Who is Isaiah Bradley: The First Black Captain America?
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier introduced several new characters to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). We got introduced to extremist group Flag Smashers and Captain America’s failed replacement, John Walker.
But the most tragic and enigmatic character introduced by the show was certainly Isaiah Bradley played by Carl Lumbly. He is an aging Korean War veteran and also a supersoldier, whom Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes find in a modest suburban house in Baltimore.
The sad part of the story is that Bradley had a very similar life trajectory to that of the official Captain America, Steve Rogers. Only he wasn’t a blue-eyed blonde. Being a black man, Isaiah became an outcast, a prisoner, and finally a fugitive. At the same time, Rogers became the great symbol of American heroism.
Let’s take a look at the character’s fascinating trajectory to understand the importance of the First Black Captain America.
Is Isaiah Bradley in the Marvel Comics?
Yes, he is. His origin story was told in the 2002-2003 comic book miniseries “Truth: Red, White & Black” by Robert Morales and Kyle Baker. This adventure showed how the U.S. Army tried to replicate Operation Rebirth and the late Dr. Erskine’s super soldier serum. It happened during World War II, shortly after the creation of the official Captain America.
Scientist Wilfred Nagel led the project, which used 300 African-American soldiers as guinea pigs. The unethical experiments were carried out at Camp Cathcart, Mississippi. All the volunteers were subjected to potentially deadly doses of the new formula.
At the end of the experiments, only a few men survived. They were used for some time during World War II as a convert black-ops team in charge of suicide missions in Europe.
The only survivor of the Camp Cathcart experiments was Isaiah Bradley. Furious at the lack of recognition and the useless sacrifice of his partners, he stole a replica of Captain America's costume and shield and starts introducing himself as The Black Captain America.
Bradley returned to the United States after the war, in 1943. He was then court-martialed and sentenced to life in prison. “Truth: Red, White & Black” ends by showing that he received a full presidential pardon in 1960, but has been forced to live in secrecy ever since.
Soon his legend spread and he became an idol and role model for the black community. Isaiah was even visited by real-life activists such as Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Angela Davis, and Nelson Mandela.
Isaiah Bradley Backstory on the MCU
The Marvel Cinematic Universe introduced the story of Isaiah Bradley in The Falcon and The Winter Soldier. The MCU has made a few tweaks to his story compared to the comics.
The attempt to replicate the super-soldier serum in black soldiers this time didn’t take place during WWII, but rather in the 1950s and during Cold War.
With Captain America missing and presumed dead (as shown at the end of Captain America – The First Avenger), the U.S. Army decided to recreate Project Rebirth. Scientists used Steve Rogers’ blood samples to try to create a new version of Dr. Erskine’s super-soldier serum.
Several black soldiers were used as test subjects unknowingly of what exactly they were being injected with. The official story is that they were getting tetanus shots. But the only one who reacted well to the formula and received supersoldier powers was Isaiah.
Bradley was even used on covert missions during the Korean War. But when his colleagues began to die as a result of the failed formula’s side effects, Bradley rebelled and tried to rescue them.
The other soldiers died in the end and the Army punished Isaiah for disobeying orders. Sentenced to life in prison, he spent years being used as a guinea pig by different scientists. Their goal was to try to find out why the formula only worked for Bradley.
While Isaiah Bradley’s incarnation from the comics was pardoned and released by the American government, the MCU character met an even more tragic fate. He managed to escape from the institution where he was confined only 30 years later, during the 1980s, because a nurse took pity on him.
Once free, Isaiah discovered that his wife Faith Bradley had died without ever having received the letters he sent. The official story she received was that her husband had died in Korea.
Bradley has been forced to live in hiding ever since with his grandson Eli – always fearing to be arrested again by government agencies.
How strong was Isaiah Bradley?
In both the comics and the MCU, Isaiah has the same powers as Captain America: higher strength, speed, stamina, healing, and apparently longevity.
Truth: Red, White, and Black narrates that he was capable of lifting 800lbs and running 30mph, as well as being able to survive a 100ft drop.
