Was Alexander Pierce a Well-Intentioned Extremist who sincerely wanted to give the world a newer, better, truer, purer form of freedom, or was he just an ego-maniacal control freak trying to justify what was really little more than a thinly veiled take-over-the-world plot (in short, a literal Nazi)?
How much free will does Zola have inside the computer? In the first movie he was unwilling to sacrifice himself for the cause but in the sequel he gladly keeps talking to allow a missile to hit his position. Was he really being used by Pierce in much the same fashion that Pierce utilizes the Winter Soldier? Or had he in fact been playing the role of reluctant henchman as far back as The First Avenger while hiding his true nature? Or given that he's now a computer program with access to the Internet, did he simply make a backup copy of himself so that he didn't really sacrifice himself at all?
More than a few reviewers pointed out that Cap appears to be borderline suicidal through the film, making reckless moves like leaping out of the Quinjet without a parachute, unmasking in front of Batroc and putting away his shield, and not even making an attempt to save himself from the crashing Helicarrier and challenging Bucky to kill him. Connect with his hidden angst about all his dead friends from the past and being a Fish Out of Temporal Water, and Steve might be a subconscious Death Seeker.
Sam Wilson has tinges of not being merely a cheery Black Best Friend but secretly being concerned about Steve's psyche from a therapist perspective. When first meeting, he twice brings up Steve's potential culture shock, then starts looking analytical once Steve responds that the 21st century has its advantages, as though he doesn't believe Steve and thinks he's trying to hide his actual discomfort with the modern day. While Sam doesn't push for that answer, his response of Steve coming to the Veterans Affairs office "to make me look good in front of the girl at the front desk" could then be read as a veiled request that Steve seek out some psychiatric therapy, especially considering no such front desk girl is shown.
Nick Fury and his argument about facing the world as it is and not the way we want it to be or would like it to be—Fury as a Strawman trying to justify his actions with a black and white morality, or Fury as a teller of harsh truths? Or, as a Third option, Fury deliberately trying to push Steve's buttons to keep him on his guard?
Anvilicious: About where you draw the line between security and control, and where freedom falls on either side. The argument loses some of its punch when you drop in "And the bad guys are all Nazis", but that also raises the question of when the "peacekeepers" become just as bad as their enemies to defeat them. After all, Zola was only able to infiltrate so deeply in the first place because he was recruited by Operation Paperclip, and Project Insight only went ahead through Nick Fury's approval. The degree to which Some Anvils Need to Be Dropped excuses it is best left for debate.
Ass Pull: During the climax, Natasha uses a device that allows her to perfect replicate the face and voice of a World Security Council member, something that had never been previously foreshadowed, in spite of its obvious uses. It was initially shown during a previous scene at Fury's bunker, but the scene was cut out.
The First Avenger took some criticism for its idealized depiction of the 1940s, a time during which America was still segregated and committed crimes of its own (which could have something to do with the Howling Commandos also being an integrated unit). This is briefly touched upon in The Winter Soldier.
Nick Fury: You know, I read those old SSR files. "Greatest Generation"? You guys did some nasty stuff. Steve Rogers: Yeah. We compromised, sometimes in ways that made us not sleep so well. But we did it so that people could be free. This [Project Insight] isn't freedom, this is fear.
There was also some ire given at Steve being perceived as not all that powerful or useful during The Avengers. This film thus ups his abilities to make it clear he really is a super soldier, performing feats such as taking down a Quinjet, smashing through door after door at full speed to catch a target, and literally singlehandedly wiping out a dozen hostile thugs inside a cramped elevator. One commercial even made the debate about his power in-universe.
Many fans are elated at the inclusion of Natasha as a major character. Others, however, are upset that her involvement seems to be effectively subsuming the role of Agent 13.
Cap's new uniform for the film has also gotten a mixed reaction, with some declaring it to be an upgrade over his costume in The Avengers, and others lamenting the removal of the red-and-white stripes from said costume. He does end up wearing his original WWII getup from the first movie in the climax.
