Alright, just got back from seeing this, everything is still pretty fresh in my memory, and all of this is once again all off the top of my head first-impression stuff, so my opinion of this is subject to change as I continue to mull this over. Oh, and yes, there are spoilers in here.
So, I'd like to start off, before I even get into the movie, with my overall opinion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, because Winter Soldier relies heavily upon an understanding of the inner workings of that universe and of the forces operating in the world that Marvel has built for these people. I will say that as an ambitious project, this one is certainly a gamble. Having all of these different people running around doing their own thing in their own movies pre- and post-Avengers is super tricky in that things need to be believably small scale so that we don't raise the question of why they don't just call in all the other heroes to deal with whatever the threat is, and not too small so as to seem insignificant. So, yeah, the Cinematic Universe is ambitious, and it does deserve credit for that.
However in terms of substantive storytelling, there is definitely room to debate whether or not Marvel can fill out that criterion as, even with the first Iron Man film, the plots of these movies remain less than intriguing. Iron Man 3 was superb, Iron Man was an interesting character study, and the Avengers was just a hell of a lot of fun. Captain America: The First Avenger I found to be a bore. So when I found out that Cap was getting a sequel, I was actually excited. When I went to see Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, I was very optimistic for Soldier because Iron Man 3 was amazing, and Dark World was good. Now that this damn Cinematic Universe is set up, the writers of these movies seem to be allowed more freedom of movement to tell engaging stories instead of adhering to all the obnoxious studio notes of fan service from Marvel as was the case withe Phase One portion of the MCU (all of the films leading up the The Avengers, that is). And lo and behold, I am happy to say that Soldier is actually really good. Not Iron Man 3 good, but definitely better than its direct predecessor and a great follow-up to The Avengers.
Obviously the thing to talk about right off the bat is the film's handling of its star, Steve Rogers. I'm not the biggest Chris Evens fan in the world, but I will say that he's really settled into the role of Captain America since his first appearance. I did like him in The Avengers, and here, Evens really feels like he's putting his all into the role. I liked his chemistry with Nick Fury a lot, and that whole layer of the film with S.H.I.E.L.D was very good, adding a layer of depth and care that I was not expecting (though I was hoping for). I liked how he had to deal with being reincorporated into the world, feeling very out of place and lonely because of this. Unlike in The Avengers, this aspect of the character is not played for laughs here; there is real emotion behind what Rogers is feeling, and that was nice to see. His relationship with Bucky did feel a little truncated, especially because it was barely there in the first film (I had actually forgotten that Bucky was even in the first movie), however they did enough explaining here to make the connection apparent if a little rushed. That arm of Bucky's is super cool though! And Cap;s shield is really something!
Aside from the action, there is this great layer of moral and ethical debate about surveillance and the ethics of how far we are willing to go in order to ensure national and world safety. It mirrors Watchmen in a way, though this doesn't do it quite as well. I do like that Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D are made out to be the bad guys in the beginning, and while H.Y.D.R.A is technically responsible in the end, the film plays the more interesting and grey card of not omitting S.H.I.E.L.D as being at least partially at fault for all of this. Really interesting, and a nice intelligent step forward for these Marvel films which on the whole tend to place action over intelligent storytelling. Soldier does deliver the goods and gives us a solid moral debate as well as a host of really kick-ass action sequences, and this amounts to a very satisfying entry into the MCU.
I also really enjoyed the introduction of Sam Wilson/Falcon as an actual character rather than a nobody relying solely on name-recognition. He and Steve Rogers have great chemistry in the beginning of the film, and his character overall was pretty good. Character introduction has been one of Marvel's strengths with these movies (most of the time), and Wilson's integration into the MCU felt natural and fluid.
Black Widow is back in this film, and I'm sorry to say that I am still not a big fan of her. I really didn't like her in The Avengers, and I don't find her very characterful here. Johansson still feels very much like she's in this just for a check and that we are supposed to care about her simply because of her looks alone. Call me crazy, but I tend to put stock in characters who actually have personalities and arcs rather than those who's bodies are their sole feature. Widow's character is slightly better here, but not by much. She demonstrates noticeable emotion at the supposed death of Nick Fury, and her banter with Rogers is pretty good for most of this. It just comes a little too late for this character as a whole looking back at her previous two films. Hopefully we'll get that Widow movie we've been hearing about so that we can really flesh out this character.
Overall, the movie is a fun mostly character-driven action ride, and the climax was really neat. I loved the new Hellicariers, and they managed to get facsimiles into the MCU with this film too! The action is certainly impressive (lots of nice choreographed hand-to-hand fighting and firefights), and the emotional and ethical ties back to current events are a nice surprise to average movie goers looking for something beyond fan service. A really good entry into the MCU.