'Falcon and the Winter Soldier' Uncovers Marvel's Original Sin

'The Falcon and the Winter Soldier'
Courtesy of Disney+

The latest episode uncovers a piece of history that redefines Steve Rogers' legacy.

[This story contains spoilers for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, episode two.]

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).

In 2003, Marvel Comics published Truth: Red, White & Black, a miniseries written by the late Robert Morales and illustrated by Kyle Baker. Within that work, it was revealed that Steve Rogers was not the first, or only, soldier to undergo Project Rebirth during World War II. The U.S. government experimented on 300 Black soldiers in an attempt to re-create the supersoldier serum in 1942. What eventually became the supersoldier serum was originally intended to cull “less desirable” bloodlines, sterilizing ethnic groups and people with disabilities. The research later became the basis for the Nazis’ eugenics experiments.

Morales posited that the U.S. government and the Nazis had more in common than most would care to believe, and that both systems are a business founded on class control for the benefit of the white and wealthy., Following the death of his squad mates who'd also survived the experiments and body horror that came with them, Isaiah Bradley became the government’s weapon, facing all the obstacles but receiving none of the glory that Steve Rogers received. And when the government was done with Bradley, they imprisoned him for 17 years for stealing Captain America’s uniform. They sterilized him and harvested his sperm and blood for further experiments, while denying him the treatment required for the side effects of the serum, leaving him with the mental capabilities of a child when he was eventually pardoned in the '70s.

Naturally, Truth proved to be controversial among those who felt the book ruined Steve Rogers’ legacy, as well as racists incensed by the powerful image of a Black man clad in the Captain America uniform. There was also the fact that Truth is powerfully tragic, Baker’s cartoonish art style catching readers unprepared for the brutal nature of the story. Using the Tuskegee Study as inspiration, Morales pulled no punches in the writing of Truth. To take the U.S. government to task the way he did in a mainstream comic, especially so soon after 9/11, is nothing short of a marvel.

Morales’ career at Marvel, and work on the ongoing Captain America comic, was cut short by the controversy that followed him. Still, Truth was impossible to ignore, at least for a time. Christopher Priest and Joe Bennett introduced the son of Isaiah Bradley, Josiah X, in summer 2003, immediately after Truth reached its conclusion. In 2005, Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung introduced Elijah Bradley, the grandson of Isaiah who took up the role of the Patriot as a member of the Young Avengers.

When Disney purchased Marvel in 2009, Truth went out of print and hasn’t been republished since, though it was recently released digitally on Marvel Unlimited and ComiXology as of last year. Josiah X hasn’t appeared since 2004, Elijah Bradley since 2012, and a new character, Rayshaun Lucas, has taken up the mantle of Patriot. A decade after it debuted, Truth became a hard-to-find collector’s item, the Black Captain America, a piece of little-known trivia, and the character’s name and legacy left largely unmentioned in the pages of Marvel Comics. Robert Morales died at age 55 in 2013.

The latest episode of the Falcon and the Winter Soldier is the first significant mention of Isaiah Bradley in a Marvel property in nearly a decade. Portrayed by Carl Lumbly, Isaiah Bradley is revealed to have served the U.S. government during the Korean War, leading to a fight with the Winter Soldier that cost Barnes half his metal arm. Though their reunion is brief, Bradley clearly remembers his encounter with Barnes, and still has much of his physical prowess, though clearly no love for the government that experimented on and imprisoned him. The encounter gets to the root of Sam’s hesitation to take up the mantle of Captain America. How do you represent a country that has never represented your people? It’s a question that Steve Rogers, and now John Walker, never had to consider.

When Sam asks if Steve knew about Isaiah Bradley, Bucky says he never told him, not wanting to give Steve another burden. Bucky says this from a place of honesty, and without ill-intent, but we’re reminded that he is a white man who grew up in the first half of the 20th century. This is driven home later when he and Sam are stopped by the cops and Bucky tells Sam to just give the officer his ID. There is a disconnect between white and Black, even in the world of superheroes. There’s no question that if Rogers had known of his existence he would’ve reached out to Bradley, and sought justice for him, as he did in Truth, but the idea of Black justice being seen as the burden of white men is a significant note. Because in order for that Black justice to truly be achieved, certain comforts and strongly held beliefs have to be dismantled. The very nature of individual exceptionalism, and government exceptionalism, is called into question.

Given the nature of the superserum and its anti-aging effects, we have to wonder if Bradley, who does look much older than Rogers or Barnes, was given the supersoldier serum before Rogers was. Bucky may not have met him until the Korean War, but that doesn’t mean Isaiah Bradley didn’t exist as a supersoldier until then, especially if we consider how hesitant the government was to use Steve Rogers as anything more than a mascot until he took action himself. A Black man with the supersoldier serum who could serve as neither a mascot nor a hero would’ve likely been kept off the table until he could have been used in secrecy, without the pomp and prestige of being America’s star-spangled man. It’s very possible that the entire modern concept of superheroes in the MCU may have been built on the back of a Black man, who was imprisoned, then discarded in the slums of America. It’s not difficult to believe. That is, after all, the story of America, a country built on the backs of slaves who once freed were made slaves once more to the American prison system, for too many the only out from the ghettos they were trapped in.

Within the context of the MCU, we know that Howard Stark and Bruce Banner both attempted to replicate the supersoldier serum. Tony Stark and Banner get pointed name-drops by John Walker early in the episode. But the mention of the two Avengers is more than just fan service. Both characters are uniquely tied to the legacy of supersoldier serum, a legacy that we now understand was, at least in part, built on Black suffering. While there are still gaps in history to be filled in, Howard Stark’s wealth and subsequently Tony’s, came from government contracts, which included the creation of a new supersoldier formula. Likewise, Banner’s success came from attempting to replicate the serum, which eventually turned him into the Hulk.

Years later, Banner and Tony would use these gifts to wield the Infinity Gauntlet and save the universe. The salvation of the universe that we saw in Avengers: Endgame may be a direct result of a Black man’s suffering.

It’s clear from Sam and his sister Sarah’s experiences in the first episode that universal salvation does not mean salvation for all people, especially if they have darker skin. Perhaps the Flag-Smashers have the right idea, something Sam seems to at least be thinking about when John Walker confronts him about taking them down at the episode’s end. Captain America ultimately can’t mean the same thing that it did before, and it can’t have the freedom to be unburdened by the struggles of Black suffering. This is why John Walker will inevitably fail in the role, and why Sam Wilson, in order to succeed, will have to redefine what Captain America means both in the present and historically. This is the truth that we need to see onscreen, and the truth that Robert Morales, one of comics’ unsung heroes — whose legacy should be more than trivia — deserves.