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Lightning does strike twice. Or at least, it does if you’re the Avengers, the biggest superheroes in the world and at the box office, whose latest outing in Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron is another crowd-pleasing blast of pulpy ingenuity that happens to be as smart as it is tremendously fun.

You probably know the premise by now, but if somehow you’d missed the barrage of trailers, clips and the rest of Marvel’s assorted arsenal of promotional materials, we’ll fill you in just in case. After finding the missing link in his ‘Ultron’ peacekeeping program, Tony Stark builds an Artificial Intelligence who soon turns malevolent (and deliciously snarky with it) to uphold keeping Earth safe; the result is a robot with the silky tones of James Spader, who becomes obsessed with destroying the world – and upholding his own ego. What ensues is a globe-spanning chase for the Avengers, who try to stop Ultron before he succeeds with his plans for humanity’s extinction. This is where the Avengers truly become a property of the world; let loose from the rubble of New York, we witness Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye wreak their unique brand of well-intentioned havoc across Africa, Asia, and Europe. But once again, amid the top-notch visual effects and enormous scale of the entire piece, it’s the relationships between these bright-hued characters that give them a darker edge.

Whedon, who again writes and directs this sequel, gives a sharp human angle to his players, something that is as unexpected as it is poignant. These particular arcs pay off beautifully, as we realise that the Avengers, despite their brilliance at saving the world, aren’t particularly good at joining it. They only really have each other, a factor that is rendered articulately despite the increasing ridiculousness of the movie’s scope and stakes. And yet, thanks to this singular team’s unique talent for bickering amongst each other – with some applause-worthy lines thrown in for good measure – there’s always a throughline to lead us through the enormity of it all. And boy, is it enormous; dwarfing the first Avengers movie in ways that boggle the brain, this movie will leave you gasping for breath at the speed at which things keep on levelling up. Thank god we have this cast, who all yet again bring us down to Earth.

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But the hugeness of it all might be where the one niggle lies; in the movie’s final act, you may slightly lose the thread of what exactly is going on. Despite this, there’s a commendable amount of coherence that belies the inherent absurdity of it all, but in gleeful Avengers fashion, it’s bound together by great character moment after great character moment, much like the Battle of New York. There are new pieces on the board, too, characters who get their own emotionally resonant scenes; it’s great fun to watch Pietro and Wanda Maximoff, known as the Siblings, play around with the other Avengers as if they were putty. And of course, there’s the Vision, kept from posters and teasers until the very end and for good reason. If the Hulk was the last film’s scene-stealer, then Vision is this one’s; an enjoyably bizarre, ideologically engaging creation, his mere existence feels – as the know-it-all Stark puts it – like the end of the road he started us on.

But more excitingly than that, it’s the beginning of a new one. Rousing, disarmingly complex, and almost unbearably huge, Avengers: Age of Ultron is muscular, savvy cinema of the highest blockbuster order. It’s flicks like this one that almost validate the endless stream of superhero movies we’ve been under fire from for years now, and will be for the foreseeable future. And even if the sugar high fades, after all the epilepsy-inducing action and relentless ensemble magic recedes, this will still remain a cracking addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And if any of those future superhero films are half as good as this excellent sequel, then the road Whedon has started us on has no end…

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