Cap's more pronounced badassery in the film. While many were happy to see Cap kick some serious ass thanks to his previous depictions, some felt they went too far. Of course, given how badly Steve was Overshadowed by Awesome in previous films, and was shown before that he's incredibly strong and fast but was just never given a chance to demonstrate it in full, him looking so awesome makes more sense given the fact that now, without Iron Man, Hulk, and Thor around, everyone is Overshadowed by his Awesome this time.
The twist that HYDRA has infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. since its creation. It is loved by many fans for the massive amount of Rewatch Bonus with the very subtle but also well planned Foreshadowing in previous MCU films, as well as taking the entire MCU in a very interesting and unique direction. However, some have argued that the story would have been far more interesting if it had followed through on its initial premise, involving S.H.I.E.L.D. taking morally dubious actions in the name of national security, rather than just revealing that HYDRA was really behind everything.
In general, the HYDRA twist can be seen as a thrilling turn of events or an Ass Pull.
Some Italian fans compared Winter Soldier to Adam Kadmon.
Considering the film's numerous parallels to the Metal Gear series, it's not surprising that the Winter Soldier has been compared to Raiden, Jetstream Sam, or Gray Fox thanks to his mask, Super Reflexes, and cybernetic limbs, among other things. He also sometimes gets comparisons to Quiet due to their shared sniping skills, dark brown hair, eye makeup, and general lack of spoken lines until a dramatic moment near the end.
It's also easy for EarthBound fans to draw comparisons between the Winter Soldier and the Masked Man. The same reasoning for both Cap and Lucas refusing to directly attack their counterparts at their climaxes is eerily similar.
HYDRA is a secret multinational organization that has been influencing history and controlling humans because of the The Evils of Free Will. This has inevitably drawn comparisons to other similar fictional groups, like Assassin's Creed's Templars. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. makes the two even more similar by revealing that HYDRA originates from an Ancient Conspiracy trying to revive an evil superhuman being.
Winter Soldier/Rumlow is popular, despite the fact that the two of them share very little screentime and even fewer words.
Winter Soldier/Falcon is even more popular, thanks to interviews that their actors do together. This is despite the fact that the characters interact one-on-one for about 15 seconds, a fight ending with the Soldier punting Falcon off a Helicarrier with broken wings.
Bucky Barnes/Darcy Lewis has hundreds of tics dedicated to it, despite the fact that the two have never even met.
Not the film itself (which received acclaim by critics and audiences alike), but rather, the handling of Black Widow; many professional critics dismissed her as stereotypical eye candy for the male audience, but most of the women in the blogosphere were very impressed with how her character was handled, and she spends far less time in the film doing anything fanservicey, especially compared to previous films (no Lingerie Scene or Male Gaze moment this time around). To put it simply, since she's a pretty girl in an action movie, the critics wrote her off as eye candy even though the film never treated her as such.
Draco in Leather Pants: Despite the fact that he was revealed to be a HYDRA infiltrator, Sitwell still gets plenty of love from fans. It's helped by Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. revealing that some HYDRA agents were brainwashed, which could well be the case with Sitwell as he's a loyal S.H.I.E.L.D. agent in the comics.
Ending Fatigue: The climax is split across five settings and can start to wear thin after a while. The majority of critics and fans alike agree that while this is an awesome movie, it's probably too long.
Georges Batroc, thanks to his performance in the opening act.
Despite her minimal screentime, Sharon Carter nonetheless made an impression, and helped Emily VanCamp gain attention from mainstream audiences.
Jack Rollins, one of the STRIKE team members, is surprisingly popular for a character with barely any lines, and almost no resemblance to his comic book counterpart. Some element of Evil is Cool might be involved.
