The first batch of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire' reviews are in, following the worldwide debut of the highly anticipated sequel starring Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson.

While the first film set the bar awfully high for the rest of the franchise -- telling a rich, brutal and exciting science-fiction story with genuine gravitas -- the sequel didn't always look like a sure thing. Original director Gary Ross dropped the project and the production was rushed to meet a release date, leaving many fans worried that the tale of Katniss Everdeen was in less than sure hands. But the first wave of critiques have washed ashore, and the verdict is ...

... Well, pretty much unanimously positive.

The latest 'Hunger Games: Catching Fire' reviews paint a picture of a confident and exciting adventure film that has the scope and excitement of a major blockbuster, while capturing the source material's subversive politics.

Several reviews compare the film to the 'Star Wars' franchise, with critics saying that Katniss' second battle to the death plays very much like the 'Empire Strikes Back' of the series. Meanwhile, nearly every review mentions initial hesitation at the thought of 'I Am Legend' director Francis Lawrence taking control of the series, but all critics seemed pleasantly surprised by what he brought to the table. Gone is Ross' shaky camera and lower production values -- Lawrence's direction is cleaner and his film is bigger, grander and far more polished.

Above all, the biggest raves go to star Jennifer Lawrence, who once again, proves why she's truly the next great Hollywood star.

So, without further ado, here is what the critics are saying about 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.'

"'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire' isn’t your typical blockbuster sequel. Yes it’s bigger and better than the original movie. The stakes have been raised and new characters are added. But what makes 'Catching Fire' unique is how it’s infused with a gravitas most major Hollywood entertainment lacks." -- Slash Film

"Although less of her screen time is devoted to outdoor action than was the case the first time around, Lawrence further solidifies her tenacious grip on this signature role as she explores Katniss' tortured inner self. Hutcherson comes into his own more confidently than before, while Hemsworth, left behind in District 12, has less to do." -- The Hollywood Reporter

"Easily the most sophisticated and thoughtful franchise film of 2013, Lawrence’s adaptation of the second novel in Suzanne Collins’ young adult series is all-things-to-all-people entertainment, a follow-up that intensifies the first film’s thrills while simultaneously developing its characters and, even more crucially, expanding its themes. The rare sequel that surpasses its predecessor, 'Catching Fire' tackles head-on the repercussions of the events of 'The Hunger Games,' deepening Collins’ cinematic mythology even as it proves that teen-lit is more than capable of tackling complex ideas." -- The Playlist

Some ideas get raised that, sadly, aren’t pursued — Katniss clearly has PTSD from her experiences in the previous Games, and Snow and Heavensbee hatch a plot to turn public sentiment against Katniss by basically turning her into a Kardashian — but at 146 minutes (which fly by), the movie has no dead spaces. -- The Wrap

"I'd say this is his best film overall, and I am greatly encouraged knowing that this series is in his hands from now until the end. 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire' more than makes the case for this as a franchise that's going to get better as it goes, and I am genuinely excited to see how they wrap it up. What more could you ask of a middle movie?" -- HitFix

In IMAX, the widescreen aspect ratio expands to fill the entire screen during the Hunger Games portion of the film, though it’s an unnecessary boost, as Lawrence and his team have calibrated the entire experience for maximum engagement. And while its pleasures can’t touch the thrill of seeing the Death Star destroyed — not yet, at least — the film runs circles around George Lucas’ ability to weave complex political ideas into the very fabric of B-movie excitement. -- Variety

Following the unwritten lore of movie trilogies, the middle chapter of Katniss Everdeen’s sci-fi survival story is darker, moodier, meaner and, yes, better than Part 1. Outgrowing its Battle Royale meets The Running Man meets Twilight meets The X Factor comparisons, 'Catching Fire' expands Suzanne Collins’ novel beyond the confines of the arena to tackle some seriously brutal truths – plugging gaps and sowing seeds for a two-part finale that will have to work hard to match its grit. -- Total Film

Lawrence surprised me in a big way, though; he kept the harder edged qualities that Ross laid down but has made a more polished film. Those who complained about shaky cam in 'The Hunger Games' will find the camera more steady, and those who chafed at the obvious budgetary limits will find that Francis Lawrence had more money to work with. It makes a difference - Lawrences’s staging of the entrance of the tributes is grand, while Ross’ was stilted and small. It’s almost like Panem got more majestic between films. -- Badass Digest

It should also be noted that even more than in 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’'s ending feels abrupt. Yes, there is a necessary -- and faithful to the source material -- cliffhanger, as we head towards Mockingjay, but it feels like there could have been one more scene or beat added to give a bit more payoff to this particular piece of the story. -- IGN

It’s a critic’s instinct to auto-praise any blockbuster that tries to do something different, but 'Catching Fire is so committed to carrying on the fine work started by its predecessor that the applause flows utterly naturally. Is it too soon to say I can’t wait for the next one? -- The Telegraph

'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire' arrives in theaters on November 22.

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