A bullet to the head can still kill Bradley because he has no superpowers. But his physical skills, agility, and reflexes are so developed that he would disarm the enemy in seconds before he could fire.
Like Steve Rogers, Isaiah was also trained in armed and unarmed combat by the U.S. Army. In The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, the character appears already aged. Even so, he gives a taste of his powers when he gets angry with Bucky and buries a metal ashtray halfway in a wall with his super-strength.
Steve Rogers vs. Isaiah Bradley
Captain America never encountered Isaiah Bradley in the MCU. After all, the government experiments on the black soldier were developed in the 1950s and at the time Steve Rogers was missing, frozen in the Arctic. Bucky also confesses to Sam that he never told Cap about Bradley’s existence.
In the comics, Rogers encountered the aging Isaiah in the final chapters of the miniseries Truth: Red, White, and Black. Captain America shakes hands with the forgotten supersoldier and apologizes for all the harm the U.S. government has done to him and his family.
But it’s ironic how their story looks similar, albeit with tragically different endings. Rogers volunteered to test Dr. Erksine’s super-soldier serum, while Bradley was unknowingly exposed to the formula.
When they developed powers, their trajectories started to go together. Both Rogers and Bradley disobeyed orders and acted against the military to try to save their friends.
The difference is that while Rogers’ adventure turned him into Captain America, one of the great symbols of the nation’s heroism and patriotism.
On the other hand, African-American Bradley was condemned as a traitor and kept secretly imprisoned for decades. So it’s a miracle that he never became a supervillain.
Encountering the Winter Soldier
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier reveals that Bucky met Isaiah Bradley in 1951, during the Korean War.
The black super soldier was sent to Goyang, South Korea, to eliminate Bucky. At the time, Barnes was still living as the Winter Soldier, a brainwashed assassin working for HYDRA.
The confrontation between the two is not shown in the series, but the characters explain that a violent struggle ensued.
The only fight between the two supersoldiers ended in a draw, but the Winter Soldier had half of his metal arm destroyed by Isaiah before fleeing.
The episode gives an idea of Isaiah’s powers and how he could have been an exemplary superhero decades before the Avengers Initiative. That, of course, if he hadn’t been arrested by the same racist government that created him.
The Legacy of Isaiah Bradley
Marvel Comics has had black superheroes in its magazines since the mid-1960s. The first Black Panther and The Falcon/Sam Wilson stories are from 1966 and 1969, respectively. From the 1970s, Marvel also presented Luke Cage, Blade, Storm from the X-Men, and others.
Chronologically, however, Isaiah Bradley is most likely Marvel’s first black hero.
In the MCU, Bradley became the guinea pig of the U.S. Army after being court-martialed and imprisoned. Samples of his blood and flesh were extracted over 30 years in an attempt to reproduce the supersoldier serum. This may have been crucial in developing some of the many formulas that have appeared in movies and TV shows ever since.
After his escape from the institution, Isaiah went to live in hiding in Baltimore with his grandson Elijah. Fearing going back to prison, he opted for an anonymous profile while trying to forget the past. When Sam and Bucky find him, he’s understandably angry and disgusted at the way he’s been treated.
Isaiah Bradley’s great legacy on the series is inspiring Sam Wilson to take on the role of Captain America after the failed experiment with John Walker.
First, Bradley states that “no black man” would ever hold the mantle and the shield. Sam then decides to prove him wrong and become the new Cap.
Later, the hero takes Isaiah and his grandson to see a brand-new statue at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington. The statue honors the first black super-soldier of the MCU, with a memorial plaque detailing his forgotten history in service to the United States. This way, Sam and Bucky finally make public Isaiah’s story of suffering and betrayal.
How Will Isaiah Bradley Fit Into the Future of the MCU?
The Black Captain America has never been used much in Marvel Comics apart from the Truth: Red, White & Black miniseries. His 'son' Josiah X and grandson Eli ended up receiving more spotlights in later adventures.
The idea that one day Bradley will participate more actively in some adventure cannot be ruled out either. After all, having a super-soldier living in secret can always be an ace up the sleeve.