Cameron Klein a.k.a. the S.H.I.E.L.D. operative who refuses to launch Project Insight when Steve publicly reveals HYDRA's involvement, even with Rumlow pointing a gun at his head, has won more than a few fans. He even makes a return appearance in Avengers: Age of Ultron on the bridge of Fury's private Helicarrier in the climax, presumably because of his actions in this film. His name is actually listed in the credits of that film too.
Even Better Sequel: Winter Soldier has been considered an even stronger film than its predecessor, already a fan favorite in the MCU. In fact some critics and fans have been treating it as this to the entire MCU, declaring it the best of the whole series so far (its Tomatometer is the fourth-highest in the MCU behind Iron Man, The Avengers, and Guardians of the Galaxy). It's also far more successful at the box office than the original.
Fanfic Fuel: The entire plot of the movie ended up being this. The film only gives glimpses into how HYDRA slowly took over S.H.I.E.L.D. right under Peggy's nose. What mission did the Winter Soldier go on to "shape the century"? What is his relationship with Alexander Pierce and how did the latter brainwash him?
Steve/Bucky. To the point it became more popular than the Steve/Tony ship which already had pretty big comic/movie fandom and was the biggest ship of the MCU.
Between Steve, Natasha, Sam, and Bucky, any combination of them is a pretty popular ship (Sam/Natasha is the least popular of this though, but even that has fans). Then there's those who'd rather just have all four of them stick together and be romantic bros, possibly with Hawkeye thrown in for good measure.
There's also a number of people who ship Steve with Maria Hill.
Not as popular as others, but due to the lack of interaction between her and Steve, Sharon is instead paired with that defiant S.H.I.E.L.D. technician after she saved his life from Brock Rumlow.
Friendly Fandoms: Fans of this film are pretty close to the fans of Frozen, with Steve and Bucky often being portrayed by Anna and Elsa respectively in crossover art and even cosplay.
"Funny Aneurysm" Moment: Nick Fury's sarcastic remark to a pair of fake white cops who pull up beside his heavily armored car, meant to be a humorous allusion to the fact that even he has to deal with the possibility of a DWB, and the following sequence where the "cops" converge on Fury and try to break into his heavily armoured car and kill him is entertaining for being action-packed and also because it's Nick Goddamn Fury. At the same time, certain real-life events that occurred after the movie's release make it a lot less fun in retrospect to watch an army of white cops converging on and attempting to brutally murder a lone black man who, gatling gun aside, has clearly sustained a broken arm and probably multiple internal injuries and is trying to escape from them.
Genius Bonus: The movie makes a great visual metaphor at the end which could be a rebuttal to Harry Lime's famous "Dot" speech in The Third Man. Given said film was one of the earliest cynical spy films, this is entirely possible.
In-universe, Nick Fury's memory of how Alexander Pierce turned down a Nobel Peace Prize by saying that "peace isn't a reward, it's a responsibility." The problem is that Pierce's idea of peace is one enforced by HYDRA.
The Reveal of Sitwell and Senator Stern as HYDRA agents. If the first name hasn't been a blow enough, the mere fact that the latter wanted to confiscate Tony's suit in Iron Man 2 for the U.S. military is quite a guise for HYDRA control. Making it worse, the U.S. military's immediate action when Colonel Rhodes did acquire Tony's spare suit was to weaponize it in the name of patriotism.
Sam mentions that his wingman was shot down by an RPG during a late-night mission. That's pretty tragic, until you see what his flying gear looks like, and then you realize that he had to watch his best friend get shot point-blank with an RPG…
In The Avengers, Tony comments that "In a few hours, I'll know every dirty secret S.H.I.E.L.D has ever tried to hide." With the reveal that HYDRA was using S.H.I.E.L.D. as a front and had been manipulating it, Tony either Failed a Spot Check—or HYDRA put failsafes in place in case Tony tried such a move. Or there was simply so much information that he had no way of sifting through all of it to pick out the discrepancies.
