In episode two of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, “The Star-Spangled Man,” Sam (Anthony Mackie) is introduced by Bucky (Sebastian Stan) to another Super Soldier, a Black man, who keeps a very low profile in Baltimore. And yes, he has some amazing comic book origins.
Here’s all you need to know about Isiah Bradley, America’s secret Black “Captain America.”
Warning: Spoilers for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier ahead.
In The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Bucky and Sam trade blows with the Flag-Smashers, the pro-Thanos movement who want to restore the world to a chaotic Blip-era status quo. After learning that the Flag-Smashers are made up of Super Soldiers, Sam feels defeated, lamenting that “we got nothing.”
“Not entirely true,” Bucky says. “There is someone that you should meet.”
Bucky brings Sam to Baltimore to meet someone even Steve Rogers never knew about. His name is Isaiah Bradley (played by Alias and Supergirl alum Carl Lumbly), a Black senior citizen in Baltimore. (His grandson Elijah, another key character, answers the door.) “He was a hero,” Bucky tells Sam. “One of the ones that Hydra feared the most. Like Steve.”
As Bucky reveals, Bucky met Isaiah in 1951 in Korea. “If by met, you mean I whupped your ass, then, yeah,” Isaiah brags. As the Winter Soldier, Bucky was deployed by HYDRA during the Korean War, and no American soldier dispatched to take him out came back. This led to the U.S. government assigning Isaiah to the job. And there’s a reason why: Isaiah is a Super Soldier.
The meeting ends in a hostile show of force. “I’m not gonna talk about it anymore,” Isaiah says, sending a can of tuna through the wall with ninja-like precision. “You know what they did to me for being a hero? They put my ass in jail for 30 years. People running tests, taking my blood, coming into my cell. Even your people weren’t done with me.”
Message received. There is still another Super Soldier in the world, even if he wants nothing to do with the Avengers. (Or, what’s left of them.) But where did Isaiah Bradley come from?
Who is Isaiah Bradley in Marvel?
Isaiah Bradley made his comics debut in 2003, in the seven-issue limited series Truth: Red, White & Black. Written by Robert Morales and drawn by Eisner-winning artist Kyle Baker, the series reveals how the U.S. government continued dangerous Super Soldier experimentation on Black soldiers after Steve Rogers went in the ice. While hundreds of tests ended fatally or in horrendous mutations, it finally succeeded with Isaiah Bradley, who becomes history’s secret “Black Captain America.”
In Europe, Isaiah rebels against orders and steals a spare Captain America costume and an unused shield to destroy the Nazis’ own efforts at a Super Soldier program in Schwarzebitte. But Isaiah is captured brought to Hitler, who wants to use Isaiah’s body to reverse-engineer the serum. Bradley is rescued, but gets court-martialed for his actions and imprisoned at Leavenworth in 1943. He is released in 1960 and pardoned by President Eisenhower.
In the final issue of Truth, Captain America personally meets Isaiah in the present day to thank him for his service and sacrifices. Years later, Isaiah’s son, Elijah Bradley, dons the mantle of the Patriot and joins the Young Avengers.
The dark history that inspired Isaiah Bradley
The concept for Truth: Red, White & Black was heavily inspired by the real Tuskeegee Experiments, an unjust study on African-American males that was conducted for 40 years.
In the 2007 book of essays Comics as Philosophy, the chapter “Truth Be Told: Authorship and Creation of Black Captain America” by Stanford W. Carpenter revealed how the Tuskeegee Experiments directly inspired the premise. It “started as an offhand comment by then Marvel publisher, Bill Jemas” that “Jemas never intended to follow through” until the image of “wrapping a Black man in red, white, and blue” compelled Marvel editor Axel Alonso.
“I thought it would be a really interesting way to use the character to tell a larger story, a chapter of American history,” Alonso is quoted in Comics as Philosophy. “[We used] Captain America as a metaphor for America itself.”
While it’s unknown at this point if Isaiah Bradley in the MCU indeed wore the mantle of Captain America after Steve Rogers, it will no doubt fuel Sam Wilson — who felt unworthy to carry the shield, believing it belonged to Steve Rogers only — to take the shield away from John Walker. As Sam said, symbols mean something. And it matters who carries them.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier streams new episodes Fridays on Disney+.