I would particularly love to see an animated series based on young Isaiah’s adventures during the war. Perhaps they can even show his legendary brawl with the Winter Soldier in 1951.
And it would be really interesting if Bradley and his companions appear in some future episode of the series “What If…”. Just imagine an alternate universe in which Isaiah Bradley becomes the only Captain America – and how that could help America address racism.
Isaiah is likely to also feature in the MCU through grandson Elijiah Bradley.
Who is Elijah Bradley?
Elijah “Eli” Bradley is Isaiah’s grandson. In the comics, he was created by Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung in Young Avengers #1 (February 2005). It happened right after Brian Michael Bendis’ “Avengers Disassembled” story arc. The classic Avengers disbanded and younger heroes decided to band together to form a new team.
Initially, Eli lied that he had super-soldier powers inherited from his grandfather. He takes on the name “Patriot” and uses a replica of Captain America’s old shield as a weapon.
It is later discovered that he has no superpowers. In fact, Eli was using the famous, illegal Mutant Growth Hormone (MGH).
Finally, the boy receives a blood transfusion from his grandfather and inherits the powers of that old super-soldier serum.
Eli is still part of the Marvel Comics superhero team and participated in great recent sagas, such as “Civil War” and “Secret Invasion”.
It seems like Disney Plus has quietly been introducing different members of Young Avengers in its different shows. So far we have seen Wanda and Vision's twins Billy and Tommy who grow up to be Wiccan and Speed. We have seen Kate Bishop appear in Hawkeye. And with Eli debuting in Falcon and the Winter Soldier, it is only a matter of time before we see them all Assemble as the Young Avengers.
Is Eli Bradley’s Appearance in “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” Significant?
In the MCU, Eli Bradley has already been briefly introduced in “The Falcon and The Winter Soldier” as the grandson who takes care of his grandpa Isaiah.
There is still no evidence that the boy has inherited his grandfather’s powers, either through blood transfusion or genetics.
But Marvel Studios may be grooming the kid to follow in the family’s footsteps soon, maybe even preparing a future cinematic Young Avengers team. Eli is also the only blood relative of a super-soldier so far in the MCU.
In the comics, the U.S. military experimented with the blood and DNA of Isaiah and Faith Bradley in the 1950s, creating a baby with super-soldier powers.
Then the mother’s baby ran away with him. He was named Josiah and raised in a Catholic orphanage. The character was introduced in the short-lived comic book series “The Crew”, created by Christopher Priest and Joe Bennett and published in 2003.
Josiah fought in the Vietnam War, where the U.S. Army found out he was the missing super-baby. But he manages to escape again and became involved with the Black Panther Party movement (not the Wakanda superhero). As a political activist, he changes his name to Josiah X because of real-life activist Malcolm X.
In present times, during the story arc shown in “The Crew” magazine, Josiah had converted to Islam and adopted the name Josiah al hajj Saddiq. He opened a mosque in Brooklyn and was then invited by James “Rhodey” Rhodes (aka War Machine) to join his group of heroes called The Crew.
Josiah adopts a new superhero name Justice and fights crime with the old shield used by his father Isaiah in World War II.
An Inconvenient Truth
Isaiah Bradley’s origin serves as a romanticized way of telling the tragic story of all the black soldiers involved in major real-life conflicts.
For example, there are dramatic accounts of the treatment of black soldiers in the Vietnam War. They were sent with priority to the front lines and died by the hundreds. At the same time, they rarely received promotions or medals like their white counterparts.
The very experiment that created Isaiah Bradley in fiction was based on a terrible and sadly forgotten page of American history. It was the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, mentioned in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.
The study had nothing to do with creating super-soldiers, of course. In 1932, the U.S. Public Health Service began an experiment to observe the course of untreated syphilis in the city of Tuskegee, Alabama. 600 impoverished black subjects were recruited with the promise of free medical treatment. In fact, they were taking placebos so that doctors could track the progression of the disease's symptoms!
Not even super-soldier powers could make up for these real-life stories of injustice that fiction now tries to finally bring out in the open.