The Avengers have been the backbone of the Marvel Cinematic Universe since it’s inception, when the group was first mentioned during the now iconic post-credits sequence of 2008’s Iron Man. The group continued to be alluded to through the Iron Man sequel and the Hulk, Thor and Captain America films before coming to complete fruition in writer/director Joss Whedon’s 2012 opus, The Avengers. The film capped “Phase One” of the MCU and was a massive success, raking in over $1.5 billion and establishing the shared universe format that the MCU has used since.
Throughout the second phase of solo MCU films, fans salivated at the prospect of the teammates teaming up once again. They got their wish in 2015 with the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron. Though the film reunited Whedon and the main cast, it was a relative financial and critical disappointment. Less than a year later, Marvel released The Russo Brothers’ Captain America: Civil War. While a solo vehicle in name, the film features nearly all the major Avengers characters, plus Ant-Man, Black Panther and Spider-Man. The film has been critically well-reviewed and a financial winner in its first two weeks. Beyond that, in my opinion, it’s vastly more successful at telling an Avengers MCU story than the proper Avengers sequel did.
I first should clarify that I like Age of Ultron a great deal. I feel like the film tells a strong story, features a great antagonist in the form of the James Spader-voiced titular villain and successfully introduces Vision, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver into the MCU. However, the film has one key fault: It succeeds as a sequel to the first Avengers film, but not as the 11th entry in the MCU. Outside of a few scattered lines, there’s very little reference to the events of Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. A viewer could easily go into Age of Ultron having only seen the 2012 film and barely miss a beat. The film also fails to foreshadow future developments well, with only a few out of place (and if rumors are to be believed studio-mandated) sequences such as Thor’s “cave vision” giving hints to the MCU’s future. While this is in line with the more traditional Hollywood approach to sequels, it’s the antithesis “all-connected” universe audiences have come to expect from Marvel.
On the other hand, Captain America: Civil War takes the total opposite approach. First and foremost, it is a stronger overall film than Age of Ultron. Beyond that, the film does a major better job of tying into the MCU. Its major conflict is the introduction of the Sokovia Accords, a document meant to put the Avengers under United Nations control, stems directly out of public anger over the destruction caused by the major battles depicted in previous MCU films including Avengers, Winter Soldier and Age of Ultron. As the film goes on, the back story of Bucky Barnes, the main plot of Winter Soldier, becomes a big part of the narrative. Even the film’s introduction of Ant-Man provides little exposition, assuming audiences have seen the 2015 film starring that character. While this strategy may not be friendly to casual viewers who haven’t seen every MCU film, it firmly and organically roots the story in the world of the pre-established universe.
While Avengers: Age of Ultron is a solid film and works as a traditional sequel to The Avengers, it mostly fails as an Avengers entry in the overall Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, Captain America: Civil War gets right nearly everything AOU got wrong, turning out a film that fits into and builds on everything we’ve seen before.