Which is Better is a monthly editorial series where I dare to compare the best and worst of everything. This month: Is the first Avengers movie better than its 2015 sequel, or is it the other way around?
Last year, my friends and I debated this for an episode of my podcast, Now Conspiring. But to be honest, the debate didn’t go anywhere because we all sort of agreed (for once). Now that enough time has passed to let the movie sink in properly, I’ve decided to revisit these two movies and decide for myself.
Granted, a lot of fans of both movies have been debating this since last spring, pointing out every flaw in each movie that could somehow tip their arguments. But it’s unclear whether or not the somewhat lukewarm reception to Age of Ultron was a result of superhero movie fatigue, Marvel fatigue, or something else that may not be a reflection of the movie’s true quality.
If we’re judging by box office, it’s even murkier. At first glance, it may seem that Avengers is better than its sequel because it pulled in $100 million more at the box office, which is a drop in the bucket compared to both movies making roughly $1.5 billion each.
But aren’t sequels supposed to be bigger hits than the originals? You’d think that, but it’s actually more common to see diminishing returns depending on the franchise.
Sticking to Marvel superheroes, not a single Spider-Man movie has made as much money domestically as the first one, despite Spider-Man 2 being considered a huge improvement and one of the greatest superhero movies of all time.
Most regard Empire Strikes Back to be the best of the Star Wars films, yet it made $200 million less than A New Hope, not even adjusting for inflation. Let’s not even get started on Return of a Jedi actually failing to net a profit.
So the argument has to come down to the movies themselves, metrics aside. For this week’s Which is Better, I’ll break both movies down on a series of points crucial to what makes a superhero movie great.
Few will argue that The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron (AOU) are wildly different when it comes to plot execution. And for good reason.
Much of the beginning of Avengers centered around exposition that united all of our “mightiest heroes.” It was incredibly entertaining, of course, considering how new it felt to see these characters side by side in one movie.
But the plot was otherwise quite basic: The threat is established, the heroes are brought together to address it, a central action set piece gives them a reason to work together, and they save the day in one final battle. Pretty simple.
AOU had a lot more freedom to be complicated since a lot of that character-building exposition was done in the last film, and also because Avengers was such a monumental hit that the studio was confident people would remember what was going on in their cinematic universe.
So with AOU, we got three villains (sort of), tons of new side characters, and another world domination plot. And that was including many of the new characters introduced in the “Phase 2” of Marvel movies, Guardians of the Galaxy notwithstanding.
In AOU, Tony Stark’s creation was the established threat, but unlike Loki (who was also tied to a main character in a close way), Ultron was a complete unknown to the audience. He arrived on the scene quickly and drove the plot as soon as he showed up.
The heroes were already together by this point, so the movie spent more time developing them as they worked to deal with the threat of Ultron. If we’re judging both movies by complexity and character arcs, than AOU surpasses the original in spades.
And that’s because the first Avengers is essentially a party, or a celebration of the fact that Marvel pulled off one of the greatest team-ups in cinematic history. But aside from some quips and other quick dialogue, the characters didn’t progress much from beginning to end. They just decided (again) to do what they’ve already done in their own respective movies: be heroes.
“Saving the day” wasn’t such a black and white solution in AOU, which I found very refreshing. Each Avenger had an agenda, and some sparks of disagreement and strife popped up between these characters, teasing the upcoming Civil War.
This worked because getting invested in characters is what made AOU feel more like a complete story compared to the first Avengers, which was more of a continuation of a running story that didn’t feel all that resolved by the end.
To be fair, AOU having a more complex plot also brought on a ton of narrative issues, many of them being the cause of Joss Whedon having to set up future movies with throwaway scenes that didn’t feel as cohesive. A good example is Thor’s mini-vacation to awaken his new powers, a side adventure that was given hardly any time to be built up or explained well. As I mentioned earlier, Ultron was also rushed as a villain, probably to give more time to the Wakanda references they had to include to set up Black Panther.
So AOU isn’t perfect, but I’d say the good certainly outweighs the bad. The darker tone wasn’t quite as dark as people hoped for, but there was a new sense of tension that actually got a payoff in the end with one of the first key deaths in these movies. And a lot of what doesn’t work that well in AOU is sort of indicative of the same problems existing in the original. We just didn’t harp on them as much back in 2012 because the novelty of the film was so, well, novel.
Both movies have great, enjoyable narratives, but I have to give this point to AOU for being bolder and containing a more dense story, flaws aside.