In the 1998 Nick Fury movie, when Alexander Pierce makes a mistake during a mission, Fury says that he is either a traitor or an idiot. While Pierce from that movie wasn't a traitor, the one in this movie is.
When Steve wakes in a hospital bed at the end of the film, this is the second time he's found himself in a similar situation after falling into water from a great height expecting to die. The first time this happened, he found the era-appropriate room was a lie and that he had actually been asleep for 67 years. If he hadn't seen Sam there with Marvin Gaye's "Trouble Man"—a soundtrack from an era he missed—it wouldn't have been pretty.
In The Avengers, Loki insulted Natasha because she works for the service of liars and killers. It's ambiguous whether he referred to the KGB (Natasha's previous employer) or S.H.I.E.L.D. If he was referring to S.H.I.E.L.D., then he turns out to be right, since HYDRA-infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. are indeed trained manipulators and assassins.
An out-of-universe example: The Avengers did not get Backed by the Pentagon because of concerns about the fact that S.H.I.E.L.D. was subordinate to the World Security Council, an entity that almost nothing was known about, and so the Pentagon wanted nothing to do with the movie. Come this film, those concerns were proven absolutely right as S.H.I.E.L.D. is revealed to be basically a reborn HYDRA.
Senator Stern is left alive at the film's end, possibly to lead into a role in future MCU projects which will now go unfulfilled after Garry Shandling's untimely death (in fact, this film was his final acting role).
In the movie, Pierce wanted Iron Man to appear at his niece's birthday party. In real life, Robert Downey, Jr. invited a bunch of kids to his birthday party to watch this very movie. Metawise, it doubles as an Actor Allusion, since Downey, Jr. actually did a surprise appearance at Jamie Foxx's daughter's fifth birthday party—which was Iron Man-themed, to boot.
In the early '80s, John Byrne drew Cap as resembling Robert Redford, and Redford in his younger days does have a passing resemblance to Chris Evans. 33 years later, the actor appears here, in a major role. Even funnier is that Redford plays the villain here.
At one point in the movie, Cap and Natasha "borrow" a car, which might be a joke referring back to Cap's less than graceful car thefts in Captain America (1990).
Despite The Reveal being generally Harsher in Hindsight, it makes Tony Stark's comments of "I have successfully privatized world peace" from Iron Man 2 all the while funnier since he's basically boasting about accomplishing HYDRA's end goal of "peace through force" without being a HYDRA member and rubbing that detail in HYDRA's faces. No wonder Senator Stern swore "Fuck you, Mr. Stark!" on live TV. He was infuriated that Tony had done what HYDRA wanted to do themselves.
Ng Chin Han, who's had a string of bit parts like Lau in The Dark Knight before appearing as a WSC member here, got his start in the 90s in a string of TV roles on Singapore television. Imagine the surprise of Singaporean audiences at the sight of the mostly-neutral Singapore having a representative on the WSC!
Sam tells Fury, "I do what [Steve] does, just slower." In the comics less than a year later, Sam was given the mantle of Captain America after Steve loses his powers.
In 2002, a book about possible Nazi influence on the US government was released by Glen Yeadon. This book was titled "The Nazi Hydra in America".
One of the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents turned HYDRA defectors/infiltrators in the film is named Jack Rollins. Two months post-release, an ultra-popular paramilitary-styled trio in WWE called The Shield is betrayed and disbanded by its "architect", who goes by the name of SethRollins.
The sheer amount of Ho Yay between Steve and Bucky/the Winter Soldier is so huge that Sharon doesn't even seem to be Steve's love interest (and not just because of how Out of Focus she is during the movie). The fact that Cap spends the entire movie turning down Natasha's offers to set him up on dates, saying he's looking for someone with "similar life experiences", only increases the factor. After this movie came out, the amount of Steve/Bucky Fan Fictionskyrocketed, eventually making the pairing the most popular ship in the entire MCU and the closest the fandom has to a universal OTP.
