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By Alexis Nedd
In Captain America: The First Avenger, the United States government responds to the threat of a world power genocidally pursuing the genetic ideal of a white, blond, blue-eyed superman by genetically manufacturing their very own white, blond, blue-eyed superman. Steve Rogers turned out all right, but The Falcon and the Winter Soldier episode 2 shows America’s second attempt at minting a Star-Spangled Man and surprise! He’s white, he’s blond, and he sucks.
The government’s choice to prop up John Walker as a more fitting symbol of the American way is not only dismissive of Sam Wilson’s choice to let Steve’s legacy rest, it’s an outright rejection of Sam’s right to decide if he is worthy of being that symbol. If they wanted a Captain America so badly, Sam should have been the first person they approached. They did not, and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is growing ever more explicit as to why. Blackness and heroism are incompatible concepts in the MCU’s very familiar America.
In , The Falcon and the Winter Soldier showrunner Malcom Spellman spoke about finally unpacking some of the MCU’s ignored baggage regarding Black heroes. “I think this is going to be an extremely relevant show in a lot of ways, and that is not by accident,” he said, before mentioning that the knee-jerk reaction to seeing another white man with Cap’s shield at the end of episode 1 was intentional. “Those moments you’re talking about are pointed, and we dig deeper and deeper and deeper as the series progresses.” One of those deeper moments took place in episode 2, with the introduction of living super-soldier Isaiah Bradley. As far as reckoning with Captain America’s history and Blackness in the MCU, it doesn’t get much deeper than him.
In the comics, Isaiah Bradley’s powers are a result of the U.S. government’s cruel and inhumane attempt to recreate the super-soldier serum that created Captain America. After Steve Rogers went into the ice, American scientists tested flawed permutations of the serum on 300 Black soldiers in a series of experiments that tortured and killed almost every subject. The only survivor was Isaiah Bradley, who emerged from the study with the strength and abilities of Captain America in a Black body.
From there, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier explains that Isaiah fought in the Korean War, was sent to handle The Winter Soldier when no one else could, and later went to prison for 30 years, suggesting that the “Black Captain America” was sent on suicide missions, court martialed, and essentially buried for AWB — Avenging While Black.
The pursuit of Steve Rogers’ white physical ideal in a deeply racist world led to the same place attempting to pursue human “perfection” always leads: eugenics.
Isaiah’s experience as a Black man used as an expendable lab rat is a direct parallel to America’s real-life history of abusing Black people for scientific research. Comic writer Axel Alonso was explicit in referencing the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, during which the United States Public Health Service and the CDC enrolled hundreds of Black men both with and without syphilis in a study to observe the long-term effects of the disease. The men were not aware of their diagnosis or the study’s true intentions, nor were they effectively treated for syphilis even after the penicillin cure was discovered. This study took place over 40 years and ended in 1972, at which point most of the subjects were dead, some having unknowingly passed syphilis on to their wives who bore children with congenital syphilis.
Tying the creation of a Black super-soldier to the structural racism that permeates the American medical establishment to this day was a bold move in Marvel comics and an even bolder one in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. This is a show meant to examine Captain America’s legacy in the MCU, and the legacy that made it easy for the U.S. government to strap the shield to a white man against Sam Wilson’s wishes is the same one that killed hundreds of Black men in Steve Rogers’ name. Even though Steve didn’t know about Isaiah or the experiments, the pursuit of his white physical ideal in a deeply racist world led to the same place attempting to pursue human “perfection” always leads: eugenics.
It’s frankly massive that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is willing to include Isaiah’s character with his presumed history in a canon MCU show. Exploring Sam’s justified choice to decline the mantle of “Black Captain America” is one thing, but flipping back in the alt-universe history book to bring forth a damning example of America’s destructive relationship with Black bodies is another. If The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is ready to have that conversation, it’s well on its way to changing the way the MCU handles race as a whole.