1. The first Hunger Games movie was entertaining enough, but still plodding, awkward, and weighed down with so much exposition that you found yourself wishing everyone would stop sketching out the rules of this universe and get down to mourning all the dead children falling from the skies. The movie had Jennifer Lawrence, an irresistible Long Walk-esque premise and a massive production budget going for it; it also had way too many characters and plotlines, a half-assed power-to-the-people subplot (Donald Sutherland popped up and glowered, but I wasn't sure why) and a love triangle that was so fuzzy and poorly sketched out that I kept forgetting who the third leg was. The movie stuffed in so much that it held almost nothing. I hadn't read the books, but I couldn't figure out what much more story could be left to tell in subsequent films. Were we supposed to just watch them keep playing these Games over and over?
2. As anyone who has read the books knows—and as I do, now that I've seen the second film—I was very wrong. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire does everything right that the first film did wrong, streamlining the story, focusing on the characters and raising—and more important, clarifying—the stakes. The impending revolution merely hinted at in the first film is fully fleshed out into something compelling and even moving here, and the movie is not only paced better, it looks fantastic. It makes the first film feel like a rough draft. (Someone should go back and re-edit it.)
3. This time, director Francis Lawrence (the underrated I Am Legend) is in charge, and he has a much firmer hand. The story this time is that President Snow (Sutherland) sees Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) as a threat to his dystopian classist dictatorship—after the events of the first film, she has become a national hero and, as someone from one of the poorer districts, a potential rebellion leader—so he goes about attempting to discredit and, ultimately, kill her. After a couple of failed attempts at this, he, with the help of a new Head Gamemaker named Plutarch Heavensbee (played, sort of amazingly, by Philip Seymour Hoffman), drafts her into a new Hunger Games featuring old winners, sort of like MTV's The Challenge, except everybody dies at the end. (Which sounds really fun.) Then we have an action movie, a riveting one, with the added wrinkle that our heroes have to figure out not how to defeat President Snow, but also how to avoid killing each other.
4. There's an inherent silliness to this whole business—the love triangle is sketched better here, but it still keeps getting in the way, like a Twilight movie trying to infiltrate from the edges—but the movie is helped immeasurably by having Jennifer Lawrence as its center. An early Lawrence skeptic, boy was I wrong. Unlike a lot of stars who grow bored with their franchises (particularly after they've won an Oscar elsewhere), Lawrence invests in Katniss entirely, conveying strength, determination and rage with fear and vulnerability. You can tell she takes this seriously—her responsibility to the character, but also to the series' fans, particularly young girls—and she never wavers. It's compelling just to watch her for two hours. The rest of the cast does its part too. Josh Hutcherson as Peeta, callow and soft in the first film, has more weight and power to him this time; he seems like a completely different actor. But the fun here is the veteran supporting actors giving some gravitas to a teen movie, from Amanda Plummer to Stanley Tucci to Elizabeth Banks to a charming Jeffrey Wright as a sad genius and former Games champion. But most fun of all is Hoffman, who shows up in about six scenes and quietly steals every one of them; he doesn't act like he's above this material, he elevates it.
5. I'm thrilled to be a convert here. The first film left me dumbfounded as to what the appeal of this whole series could be, outside of Jennifer Lawrence. But this sequel deepens the story, sharpens the edges and brings the inherent darkness of this conceit to the surface. Francis Lawrence takes this more seriously than Gary Ross, the first film's director, did: Ross was just trying to film a novel, while Lawrence is making a movie. It is an improvement in every way. I'll say this: After the first film, I wondered what more story could be coming. Now? I sorta can't wait for the next one.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.