Sam/Steve enjoys widespread popularity. Their first meeting highly resembles a Meet Cute, with the coincidental meeting, playful bantering, and it ending with Sam asking to see Steve again. For his part, Steve's the one who gets Sam's attention and seeks him out, either when he's in danger or just because (after the therapy meeting). For his part, Sam immediately helps Steve with his darker thoughts and puts himself in harm's way when Steve needs help. More than a few netizens have commented that Sam takes all of the usual superhero love interest duties: he's unwaveringly loyal, he gets Steve to open up emotionally, and is generally a nurturing person. And when Steve is hospitalized at the end, Sam is the one watching him sleep at his bedside, waiting for him to wake up. He even put on a Marvin Gaye album.
Hype Backlash: Despite the movie being overall well-received, there have been some people who criticized it, accusing it of being a dumb action movie disguised as a political thriller.
The Reveal of the Winter Soldier's identity as Bucky Barnes was an 8-year-old spoiler for comics readers by the time the Winter Soldier film came out, a 2-year-old spoiler for viewers of The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes!, and a 7-year-old spoiler for anyone who happened to play Marvel Ultimate Alliance. The anticipation of the film is a result of this, wherein the drama surrounding this is the main reason why fans want to see the film. By the final month before release, even Marvel gave up trying to hide it, even saying that the tension of the Winter Soldier's identity doesn't come from the audience not knowing, but from Cap not knowing. Previews from both the Thor: The Dark World Blu-Ray and an MCU TV special go ahead and spill exactly who the Winter Soldier is. The Winter Soldier Blu-Ray case even has a big picture of him without his mask on the back cover.
To a lesser extent, S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Brock Rumlow working for HYDRA, for anyone familiar with his identity in the comics.
The twist that HYDRA is still around has also gained a fair amount of notoriety.
For many comic book fans, the primary reason to watch the movie was the conflict between Cap and the Winter Soldier—or more specifically, the revelation of the Winter Soldier's identity and Cap's reaction to it. Marvel was not blind to this, and took advantage of it by having most of the promotion of the movie focused on Cap and the Winter Soldier. It also did a great job of hiding the mid-plot twist and true conflict of the movie—that HYDRA had infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. at its very creation, and therefore the organization is too corrupt to continue on and must be dissolved permanently.
Some cinema-goers were surprised to see a sizable number of elderly women in the audience. They were probably fans of Robert Redford and were mainly there to see him play a villain.
Like You Would Really Do It: The movie has us believe many characters are dead/will die throughout the film, but many fans are savvy enough to figure out it wasn't going to happen. Nick Fury is the biggest example, though it was a close run thing. On the other hand, they really did go through with the complete dismantling of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Magnificent Bastard: Nick Fury and Alexander Pierce. It's very clear why these two are in charge of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Pierce arranges Fury's assassination and takes control of S.H.I.E.L.D., sets up Captain America to look like The Mole and turns S.H.I.E.L.D. against him, hijacks the plan to use Helicarriers to defend against enemies to world peace and instead has them target enemies of HYDRA, and as he watches it occur he sets up the World Security Council to die with the tap of a smartphone icon.
As for Fury, he Out-Gambits Pierce by faking his death because he knows S.H.I.E.L.D. is compromised and he can trust no one, goes underground with Maria Hill to find out what's going on, finds out what Pierce is planning, and sets up a plan to stop him, complete with Fury revealing himself to Pierce to help Natasha expose him to the world. Since he knew that Pierce would delete his security overrides after his "death", Fury secretly created a hidden override using the retinal scan of his blind eye.
"The Helicarrier's becoming the Enterprise," in a reference to how the thing keeps seeming to die whenever we see it.
It's become a meme to take an image of someone whispering in someone else's ear and caption it as "Hail HYDRA".
"On your left!"
Cap's elevator fight was invoked by a viral tweet describing Solange Knowles's elevator scuffle with Jay-Z.
