I wasn't expecting much from Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I gave Cap's "wholesome and workmanlike" origin story a B grade in 2011, but the runaway success of the epic-scale Avengers movie in 2012 sets audience's expectations higher for the films that follow it, while also making a bigger budget Captain America movie a safer bet.
So instead of another modestly budgeted film with a limited horizon, Steve Rogers' second leading adventure looks and feels like a huge budget summer movie, and the plot is an essential-viewing game-changer for the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The plot bones are similar to the first Mission Impossible movie (and the Ghost Protocol movie too) - SHIELD operatives Steve Rogers and Natasha Romanoff are branded traitors, then become hunted by their own people. Also like MI, there's a MacGuffin data thumbdrive (with an adorable SHIELD logo on it).
This movie convincingly answers the question "how do you make a boring do-gooder like Captain America interesting in 2014?" (Maybe the Man Of Steel writers could learn from this movie.) Good and evil aren't as black-and-white as they were in Nazi Germany, or when you're fighting evil aliens in midtown Manhattan either. There's tons of "gray area" in the modern world, and watching Rogers grapple with it is incredibly relevant.
Thoroughly entertaining, relevant, action-packed, and bold in its scope, Winter Soldier is very different, but at least as good as its predecessor. If you enjoy the Marvel family of superhero movies, you don't have to see all of them (I barely saw the first Thor movie and skipped the second one) but this one is more essential than you might think, and certainly better than Iron Man 3. My Grade: B-plus
Alamo Drafthouse Village, Austin TX, while on Daddy Spring Getaway