I’ll do this one fast. It’s a tie.
As I mentioned earlier, AOU was fantastic at giving us more insight into these characters, which gives it a huge advantage in this debate. Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver are notable exceptions that I give a pass due to the messiness surrounding the rights for those characters.
That said, Avengers pulled off something equally impressive by reintroducing the core team without spoon-feeding us tons of information about them we didn’t need to know. Marvel could have easily decided to treat us like we’re stupid and need a “Previously on” in order to remember who Thor and Captain America are.
To put it simply, both movies do a terrific job at showcasing great characters. The story elements behind these characters are certainly stronger in AOU, but we’ve already evaluated that in the previous section, so it’s a tie.
Loki or Ultron? Oh, who am I kidding…
Everyone (I think) loves Loki. It’s been a running joke for some time that he’s pretty much the only “good” Marvel villain. And for the most part, I actually agree.
He was an effortless scene stealer, in no small part thanks to Tom Hiddleston’s wonderful take on the character. He captured the comic-book villain quite well, while also updating it perfectly for feature films. He was funny, arrogant, and even a little sympathetic. But despite this, he was incredibly threatening, despite not having any “raw” power.
We knew throughout Avengers that Loki wasn’t that strong of a guy. Yet he commanded a ton of presence and was taken incredibly seriously. Using him for the first movie was a perfect choice because he was the perfect villain to contrast the raw power of the Avengers, who were vastly more intimidating when it came to brute strength.
Yet he wasn’t even “smarter” compared to Tony Stark and Bruce Banner. There was just an unspoken mental advantage he was able to hold over the heroes just enough to provoke them into finally stopping him.
Ultron was an attempt to up the ante with a villain who could be strong enough to bring down the Avengers, but they went with giving him an advantage aside from brute strength again. Not being that powerful himself, Ultron commanded a huge army and could tamper with their technology, even the Internet.
A problem that arose with this was when Scarlet Witch introduced yet another alternative to brute strength with her mind powers. But by the end of AOU, the Avengers do what they always need to do: save the day with their muscles…and lasers and hammers and what not.
An unstoppable villain that could have defeated all of the Avengers with brute strength would have strangely been more refreshing and a unique challenge for our heroes. It’s actually a bit ironic because I’m sure being different was what the writers intended to do. And while Ultron himself was sarcastic and entertaining, I found myself feeling almost nothing when he was discarded.
Best villain goes to The Avengers.
I’m actually cheating a bit by saying “best action,” because I’m really talking about how these movies work overall as action films. So I’m judging how beautiful they are, set pieces, how the special effects aid the experience, and of course, fight choreography.
That criteria in mind, this is a pretty easy decision. While both films are extremely polished, AOU is the one that stands out when it comes to those moments that define a great action movie.
Like I mentioned earlier, AOU is just more dense. Avengers has three major action scenes, and all of them are incredibly one-note and completely one-upped by the sequel.
The Avengers starts with a series of minor confrontations between the Avengers themselves. This is done even better in AOU when they’re fighting Tony Stark’s suits after the party, as it’s a surprising action scene that gets the plot started on the right tone.
The second act of Avengers features Hulk on a rampage. AOU one-ups this in a huge way by unleashing Hulk on innocent people, forcing Tony Stark to don the built-up Hulkbuster armor and finally prove a worthy challenge to the overpowered character. This is, in my opinion, the best action scene in the MCU for a laundry list of reasons.
Finally, the original ends with a massive battle where the heroes are vastly outnumbered. And in the end, someone nearly dies. AOU one-ups this by actually killing off a character (albeit not someone as key to the franchise as Tony Stark).
Aside from all that, there’s just a lot more going on in AOU when it comes to the action. I don’t think it’s necessarily prettier, but I’d be hard pressed to find anything about the original that trumps it in this category.
Point goes to Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Well, it looks like my answer is the same as it was a year ago. I consider Avengers: Age of Ultron to be better than The Avengers. It has a better plot, it maintains what we love about the characters in the original, and it has a more expansive, thrilling set of action scenes.
It wasn’t a landslide, obviously, and to be completely honest, The Avengers is still my favorite out of the two. The experience I had watching it was unlike any other I’ve had in the theater, and it’s filled to the brim with quotes and moments I’ll get nostalgic over for years to come. But I can’t say that I think it’s a better film, overall, even if it has just the right amount of Loki.
Agree? Disagree? Let’s talk about it in the comments. And let me know what you’d like to see compared in the next Which is Better.
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