From the very beginning, this second Avengers movie is a take no prisoners assault on the senses. We are wasting no time explaining who these people are, or where they fit in the story arc of the Marvel universe. Joss Whedon deftly trusts that his audience will keep up, and instead of talking down to them treats them with respect, offering not just an explosion fest, but a story with meaning and dark humour which will sit with you long after the credits roll.
The initial battle, destroying a Hydra base, reveals that this is far from our heroes second rodeo. They are a finely tuned fighting team who have worked to take Hydra down completely, while also trying to get back Loki's staff, which was stolen by Hydra after SHIELD fell. It also sets up perfectly what is to come throughout the film, introducing us to new characters Quicksilver and Scarlett Witch, the latter of whom in particular sets the story in motion by manipulating Tony's mind into believing he had to protect the world from another alien attack or his friends would die. It - and all of the mind control sequences that follow it - are incredibly visceral, and are made to seem as real as possible, which is almost as scary a concept on screen as it is for the characters who are experiencing it.
This instalment is also not afraid to shy away from the universes' more minor characters. Everyone from Don Cheadle's War Machine, to Falcon, to Stellan Skarsgard's scientist are all back and in pride of place here. Cheadle in particular gets some great comedic scenes as he tries to impress people at Tony's party, only to realise that as cool as War Machine is, he's no Iron Man or Captain America.
People looking for more of the same from Whedon's second crack at the Avengers may be disappointed in as much as this is a very different movie. It feels simultaneously a hundred times bigger in its scope, traversing the world, from Korea, to South Africa, this doesn't feel like just another New York monster movie. At the same time though there is tiny but beautiful sequences too which put the entire fight into perspective. From a heart warming sequence which will see anyone who has ever complained about Hawkeye eat their words (myself included), to the bitter sweet conclusion of the Black Widow and Hulk romance, this is a movie not afraid to shy away from its most human moments despite the superhuman surroundings.
On that subject, it is wholly refreshing to see superheroes actually saving people, rather than just beating CGI enemies up. The entire final battle sequence of this film is set not just around defeating Ultron, but around ensuring not one civilian is harmed along the way. Its not just the big picture of saving the world, but the smaller one - returning a trapped boy to his mother, or ensuring the city is fully evacuated before the battle gets under way - that separate this and rise it above things like last years Man Of Steel, where the destruction and loss of human life off screen is enormous and almost unthinkable given the fact these heroes are meant to be saving the world.
This feels like the most deeply ambitious and thought provoking entry yet into the MCU, picking up where The Winter Soldier left off, asking questions about the price of war, and whether or not trying to shield the world from conflict entirely can actually cause greater issues. It's a film in which no one has all the right answers. Things aren't just tied nicely with a bow and sent on their way. The team disagree on things, and come to blows, and the audience is asked ultimately to make their mind up about who's side they end up on. Knowing what's next, with Captain America: Civil War around the corner, this acts as both a continuation of the saga but also a jumping point for what will no doubt become the focus of Phase 3 - getting our heroes back on the same page before they can finally take on Thanos in Infinity War in a few years time.
Speaking of Thanos, it turns out (despite just about everyone disbelieving him) there really isn't a post credits scene for AoU, but just a brief mid credits stinger. Thanos has the Infinity Gauntlet, and has vowed to finish the job that neither Loki nor Ultron could complete. We already know the location of four of the 6 Infinity Gems - so it will be interesting to see how and when the next two turn up, and what effect Thanos will have in the upcoming films in his attempts to gain them before the final all out war to come.
In short, this is not just better than the first Avengers movie (itself a fantastic piece of work), but this is the best all around film of the entire MCU to date. It brings an incredible amount to the table, and under a lesser director this might feel like a jumble. Here though it feels like a well choreographed dance. Every sequence flows into the next, building to the inevitable conclusion. And oh what a conclusion.