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Isaiah Bradley’s story is one of the saddest Marvel has ever told

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier brings up a chapter in Captain America and American history

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Isaiah Bradley on Falcon and Winter Soldier Image: Marvel Studios
Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

As The Falcon and the Winter Soldier finished off its second episode, it might be easier to list the characters on the show who have never assumed the mantle of Captain America than to list the ones who have.

Sam Wilson has been Captain America, and Bucky Barnes, and John Walker, the U.S. Agent. But with Episode 2 of the series, “The Star-Spangled Man,” Bucky and Sam uncovered one of the most devastating chapters a Marvel creator has ever introduced to Captain America’s history: the first Black Captain America, Isaiah Bradley.

Who is Isaiah Bradley?

The story of Isaiah Bradley is really the story of Truth: Red, White & Black, a seven-issue miniseries written by the late Robert Morales, and drawn by cartoonist Kyle Baker, published in 2003.

As a concept, the book was rather simple: A story about the U.S. government’s attempts to compete with Nazi Germany’s super-soldier program by reengineering the lost super-soldier formula that turned Steve Rogers into Captain America, through the murder of and forced experimentation on 300 Black army soldiers. Then editor in chief of Marvel Comics Alex Alonso asked Morales to pitch on the idea of a Black Captain America who was created by the same real, historical, and racist philosophies behind criminal medical studies like the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and other campaigns of experimentation and forced sterilization.

After coming up with a supporting cast and an ending, Morales has said “I wrote a proposal that was so staggeringly depressing I was certain they’d turn it down. But they didn’t.”

Steve Rogers/Captain America looks at a wall of photos of mostly Black celebrities and historical figures posing happily and worshipfully with Isaiah Bradley, in Truth: Red, White & Black, Marvel Comics (2003).
Steve Rogers looks at the wall Isaiah’s wife keeps of photos of him with admirers, in Truth: Red, White & Black.
Image: Robert Morales, Kyle Baker/Marvel Comics

In the pages of their series, Morales and Baker introduced an ensemble cast to represent numerous different facets of early-20th century Black life in America, but the only one of them to survive the ravages of war crimes, forced experimentation, and the whims of racist officers was Isaiah Bradley, a new father of a baby girl he’d never met. In the action climax of the series, Bradley was ordered on a one-man suicide mission to destroy the Nazi’s super-soldier experimentation site.

A fan of comic books — including the U.S. army’s motivational comics about the new super-soldier known as Captain America — Bradley connected the dots between what had happened to him and the story of Steve Rogers. Just before the mission, he stole a Captain America uniform to wear, and succeeded in destroying the Nazi base, in a harrowing sequence in which he stumbles through rooms stacked high with piles of corpses, finds vivisected children still on examination tables, and is gassed along with Jewish prisoners.

Describing the concept of Truth belies in many ways the emotional power that Morales and Baker packed into its seven issues, through meticulous research and expert characterization. Baker’s loose cartooning style, honed on comedic comics, allows the emotions of the series to read bigger and broader than they would in a Marvel house style, and each issue is a punch in the gut.

Thanks to the serum, Isaiah does not die on his suicide mission. He gets captured by Nazi elite, who plan to dissect him and mail his body parts back to the Allied forces, but is rescued and kept in hiding by German resistance fighters with Black members in their ranks. When he was smuggled back to America, however, he was court-martialed and given life in prison for stealing Captain America’s costume.

Black superheroes (including Monica Rambeau and Sam Wilson/the Falcon) greet a wheelchair-using Isaiah Bradley as Luke Cage and Wolverine look on. “IS that who I think it is?” Luke says. “He’s, uh... well, he’s kinda the first me. Long story.” in Black Panther #18, Marvel Comics (2006).
Luke Cage (speaking) is another Black Marvel superhero who got his powers from forced experimentation, seen here at the wedding of Storm and Black Panther.
Image: Reginald Hudlin, Soct Eaton/Marvel Comics

He was eventually quietly pardoned, thanks to the advocacy of his wife, but only after serving 17 years in solitary confinement with little to no medical treatment for the physical toll that the bootleg super-soldier serum took on him. Between the serum and the confinement, he developed severe dementia, and no attempt at reparations for the damage done to his life or other Black lives in the pursuit of the Army’s secret post-Captain America super-soldier program was ever made. In the Marvel Universe he remains a legend among the Black community only, and especially among Black superheroes.

Isaiah in Falcon and the Winter Soldier

From his brief appearance in Falcon and Winter Soldier’s second episode, it seems that the Marvel Cinematic Universe version of Isaiah, played by Carl Lumbly, is not that different from the one in the comics.

He was still part of an American attempt to recreate the serum that gave Steve Rogers his powers, but the series puts his service in the 1950s, during the Korean War. He battled Hydra, was sent on an unenviable mission to deal with an unstoppable assassin who had killed every other operative sent after him, and when the war was over he was jailed for 30 years and experimented on, including by Hydra agents.

Isaiah also seems to have kept his mental faculties, but at the loss of his notoriety among the Black superhero community. In Falcon and Winter Soldier, it’s Bucky who knows about Isaiah, not Sam. The Falcon later exclaims “There was a black super-soldier decades ago, and nobody knew about it?”

Sam Wilson/Falcon and Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier in the house of Isaiah Bradley in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier episode 2. Image: Marvel Studios

Isaiah’s introduction leaves another Marvel Comics superhero waiting in the wings: The character who answers the door at his house is unnamed in the episode, but the show credits confirm that actor Elijah Richardson is playing the role of Eli Bradley.

Isaiah’s grandson, Eli, is also known as Patriot, and has been an off and on again member of the Young Avengers since 2005. The origin of his superpowers are messy, but eventually ironed out to “a blood transfusion from his grandfather,” which endowed him with the same abilities as Steve Rogers.

Given the weight of Isaiah’s story, as penned by Morales and Baker, it seems likely that he will appear again in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, but we’ll have to wait for more episodes to find out how.