Tumblr has made a very popular meme of inserting the Marvel and DC logos over Steve and Sam's heads during the running scene to show, in a nutshell, what everyone thinks of the MCU/DCCU rivalry.
Crossing over with Team America: World Police, the first chase scene between Steve and the Winter Soldier is replaced with "America! Fuck Yeah!" as Steve charges through a building—then it abruptly cuts to the "Bummer Remix" when Steve loses track of him.
"Sad Trash Hobo" for Bucky Barnes' status after The Stinger, as well as a general descriptor for when he dips into Puppy-Dog Eyes territory.
"Winter Sol-nyaa".note A pun on his Japanese spelling ウィンター・ソルジャー (Uintaa Sorujyaa) and ニャー (nyaa/"meow"). It's popular in East Asian fandoms to interpret the Winter Soldier as a particularly surly cat or Cat Boy due to a combination of traits such as the character's vaguely feline appearance and resemblance to Grumpy Cat, and a host of amusing cat stereotypes such as Alexander Pierce offering him milk and his Three-Point Landing on the highway resembling a cat clawing the ground.
Arnim Zola is revealed to have crossed the line years ago by torturing several members of Bucky's division, including Bucky himself. If that particular line crossing isn't bad enough, he helped rebuild HYDRA as S.H.I.E.L.D. and created an algorithm to target any and all potential enemies, which would have killed at least twenty million people, according to his calculations.
Alexander Pierce crosses it by casually murdering his cleaner when she stumbles across the Winter Soldier sitting in his house.
Steve at his old army base and seeing the ghost of his former skinny self who looks at him in amazement.
During the fight with Batroc, Cap dramatically removing his mask looks somewhat comedic thanks to the helmet hair.
After an entire movie of proving HYDRA has evolved from Those Wacky Nazis into a realistically terrifying sleeper cell inside S.H.I.E.L.D., The Stinger reveals Thomas Kretchsmann hamming it up as Baron von Strucker. His passing resemblance to Colonel Klink makes the dissonance greater.
The amount of times somebody gets mule kicked either into or off of something practically becomes a Running Gag.
During the climatic battle, Captain America tries to get the Winter Soldier to remember his life as Bucky. The Winter Soldier yells "Shut up!" as if he were a whiny teenager.
The Winter Soldier's Theme is a relatively intimidating piece of music… until a kazoo becomes the primary instrument.
Narm Charm: Senator Stern's cameo, where he hugs Jasper Sitwell and whispers "Hail HYDRA" to him. It's sorta silly in how obviously villainous it is, and causes Fridge Logic about if HYDRA's members do this all the time, but at the same time it's unexpected, creepy, and can also raise fear in realizing just how far HYDRA has spread. Even the parodies of it manage to be both funny and creepy.
Arnim Zola's computerized self appears for no more than ten minutes, yet in that time he manages to establish himself as highly creepy and a surprisingly capable Chessmaster who's managed to resurrect HYDRA from within S.H.I.E.L.D. itself.
Batroc, the pirate who managed to hold his own against Captain America early in the movie.
Senator Stern's cameo is very brief but manages to be one of the most memorable parts of the film due to the sheer Narm Charm and Memetic Mutation surrounding it.
HYDRA's been hiding in S.H.I.E.L.D. since its very creation, influencing world events under the justification of protecting people. They had a hand in the death of Howard Stark and his wife. The non-HYDRA members of S.H.I.E.L.D. had no idea at all. Not even Coulson realized his close friend was a mole.
It's implied that HYDRA had a hand in making an entire generation live in fear of nuclear attack, and the entire next generation live in fear of terrorism, just so humanity as a whole would be willing to give up their freedom for more safety and security. It's like "My whole life is a lie!" but for the entire planet.
Much of this movie's plot was taken from real-life government controversies such as drone strikes and NSA spying, and plays up people's real-life fears about them to their (il)logical conclusion, namely that the information being collected will ultimately be used to assassinate millions of people, the vast majority of whom have no links to terrorist organizations whatsoever.
