Isaiah Bradley: The First Black Captain America
Isaiah is the main protagonist of 2003’s Truth: Red, White & Black. Written by Robert Morales and drawn by Kyle Baker, the series reveals Steve Rogers was far from the only soldier the government attempted to transform into a superhuman propaganda tool. Because the formula for the Super-Soldier Serum is lost when Dr. Abraham Erskine is killed by a German spy, the scientists of Project: Rebirth have no choice but to attempt to recreate it through trial and error. They do so by experimenting on hundreds of African American soldiers, men seen by the eugenics-obsessed Dr. Josef Reinstein as expendable tools for the cause.
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The series draws heavily on the real-world Tuskegee Syphilis Study, an infamous program wherein researchers studied the long-term effects of untreated syphilis in hundreds of African American men without their full knowledge and consent. Similarly, Truth shows hundreds of soldiers being subjected to experimental serums without fully understanding what they’ve been recruited for or the significant risks involved. Isaiah is one of only five test subjects to survive the process. The remaining untreated soldiers and researchers are executed, ensuring only a handful know the origin of these new super-soldiers. And after his comrades are killed in the line of duty, Isaiah becomes the only survivor and the only living proof of this twisted attempt to create a new Captain America.
Isaiah (second from the left) is the only surviving test subject whose body isn’t twisted and misshapen by the imperfect serum. (Image Credit: Marvel)
Isaiah’s fate is little better than that of his brothers, sadly. He’s eventually court-martialed and imprisoned, spending the better part of the next two decades as a government lab rat. That’s how his son Josiah is born – an attempt to clone the last known relic of Project: Rebirth and create a new generation of super-soldiers.
Isaiah is eventually pardoned by President Eisenhower and left to live out the rest of his life in obscurity. His body and mind also gradually succumb to the effects of his flawed Super-Soldier Serum. However, word of his exploits and sacrifices do begin to spread among the African American community. When Steve Rogers belatedly learns of Isaiah’s existence and pays him a visit, he sees a home filled with photos of Isaiah alongside 20th Century icons like Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, John Lennon and Nelson Mandela. His legend hasn’t been forgotten by everyone.
Art by Kyle Baker. (Image Credit: Marvel)
Elijah Bradley: Young Avenger
Episode 2 also introduces us to Isaiah’s grandson Eli (played by Elijah Richardson), a character who may well be destined for big things in the MCU. In the comics, Eli is a founding member of the Young Avengers who takes up the mantle of Patriot and wields the same triangular shield once carried by his grandfather. His teammates naturally assume Eli inherited his super-strength from his grandfather along with that shield. But Eli is hiding a dark secret of his own. Because Eli’s mother was born before Isaiah was subjected to the super-soldier testing, he’s actually a perfectly ordinary human. He compensates for that by relying on mutant growth hormone, a super-steroid that can temporarily bestow incredible power, but at a terrible physical cost.
After coming clean about his deception, Eli rejoins the Young Avengers, only to be grievously wounded in battle. He winds up receiving a life-saving blood transfusion from his grandfather, one which has the added bonus of finally granting Eli legitimate powers. Since then, Patriot has continued to carry on his family legacy both alone and as a Young Avenger.
We expect to see some version of this origin story play out in the MCU, though perhaps in a future project after The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. But one thing is clear already – Eli shares his grandfather’s rage and resentment over the toll Captain America has taken on their family, and for good reason.
Marvel Cinematic Universe: Every Upcoming Movie and TV Show
Recreating the Super-Soldier Serum
The Isaiah Bradley character is intended as a commentary on America’s bloody, racially charged history and the way the higher ideals of the country often mask the brutal reality faced by people of color. He’s also a tragic victim of one of the biggest conflicts in the Marvel Universe, one that’s played out over the decades since World War II ended. The creation of Captain America is a true watershed moment in this world. It sparks a superhuman arms race, with every major global power locked in a competition to develop newer and better super-soldiers to fight the wars to come. The fact that the science that made Cap possible was lost with Erskine only adds to their desperation.
This notion of the superhuman arms race is even more prevalent in Marvel’s Ultimate Universe line, which has inspired the tone of the MCU as much as anything else over the years. In the Ultimate Universe, practically every hero and villain can be traced back to Captain America and Project: Rebirth in some way. Even mutants in the Ultimate Universe are an artificial phenomenon. Wolverine is basically patient zero in that genetic breakthrough.
The Ultimate Universe’s Nick Fury and Black Panther both share a lot in common with Isaiah Bradley, as they too are Black men subjected to torture and experimentation in the name of superhuman science. While that plot point hasn’t carried over to the MCU, the general idea that ordinary soldiers (particular people of color) are mere pawns in an amoral system designed to build bigger and better weapons definitely has. You don’t get a hero like Captain America without leaving a long trail of death and misery behind him. And with Steve gone, it falls on Bucky and Sam to come to terms with that toll.
Project: Rebirth and Weapon Plus
Even in Marvel’s classic comic book universe, contemporary creators have worked to unify the many underground organizations and connect the dots between super-soldiers like Captain America, Wolverine and Deadpool. That trend really took shape during writer Grant Morrison’s New X-Men series. In a storyline called “Assault on Weapon Plus,” Wolverine learns that the Weapon X program isn’t named after the letter X, but the Roman numeral. As Weapon X, Logan is the tenth super-soldier in a larger program that dates all the way back to Captain America and Project: Rebirth.
In fact, Cap himself is Weapon I. That lineup includes other familiar Marvel characters, as well. Luke Cage is Weapon VI, Nuke is Weapon VII and Typhoid Mary is Weapon IX. Project: Rebirth was even revived for Weapon V, with several soldiers bonded to pieces of an ancient symbiote decades before Venom arrived on the scene. Even after this discovery, Weapon Plus continues to pump out new super-soldiers, including Weapon XV (an advanced Sentinel called Ultimaton) and Weapon XVI (a viral religion called Allgod).
Could Weapon Plus be used as the glue that ties together characters like Cap and Wolverine in the MCU? Now that the X-Men are finally under the Disney umbrella, it’s certainly possible. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has already shown a willingness to delve into this darker, more unsavory side of Captain America. It’s also worth pointing out that the island nation of Madripoor (Wolverine’s favorite stomping ground) is mentioned in a line of text during the end credits of the show. We previously speculated that the brightly lit city seen in trailers for the series could be Madripoor, and that theory seems all the more likely now. The series probably won’t show us Wolverine, but it may delve into the twisted organization that created him and countless other living weapons.
Jesse is a mild-mannered staff writer for IGN. Allow him to lend a machete to your intellectual thicket by following @jschedeen on Twitter.
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