Friday night’s episode of Falcon and the Winter Soldier, the second of the season introduced an exciting and potentially game changing aspect as well as a clue to the future of the MCU.
The latest episode uncovers a piece of history that redefines Steve Rogers’ legacy.
Falcon tracks down a man named Isaiah Bradley. Bradley was the central character in Marvel Comics’ Truth: Red, White & Black published in 2003.
THR said: How does the burden of truth differ between a white man and a Black man? That’s the question at the core of the second episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, “The Star-Spangled Man.” Amidst Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky Barnes’ (Sebastian Stan) efforts to take down the Flag-Smashers, they discover the border-breaking organization comprises supersoldiers. This leads Bucky to reveal a secret to Sam, one he kept even from Steve Rogers: America had another supersoldier that it used, and later abused, during the Korean War: Isaiah Bradley. This all creates tension with America’s newest heroes, John Walker, the new Captain America (Wyatt Russell) and his partner, Lemar Hoskins aka Battlestar (Clé Bennett).
GamesRadar noted: Isaiah and Eli Bradley have been introduced in episode 2 of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier now streaming on Disney Plus, and the grandfather-grandson tandem helps emphasize the sociopolitical themes at play in the series. Isiah’s comic book history and career are among one of the most tragic, triumphant, and unsung parts of Marvel lore, and he and Eli’s appearances help shed new light on the legacy of Captain America in the MCU.
Who are they? Well, Isaiah Bradley was for all intents and purposes the first Captain America, before Steve Rogers got the superserum, over 300 Black American men did.
Isaiah Bradley (played by Carl Lumbly, known for voicing J’onn J’onzz in Justice League Unlimited) is one of the lesser-known heroes to bear the identity of Captain America. For most people both in the Marvel Universe and the real world, his name is likely a totally unknown commodity in the world of superheroics. And at least in the Marvel Universe, that’s almost by design, as Bradley’s tragic story hides a key part of the political realities behind the Super Soldier program.
Writer Robert Morales with artist Kyle Baker, produced Truth: Red, White & Black, one of Marvel Comics’s most compelling ventures into the subject of race in America. Truth reveals a backstory for the Captain America mythos in which the Super Soldier Serum was tested on Black soldiers in secret, resulting in the death and mutilation of all but a few.
From Lady Geek Girl: Truth takes every opportunity to challenge the reader’s knowledge of the history of race in this country. The work draws upon the politics of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, a forty year clinical study conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service, in which 399 Black sharecroppers were used to study the progression of untreated syphilis while being told that they were receiving free medical care. The men were prevented from seeking treatment for syphilis, were forced to submit to spinal taps, and were manipulated into submitting their bodies for autopsy after death. The study continued for twenty-five years after penicillin was established as the standard treatment for syphilis, and none of the patients were ever treated. Only seventy-four subjects survived the experiment.
In the comic, three hundred Black soldiers are the subject of experiments with the Serum. Most of them die in the experimentation or soon after, and the ones who remain are hulking, muscular figures whose individual faces are their only remaining distinguishing feature. These survivors are sent on secret missions in Europe to disrupt Germany’s program to develop their own super soldiers. They cut a bloody, costly path across the continent, while monsoons keep Steve Rogers (who was to lead their unit) trapped in the Pacific Theater. They die as victims of battles, mishaps, and their own infighting until there is only one left: the Black Captain America, Isaiah Bradley.
And he is a hero. Isaiah Bradley is sent on a suicide mission, wherein he cracks skulls and set explosives in a Nazi laboratory with such brutal efficiency that the Nazis believe that they are being aerially bombarded. His capture comes after an attempt to rescue camp internees goes wrong and he is trapped inside a gas chamber. He is brought before Hitler and Goebbels and faces a plan to castrate him and send him back to the Allies in pieces. He performs these deeds of derring-do, and rebuffs the Führer himself, all in the name of family and country—a country that betrayed and exploited him.
This is the story behind Truth: African-American soldiers have fought and distinguished themselves in every war our nation has fought, through exploitation and betrayal. Broken trust is the backdrop of all seven issues. The comic opens with the civilian lives of the men who will become test subjects, and shows the racism they encounter, just trying to live their lives and be Americans. Then, as soldiers in their barracks, these young soldiers learn about the Red Summer, about violence against Black soldiers who came home from fighting in 1919, and the very real danger of being lynched in uniform after serving their country. There is the sense, true or not, that these men can do nothing that will allow them to be full members of American society.
If you’re saying to yourself, “That’s really heavy, and it sounds like a lot to try to fit into seven comic books,” you’re right. Truth is dense and meant to be educational. To that point, the trade paperback features a section at the end to discuss its relationship to historical fact, designed to send the reader running to more in-depth sources. It’s fantastic that so much work goes into challenging the reader and demanding a more elevated level of thought than one might expect from a comic book. The writing strains a little under the weight of all this information, but not enough to keep me from being engaged.
I’m a big fan of the storytelling in Truth. It is ambitious, aiming to educate, challenge, and entertain. It accomplishes all of these goals to varying degrees, but perhaps it sacrifices a little of the third for the sake of the first two, although I think that’s all right. The pacing is well-organized, cool at first and steadily gaining intensity as it approaches the climax, while competently balancing exposition and action.
What’s most exciting to me about this was Marvel’s decision to make it part of the official canon for the MCU. It’s an official recognition of how important and how cool the ideas in Truth are. When it was first published, back in 2003, there was a lot of concern, most of it in reaction to the cover image, that this story would besmirch Captain America, or somehow make Steve Rogers look bad. Rather, it’s done just the opposite. It’s made the history of Captain American more complete and more true to the complexities of the era in which he lived and it’s given the Marvel Universe a few more superheroes in the process (Josiah X and Patriot/Elijah Bradley, of the Young Avengers).
Isaiah’s grandson, Eli Bradley (created by Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung in 2006’s Young Avengers #1), is a hero in his own right, the Young Avenger known as Patriot. As one of the founding members of the Young Avengers (a team of teen heroes with codenames and concepts inspired by classic Avengers who formed when the Avengers were temporarily disbanded following Avengers: Disassembled), Patriot carries on the legacy not just of Steve Rogers, but of his unsung grandfather.
Originally, Patriot primarily used star-shaped shuriken, along with his natural fighting skills, all boosted by dosing Mutant Growth Hormone (an X-gene derived compound that gives baseline humans low-level superpowers).
But after he was nearly killed in a battle with the Kree and Skrulls, he received a blood transfusion from his grandfather. Isaiah’s Super Soldier Serum enhanced blood mingled with the latent genetic alterations caused by Isaiah passing his altered DNA down to his descendants, giving Eli actual Super Soldier abilities of his own, along with Steve granting him his original triangular-shaped heater shield.