avengers”. They not only establish the characters quickly and memorably, they ALSO drive the plot forward and feel completely natural in the context of the film. It’s really a masterclass in economy of writing.