Marvel Studios cranked its marketing for Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron up a notch (or two) in intensity over this past week, but the hype-building culminated last night with the first screenings for the press members based in Los Angeles and New York. The overall response thus far is (as you would expect) quite positive, with regard to the reactions that’ve been posted online via Twitter and other social media outlets.

Whedon has been pitching Age of Ultron as “the Empire Strikes Back installment” of Avengers movies since pretty much day one, so it shouldn’t come as a big surprise to Marvel Studios fans that the Avengers sequel is, in fact, darker than its predecessor – according to those who’ve seen it. The downside of Age of Ultron being comparatively more emotionally and thematically complex (again, going by these early responses) is that the film cannot match the same level of whiz-bang fun achieved by Whedon’s first chapter in the story of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.

Again, though, the initial response to Age of Ultron is (predictably) enthusiastic on the whole, as evidenced by reactions like the following:

avengers age ultron reviews iron man thor captain america Avengers: Age of Ultron Early Reactions: Avengers Sequel is Darker, But Still Fun

Spoilers – like what happens in the Age of Ultron mid-credits scene – are being kept off the table by the press (for now), though several people have already provided some interesting tidbits of information about the movie. Zap2it associate editor Terri Schwartz, for instance, noted that while Avengers provided a fitting bookend to Phase 1 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and its various movie installments, “[Age of Ultron] definitely feels like a conduit of things to come.”

That’s not just in keeping with the Empire Strikes Back comparisons, but also what we have been hearing for a while now – concerning how Age of Ultron blazes the trail for the upcoming Phase 3 installments, such as the 2016 release Captain America: Civil War.

MORE: Avengers Phase 3 Roster Revealed?

Hawkeye Jeremy Renner Avengers 2 Age of Ultron Art Poster Avengers: Age of Ultron Early Reactions: Avengers Sequel is Darker, But Still Fun

It seems Age of Ultron marks an improvement in terms of certain smaller, but all the same noteworthy elements of Whedon’s first Avengers. For example, as HitFix‘s Drew McWeeny noted, the film’s score composed by Brian Tyler (Thor: The Dark World) – and featuring contributions from Danny Elfman – “finally did the great version of the ‘weave their themes together’ score” for Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.

Meanwhile, Screen Crush‘s Mike Sampson says that Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye “has the best lines” in the film, while Uproxx‘s Mike Ryan claims “Hawkeye gets the best role in the movie [AND] the best line of the movie, maybe the series.” Props to Renner, then, as that’s certainly a step up from having to play Loki’s mind-slave for most of the first Avengers. Expect more insight on the matter – among others – when Avengers: Age of Ultron reviews start hitting the ‘Net, closer to the film’s international theatrical release (followed shortly thereafter by its debut in U.S. theaters).

Marvel’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron” stars Robert Downey Jr., who returns as Iron Man, along with Chris Evans as Captain America, Chris Hemsworth as Thor and Mark Ruffalo as The Hulk. Together with Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow and Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, and with the additional support of Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, Don Cheadle as James Rhodes/War Machine, Cobie Smulders as Agent Maria Hill and Stellan Skarsgård as Erik Selvig, the team must reassemble to defeat James Spader as Ultron, a terrifying technological villain hell-bent on human extinction. Along the way, they confront two mysterious and powerful newcomers, Wanda Maximoff, played by Elizabeth Olsen, and Pietro Maximoff, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and meet an old friend in a new form when Paul Bettany becomes Vision.

The Avengers: Age of Ultron will be in theaters May 1, 2015; Ant-Man on July 17, 2015; Captain America: Civil War – May 6, 2016; Doctor Strange – November 4, 2016; Guardians of the Galaxy 2 – May 5, 2017; Spider-Man reboot – July 28, 2017; Thor: Ragnarok – November 3, 2017; The Avengers: Infinity War Part 1 – May 4, 2018; Black Panther – July 6, 2018; Captain Marvel – November 2, 2018; The Avengers: Infinity War Part 2 – May 3, 2019; Inhumans – July 12, 2019.

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