I have a confession: I'm bored of superhero movies.
I've never been a big comics reader or a fan of guys zipping around in tights. But earlier in the decade, the one-two punch of Iron Man and The Dark Knight — one witty, the other gritty — won me over. Since then, I haven't hated any of the Marvel films, and even last summer's much-maligned Man of Steel had its moments.
It's not the individual movies that have worn me out; it's what they have in common. The portentous music, the heroes who can fly or tumble hundreds of feet without a scratch, the choreographed fights, the talk of freedom and responsibility, the war-on-terror metaphors, the leavening of wisecracks.
I'm at the point where the only creative twist on the formula I want to see is someone staggering to the ER when he's hurt instead of racing to the next crisis. In short, I have left the superhero-movie target audience.
But I can still see that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a good superhero movie. The latest Marvel flick has many points in its favor, starting with Chris Evans as the title character. A former weakling endowed with super-soldier abilities, Steve Rogers was placed in suspended animation during his Nazi-fighting days and rose again in the 21st century to join international security force S.H.I.E.L.D.
Far from a jingoistic superpatriot, Captain America represents what's great about the Greatest Generation: He's unassuming, brave, bully hating and idealistic without arrogance. In an early-'70s comic, the Cap took his crime fighting all the way to the Nixon White House. In The Winter Soldier, he takes one look at S.H.I.E.L.D.'s new toy — three satellite-linked helicarriers with the power to observe and destroy anyone on Earth — and says, "This isn't freedom. This is fear."
That doesn't sit well with the superhero's boss, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who's deploying the totalitarian surveillance system on the orders of a world council headed by Robert Redford. It's no accident that Redford played a hero of paranoid political thrillers in the 1970s. Winter Soldier's writers reach for that second genre template when Fury suffers a suspicious attack. The Captain and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) investigate, watching out for friends who might actually be foes.
The plot features callbacks to past Marvel movies, setups for future ones, exposition for the uninitiated, a huge supporting cast and dozens of extended action setpieces on the road, at sea and in the air. We meet Sebastian Stan as the titular assassin and Anthony Mackie as a likable veteran with an ace up his sleeve. The film's anxious ambiance and topical critique bleed away once the mastermind behind the megadrones has been identified, but there's still plenty to keep genre fans excited.
Directors Anthony and Joe Russo are best known to the geeky set for directing several stellar episodes of NBC's "Community," which mocked the very action-movie tropes this movie embraces. It's hard to tell the difference between the parody and the parodied in Marvel movies; almost everything comes with a wink until Things Get Serious at the apocalyptic climax. Joss Whedon perfected that formula on his own TV shows and applied it to The Avengers; the Russos follow it with brio, staging nifty action sequences along the way.
Yet their hero stays beautifully earnest throughout. My pacifist, anarchist movie companion, who was alive during World War II and falls even farther outside Marvel's target audience than I do, declared herself Captain America's fan when the credits rolled.
The folks at Marvel are doing something right if they can make such converts. If I didn't feel like I'd already seen this movie dozens of times in the past few years, I might even think it was something super.