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.
Award Snub: The film was nominated for a whopping fourteen Saturn Awards, but did not win a single one of them. This is somewhat alleviated with the MCU's other film of 2014 winning some of those awards.
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.
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.
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. Picks up again (and becomes less crack-y) with the events of Captain America: Civil War....and Avengers: Endgame, where they share more dialogue and screen time.
Bucky Barnes/Darcy Lewis has hundreds of fics 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, although Avengers: Endgame portrays him as having been a HYDRA mole since at least around the time of The Avengers (2012).
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.
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.
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.
Growing the Beard: For the entire MCU. The movies that came before, Iron Man and The Avengers in particular were considered solidly entertaining, lighthearted action spectacle films, but generally seen as lacking in emotional impact and not having stakes. The Winter Soldier turned things on the head and made long-term changes to the series (such as destroying SHIELD and changing the status-quo), introduced a much darker and serious plot while still keeping the light-hearted elements and set a trend for more inner-drama and tension in the movies that followed.
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).
A common fan reaction to computerized Arnim Zola's death, on the grounds that Brain Uploading equals Death Is Cheap, which is his standard tactic in the comics.
Some fans are hoping this is the case with Agent Sitwell, in part due to some ambiguous tweets from his actor, with messages like Fury Always Has a Plan. It helps that in the comics, Sitwell is currently a zombie.
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.
As Honest Trailers pointed out, Steve's list of things he should catch up on included Star Wars, imagine his surprise when he see's Nick Fury was a Jedi Master.
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.
Arnim Zola strongly hints that HYDRA was behind the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The same year, X-Men: Days of Future Past had Magneto charged as the alleged killer, who then claims how Kennedy was a fellow mutant and that he was trying to save him. Aside from Marvel being associated with both films, anyone who knows Magneto's backstory will find this ironic and/or appropriate.
Sebastian Stan once played an ultrapatriotic character in a movie set during winter where he accused the protagonists of being Russian spies and helped preserve a man's severed arm in ice. Here, the Winter Soldier is an apparently Russian operative (actually controlled by HYDRA) who lost an arm and was cryogenically preserved.
Nick Fury's "The last time I trusted someone, I lost an eye." line becomes rather amusing in light of Captain Marvel (2019), where this is revealed to be Metaphorically Trueat best. He trusted Carol Danvers, and her alien cat ended up cutting him and causing an infection that made him lose sight in an eye. Although, granted, explaining that indignity wouldn't make as compelling an explanation.
Alternatively, one could interpret the Winter Soldier line as indicating that Fury trusted Goose herself, specifically when using her to devour his attackers. His overzealous affection for Goose when that trust is rewarded, however, directly leads to the fateful scratching.
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.
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: Alexander Pierce is the US Secretary of Defense, a member of the World Security Council, and a commanding member of HYDRA, who have evolved from a Nazi science Cult to a fascist conspiracy group dedicated to bringing about One World Order under their banner. Pierce had the Winter Soldier assassinate his old friend Nick Fury so Pierce can take control of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Project Insight, intending to use the project to massacre hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people, who could stand in HYDRA's way. Along the way he frames Captain America as a rogue agent who has to go on the run, kills his fellow members of the World Security Council, and shoots his housekeeper just for walking in on a meeting he has with the Winter Soldier. And he does all of this with calm, affable composure towards his enemies, attempting to make them understand that Utopia Justifies the Means.
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.
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.
During this same scene, the use of the word "miracles" to describe Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. It's almost as if the character himself wanted to say mutants but then remembered that he needed to Write Around Trademarks and did a Last-Second Word Swap instead.
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.
Black Widow's pose on the promotional poster (seen on the main page) looks out-of-place compared to the others'. It looks like she's supposed to be stalking forward like the others, but is instead doing an arms-raised Sexy Walk.
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.
A lot of the elements of the Winter Soldier's character and treatment are horrifyingly graphic. The flashbacks of his transformation into the Winter Soldier include a scene of his bloody arm stump being amputated from his point of view. Likely done without anesthesia. And then there's the scene of him having his memories of Captain America wiped via electroshock therapy, which shows him screaming in agony as the machine closes over his face, with the strong implication that this happens frequently for him.
Music-wise, the Winter Soldier's Theme, especially its first half, is just plain unsettling, starting with something that sounds like a distorted woman screaming in an empty hall, going through grinding mechanical noises and then something like engines powering up and a variety of industrial sounds that, with ambient background, are just plain creepy. Not a thing to listen to if you're alone in the dark.
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?
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 FaceHeel 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.
Signature Scene: The elevator fight. No better way to show how capable Captain America is when nine highly-trained elite soldiers feel the only way to subdue him is to corner him in an elevator and he still takes them all to school.
Captain America and Black Widow meeting the computarized version of Arnim Zola
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.
This film was released following the controversial Superman reboot, Man of Steel. Some fans feel that Chris Evans' Captain America was a more appropriate modern take on the Big Blue Boyscout. By extension this makes it the closest thing to an adaptation of Amalgam's Super-Soldier.
Squick: When Nick Fury goes to the retina scan with the eye under the patch.
They Wasted a Perfectly Good Plot: Some have argued that The Reveal of HYDRA having infiltrated SHIELD undermines the ethical question the film poses of "is reduced liberty in the name of greater security worth it", and that the question would have resonated more if SHIELD itself were the antagonists. Indeed, this was actually the main criticism of the film by professional critics who gave it a negativereview.
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.
Most obviously, the Winter Soldier's metal arm is a downright beautiful piece of work.
The fight scenes in general, starting with Steve sprinting around the hijacked ship and demolishing anyone in his way. It's a great reminder that he's faster and stronger than any normal human (without going totally over the top).
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.
This kind of view resonates especially well with viewers from ex-communist countries, where it's been commented that the excessive sharing of personal data on social media is the kind of thing the KGB and its State Sec clones would have dreamed of, and that ironically making that a voluntary choice for convenience's sake in a consumer society works better than outright spying tactics which would just rouse paranoia, whereas similar paranoia about social media spying is more easily dismissed.
Another comparison popular in those countries is to how Former Regime Personnel of the old government's political body and State Sec infiltrated the new political structure directly after the regime's fall and the creation of the new, allegedly more democratic systems.
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 fans, 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.