After The Reveal, viewers of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. started to ask themselves if any of the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents they'd come to know and love over the course of the first season were actually HYDRA agents. The paranoia there turned out to be justified, as Grant Ward was revealed as The Mole in the following episode.
Who can say that there's not such an organization like HYDRA with similar goals and methods in Real Life?
Rewatch Bonus: The Reveal that HYDRA has been infiltrating S.H.I.E.L.D. since its inception causes loads of past scenes and events involving the organization to take on a new meaning throughout the whole of the MCU. For instance, knowing that Senator Stern is a HYDRA member causes his insistence on Tony Stark giving up the Iron Man armor back in Iron Man 2 to come off less as Jerkass Has a Point and more as him trying to give HYDRA some Iron Man suits to Curb Stomp their enemies with. In another example, the revelation that HYDRA engineered the death of Tony Stark's father makes you wonder if there's a remote chance Obadiah Stane in Iron Man was working for HYDRA.
Romantic Plot Tumor: Refreshingly subverted. One common point of praise from critics and fans was the film's lack of any romantic subplots, and for the portrayal of Steve and Natasha as a strong but ultimately platonic friendship despite the teasing and being set up in a easy position to fall into this trope (Fan-Preferred Couple notwithstanding). Especially since Thor: The Dark World was frequently criticized on this point.
Those who ship Steve with Tony or Bucky have a nasty tendency to accuse Sam of being a HYDRA mole, or depict him as one, despite the fact that Sam was a retired war vet who was never a part of S.H.I.E.L.D., and as such there's no logical way he could have been HYDRA.
Bucky Barnes gets some of this from some of the more rabid fans of rival Steve and Natasha ships, who seem to conveniently forget that his Face–Heel Turn was not exactly voluntary and that he was a relatively Nice Guy beforehand, so the idea that he would be a Bastard Boyfriend is extremely out of character.
Ever since the movie premiered, there have been… kerfluffles involving every ship associated with Steve Rogers.
Months before the film was even released, some rather rabid shippers were already voicing opposition that Winter Soldier would become a potential love interest for Natasha (Black Widow), thus sinking their hopes for a Clint (Hawkeye) and Natasha relationship. This assumption wasn't without some merit, due to him and Natasha having been an Official Couple in the comics, but it became moot after the film revealed MCU Widow and Winter Soldier only met twice in the course of their lives, both times in which he was trying to kill her.
There were even a few who hoped Steve and Natasha might hook up, even though a running gag throughout the film is Nat encouraging Steve to get a girlfriend. Granted there are a few scenes where Natasha seems to be flirting with Steve, trying to get a feel for who he is and if he's her "type". They end up just being friends, which is a bit of a shame given that there is genuine chemistry between Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson.
Due to the massive amounts of Ho Yay between Steve and Bucky, the pairing has somewhat begun to unseat the popularity of the widespread post-Avengers Steve/Tony ship, to some Tumblr discontent.
Another one is brewing between the Steve/Tony shippers and the Sam/Steve shippers: the former were not happy that Steve went to Sam for help despite knowing him for such a short time instead of Tony, and the implication that Sam could have been HYDRA rankled the latter immensely. Of course, given he had a limited time window and Sam was already in Washington, D.C., there's the matter of practicality that helps with this case.
Likewise, Falcon's poster gives him a massive chest with disproportionately tiny legs. Comparisons are drawn to the work of Rob Liefeld.
In the scene where Cap meets with Peggy, the effects used to age Hayley Atwell make her mouth slide around and change size unnaturally. They also do nothing to change her voice, meaning that her entire conversation with Steve is jarring as a young woman's voice comes out of an "old" woman's mouth.
The scene where Cap is getting onto the elevator (an outside shot, as we see him from a distance through a window) before he's mobbed by bad guys is obviously greenscreened, as is the scene where he lands on the rooftop after chasing the Winter Soldier.
