(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.