Even after the events of The Avengers, Steve Rogers (aka good old Captain America) is still struggling to fit in to the fast paced life of modern America. Still under the employment of S.H.I.E.L.D, Rogers spends most of the film questioning the morality of his agency's actions. After corruption is exposed within S.H.I.E.L.D and the story begins to follow the traditional fallen hero arc, Rogers teams up with Black Widow, Nick Fury, and newcomer The Falcon to defeat the elusive, mysterious Winter Soldier, restore justice, and ensure freedom in the truly American way.
To really understand The Winter Soldier, it is highly recommended (although it should required) that you watch Captain America and The Avengers. Much of the story and drama will be lost upon you otherwise, although they refresh your memory of the previous events by having Rogers visit his Smithsonian exhibit.
The Winter Soldier is unique in the fact that it places a layer of humanity upon its larger than life characters; Captain America becomes more Steve Rogers the same way Black Widow becomes more Natasha Romanoff. Nick Fury becomes a man searching for a way to restore the morality of S.H.I.E.L.D, rather than the guy with the eyepatch. Even Agent Hill is given more depth in this film than in The Avengers; she becomes more of an agent versus a lady on a Bluetooth.
Spoilers abound next, so beware! Skip to the last paragraph if you would rather not know the entire story.
The whole story arc of Hydra still existing and growing within S.H.I.E.L.D. seems quite confusing. How could an entire team of super skilled agents not realize that the Nazi group that their founders worked to defeat grew for seventy years under their nose? And why would they even consider recruiting Dr. Zola, who was the right hand man to the Red Skull, to work for them? And then turn him into a super computer? With all of its sensitive material and immense power, you would have assumed that they would try to not hire Nazis.
This arc also gives us the impression that the Captain was frozen in vain; he crashed himself into the ice to end Hydra and save the world, missing his life and those of his friends. Yet, with Hydra, "you cut off one head and two more take its place."
The revelation that the two people Rogers loved the most in the 1940s were still alive had the same effect upon its preceding film that The Avengers had upon the ending of Thor: it took away from the sadness and made the previous ending and all of its emotional turmoil nonexistent. Although Peggy is old, gnarled, and bedridden with what seems like Alzheimer's, the very fact that she is still alive and that Rogers can still see her takes away from the lost hopelessness that we experienced at the end of Captain America. But the sequence between the two still left us with a feeling of anguish, as the juxtaposition between young and old still showed that they could never truly be together.
Having Bucky Barnes as The Winter Soldier had that same effect. We suffered with the Captain as he lost everyone he loved and struggled to find his way in the era of lost morality. And then his best friend is still alive... Although he is an assassin with a bionic arm and no recollection of his past life. Bucky serves as a kind of anti-Captain, as ruthless and violent as the Captain is pure.
But this doesn't stop the film from being just plain awesome. The cinematography was gorgeous and varied, and the special effects and fight scenes were seamlessly executed and edited. I was on the edge of my seat the entire time, watching wide eyed as the character came close to death, stared death in the face, or, in the case of Nick Fury, came back from the dead. The perfect balance of comedy and dramatic action came together, as the usual style of Marvel movies. And as weird and confusing and angering as the storyline is, these emotions help fuel the passion and intensity and excitement of the film.
In short, The Winter Soldier is in a class of its own, a gorgeous addition to the Marvel Universe that creates an interesting perspective of our favorite heroes and new facets to their story lines. Remember to be on the lookout for Stan Lee and to stay until after the credits, and I mean AFTER the credits- it is a Marvel movie, after all.