Just before the fighting begins in the elevator scene, Cap confirms the group to be hostile by noticing a CGI bead of sweat coming from one of them that looks unnatural by the time the camera cuts away.
Some fans believe that while still a central part of the plot, the titular Winter Soldier is very much Out of Focus for most of the story. In the source material, the Winter Soldier's identity and background are subject to more scrutiny and tied more heavily into the plot. Almost all of it, including his ties to Black Widow, make no appearance in the film (though due to the MCU's time compression—Widow is much older in the comics—there might not even be a connection at all). The acting and design are dead on, but not much is done with the character in order to focus on Alexander Pierce. Still, the film does a good job of setting up possible appearances for future installments, along with the possibility of exploring his past and character in more detail in the sequel. This would mirror the comic story, where Bucky only has his memories restored via Cosmic Cube in the twelfth, final issue of the opening Winter Soldier epic, much like Bucky only realises who he is in the primary stinger of the film. Brubaker then spent the better part of his run with Bucky tentatively on the sidelines before the death of a certain character.
Sharon, a huge figure in the source mythos, also receives far too little focus. Though, like the Winter Soldier, it's likely she will feature in future films.
At least a few fans were hoping for a dramatic scene where Alexander Pierce's Evil Plan is foiled and he starts cursing in a German accent as he rips off his mask to reveal he has been the Red Skull all this time. Not to mention that he is one of the rare genuinely bad and competent villains that avoid the "generic evil guys" syndrome in the Marvel movies and has very interesting interactions with Cap, Widow, the Winter Soldier, Fury and even Rumlow, only to be killed by Fury in the final act.
What an Idiot: Steve hides the flash drive containing S.H.I.E.L.D. secrets of the highest priority in a vending machine, and apparently just counts on two people not wanting to buy gum. Or even just not noticing a silver flash drive among the pink gum packets. Black Widow didn't even have to put in much effort to discover it.
Although the directors admit to drawing some inspiration from real life political controversies from The New '10s such as drone strikes and Barack Obama enacting preemptive strikes against potential threats to the US, they maintain that the link between S.H.I.E.L.D.'s secrets being leaked on the internet and Edward Snowden's NSA leaks is an accidental one, as the film's story had already been solidified before that came onto the scene. Ed Brubaker has said the screenplay was inspired by WikiLeaks, and the film winks at this, by showing Julian Assange as either a member or (more likely) a pawn of HYDRA.
S.H.I.E.L.D. (and by extension HYDRA) keeping track of everybody in the world by keeping their electronic records under surveillance on everything from bank accounts to social media to voting records and more, which mirrors the revelations of the lengths the NSA has gone to electronically spy on American citizens.
Some reviewers have taken Steve's "On your left" comment as being a specific indication of left-wing liberalism. Other right-wing reviewers have retorted that it's about a big-government initiative to take away people's rights in exchange for security, which both the right and the left would might find politically distasteful, albeit for different reasons.
Several libertarian parties have taken the events of the plot (particularly, the defiance and rebellion against a powerful government body) as proof that it (and Cap himself) are iconic libertarian masterpieces.
Win Back the Crowd: While both Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World were box office hits, with the former grossing a billion dollars worldwide, they received mixed reviews from both critics and fans alike, leaving some people to wonder if the MCU had lost a step or two. Then Winter Soldier came along and renewed their faith.
The Woobie: Steve Rogers and the Winter Soldier. Two Fish Out of Temporal Water in a world where people everywhere are beginning to reject freedom and hand over control out of fear, both desperately alone, surrounded by people who simply cannot relate to their experiences. And the Winter Soldier never asked to be used as a guinea pig, have his personality repeatedly erased with Nazi science, or be used as a hitman for the terrorist organization responsible as part of their plot to take over the world. To say nothing of being forced to try to kill his best friend in the process.