The big question when it comes to Avengers: Age of Ultron is whether or not it’s “better” than The Avengers. Short answer—yes. Long answer—also yes. The Avengers is super fun and the end, especially, is a complete thrill. But three years removed from it, let’s all be honest—no one watches the first twenty minutes. And the big action set piece of act two involves ten minutes of Iron Man fixing an engine. All The Avengers had to do was work—remember, no one had seen a “shared universe” film concept before. The fact that The Avengers actually makes sense, that it’s feasible that six disparate characters from tonally different franchises co-exist in one movie and it’s not a complete disaster is a minor miracle. The Avengers worked and it was awesome.

But Avengers: Age of Ultron is BONKERS. It has a considerably higher bar to clear, now that we’ve all bought into the concept, and it clears it not by trying to top The Avengers, but by taking a big step sideways and going for balls-out crazy comic book splendor. This is easily Marvel’s most comic book movie, and arguably the most comic book of the superhero movies in the current era. The final action set piece in particular is the most breathtakingly insane piece of comic book imagination. But the movie, with Joss Whedon reprising his role as writer/director, has the sense to ground the whole thing in very rewarding and cohesive character interactions.

Age of Ultron is not dark and it’s not gritty. But it is more thematic than The Avengers. Like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, you can feel the aftershocks of the events in the movie as the final scene closes. There will be Consequences, and a Reckoning is coming. It’s not just because we know Captain America: Civil War—and all that title implies—is coming next year. It’s because the Avengers spend the whole movie arguing about intentions and consequences and responsibility, and the third act is as much about trying to save civilians as it is about defeating Ultron, the whackadoodle robot accidentally created by Tony Stark.

Voiced with scenery-chewing glee by James Spader, Ultron is not menacing so much as he’s memorable. Like Loki, he’s a flamboyant villain prone to highly entertaining monologues and frequent temper-tantrums. Spawned from a program Stark develops to protect the world from threats like the one seen in The Avengers, Ultron is a reflection of his creator (he’s a mess of daddy issues). But he also represents Stark’s idea of peace—have the biggest weapon and point it at the other guy. This is in direct conflict with Steve Rogers, ostensibly the leader of the Avengers, who are now a private peace-keeping force. He’d rather run the Avengers as a response unit, and the gulf between “peace at any cost” vs. “peace at what cost” defines their relationship.

There is so much great character interaction in Ultron, from cool moments during battles that suggest a team that’s been fighting together for a while, to the kind of personal interactions that make watching them so fun. Whedon’s first cut was nearly three and a half hours long, and he ended up excising much of Thor’s subplot, as well as the backstory for the twins, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver. This is my only real complaint against Ultron—I’d like to see the version where the action is cut down in order to keep the character moments. Because that stuff is GREAT. You can’t lose your virginity twice, so there is a lesser sense of awe in Ultron—we’re now used to seeing these guys on screen together. But we get to spend so much more time with the Avengers as a team, and the way they interact is endlessly delightful.

A deeper sense of character and more compelling narrative makes Avengers: Age of Ultron a more than satisfying sequel. It’s a big, sprawling movie stuffed to the gills with entertaining characters and featuring the sort of grandiose spectacle action sequences native to this type of movie, but the chemistry between the Avengers grounds it. At heart, it’s a story about friends and friendship. A completely bananas story about friends and friendship, featuring a murderous robot.

Attached -  Scarlett Johansson on The Tonight Show last night.