While ‘What If…? has this season done a much better job at avoiding retreads of specific movies and shows in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Unfortunately, the fifth episode, following Captain Carter as she realizes Steve Rodgers is alive as the villainous HYDRA Stomper errs too close to the tale of ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ and fails to show off the core strength of the series. And because it’s only half an hour long, it misses some of what made ‘The Winter Soldier’ so good.
The opening montage shows Carter and Black Widow becoming best friends, fighting their way through the Chitauri hoard at the Battle of New York. Their relationship throughout the episode is very friendly, showcasing perhaps the biggest difference between the tenseness in Captain America’s relationship with Black Widow. It’s the best thing about this episode, which otherwise feels rather generic.
Widow and Carter find the HYDRA Stomper, but surprise, surprise, it’s evil. They find out from Fury that it’s been controlled by the Red Room for decades, conducting terrorist operations, in a plotline that heavily feels like Marvel Studios are redoing ‘The Winter Soldier’ but with a few name changes. Carter is angry that Fury didn’t tell her, and a surprise twist shows that Widow knew too, but this doesn’t impact their relationship.
The Stomper attacks the S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, where an older Bucky is holding a meeting. Carter naturally tries to get through to Steve but has to knock him unconscious and fly him to a safe location with Widow before she can try in earnest. She seems to make a breakthrough, and the three of them plan to take down the Red Room.
Steve volunteers to lead them there, and they find an abandoned village, in a parallel somewhat reminiscent of when Steve and Widow visit the lonely Camp Lehigh in ‘The Winter Soldier’. And, just like in the film, it’s a trap for the heroes, where the villains now have the upper hand. For ‘What If…?’ it shows the Red Room descending on Widow and reactivating the HYDRA Stomper’s programming, commencing a very long and brutal fight.
Carter declares that she won’t fight Steve, similar to the climax of ‘The Winter Soldier’. She manages to get through to Steve, who destroys the Red Room in a flashy sacrifice. During the final scene, Carter is stubborn that Steve is still alive, and she needs to find him, again sharing the final scene with ‘The Winter Soldier’. Though, in a tease no doubt for future ‘What If…?’ episodes, Captain Carter is sucked into another universe by the Scarlett Witch and an alternate Nick Fury, which is intriguing.
The episode completely misses the political thriller themes, or exploration of the freedom versus fear debate ‘The Winter Soldier’ interrogated. Of course, this isn’t a surprise for a half-hour cartoon, but the comparison to the film is a hard one not to make when the episode does it for the audience already.
Perhaps Marvel Studios should have taken The Watcher’s advice when he says that he doesn’t usually do sequels when looking across the multiverse. Like he says, what’s the point if there are infinite stories to be told, or, in the case of the episode, if there’s no original take on the Captain America story. While it’s clear Marvel does like the Captain Carter character, it needs its own spin-off to free it from the shackles of “Captain America, but female,” so it can thrive.