As far as the Marvel Cinematic Universe public knows, only two men have served as Captain America: Steve Rogers and now John Walker. But the second episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier lifts the veil on long-held military secret: While Rogers was literally on ice between 1945 and 2012, the U.S. government made other super soldiers with a variation of the serum that transformed Steve from a skinny street kid into a strapping hero. One of those test subjects was Isaiah Bradley, who made his comic book debut in 2003. And now, he's officially part of MCU continuity.
Midway through "The Star-Spangled Man," Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) takes Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) to meet Isaiah — played by veteran character actor Carl Lumbly, who also has a role in the DC Universe as the longtime voice of Martian Manhunter — who Bucky previously encountered during the Korean War when he was still the HYDRA-controlled Winter Soldier. "We met in '51," Bucky explains. "If by met, you mean I whupped your ass, then yeah," Isaiah quickly says, adding that he claimed half of Bucky's metal arm in their decades-old skirmish.
In the comics, Isaiah's origin story is much darker than Steve's. One of three-hundred Black test subjects in Project Rebirth, he watched many of his fellow soldiers die during the experiments until only five men remained. The Department of Defense covered up that grim news, and refrained from turning the survivors into celebrities in the same way that Steve's name and face were everywhere during World War II. It appears that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is following that storyline, as well as Isaiah's post-war imprisonment. "You know what they did to me for being a hero?" he says during his brief reunion with Bucky. "They put my ass in jail for 30 years. People running tests, taking my blood, coming into my cell."
This is all news to Sam, who is shocked at what was done in Captain America's name. "How could nobody bring him up?" he asks Bucky, who tries to reassure his furious partner that Steve knew nothing about this dark chapter in the military's past. "You're telling me that there was a Black super solider decades ago and nobody knew about him?" It's safe to assume that the world is going to know all about Isaiah — and his fallen brothers — by the time the series wraps up.
On Twitter, Marvel fans were thrilled that the FAWS writers brought Isaiah out of the comic books and into the MCU, pointing out how his presence seems intended to critique the show's heavy emphasis on the military.
— (ᴄᴀᴘᴛᴀɪɴ ᴍᴀʀᴠᴇʟ) (ᴍʏ ʜᴇʀᴏ ᴀᴄᴀᴅᴇᴍɪᴀ) (@Court_z013) March 26, 2021
Yes at Isaiah Bradley dragging the US government and exposing it's racism and evil practices. Kudos to malcolm spellman and the writers team on Falcon and the winter soldier. Also, Sam Wilson being profiled by the cops. This epi proved how wrong naysayers were about this show.
— Jason (Gay Falcon and Winter Soldier stan) (@EscaflowneClown) March 26, 2021
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier continues to kill it. Love how we’re getting into Isaiah Bradley and the unsavory American history of Captain America’s legacy. Also tons of deep-cut references: Power Brokers, Battlestar
— Leon Brill (@LeonBrill) March 26, 2021
I am so happy they're doing the Isaiah Bradley story for Falcon and the Winter Soldier, he's such a cool character
— 🏳️⚧️ Luka 🏳️⚧️ (@LukaCrosslol) March 26, 2021
Falcon and the Winter Soldier spoilers:
This scene is HEAVY and it's gonna be heartbreaking to see Isaiah's story unfold and reveal the hidden past of the MCU https://t.co/OdNi50Abhi
— Andrés from (Earth-8096) (@artmachine321) March 26, 2021
Bradley's storyline also has the potential to tie into one of the driving themes of the show: the prejudice facing Black heroes even in the supposedly color-blind confines of the MCU. “It’s a very important conversation that we’re having all the time but in particular it’s really bubbled to the [forefront] in the past year: What does it mean for a Black man to pick up such an iconically white symbol?” FAWS director, Kari Skogland, told Yahoo Entertainment recently. “What does that mean for the character? It’s a real exploration of what we have traditionally laid into with this iconic red, white and blue of it, and now we are taking it down another road."
It wasn't lost on viewers that Sam and Bucky walked out of their meeting with Isaiah directly into an encounter with local police, who pull up while they're arguing and demand to see Wilson's ID. The stand-off is defused when one of the officers recognizes Sam as the Falcon, but his lame excuse — "I didn't recognize you without the goggles" — doesn't change the racially-charged nature of the situation. The timeliness of that scene earned praise across the board, although a few voices accused it of being too "woke."
I gotta say, that scene in The Falcon and The Winter Soldier where they call out cops was top notch. Absolutely loved that.
— Milk (@Spilled_Milk_69) March 26, 2021
The fact that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier had a scene where Sam and Bucky are having a conversation and the police ask Bucky if Sam is bothering him. Pulled out of the headlines.
Some may not get it, others will be all to familiar with this. #TheFalconAndWinterSoldier pic.twitter.com/nAstEBQ0X4
— Keith "Tinnitus Sux" Mitchell🎮 (@Shadowhaxor) March 26, 2021
That scene from the Falcon and the Winter Soldier was lowkey sad and angering but glad they used it - when Sam Wilson (Falcon) gets pulled over by the police and you know what will happen next because he is black.
— Bill J (@NeuroscienceUT) March 26, 2021
Falcon and The Winter Soldier is really Woke... This isn’t Super Heroes, it’s mundane and full of Anti-Police rhetoric, and politics
— 𝐏𝕒𝕦𝕝 𝕊𝕒𝕪𝕤 (@BestDrWho) March 26, 2021
The Falcon And The Winter Soldier just showed police racial profiling Falcon, im not gonna lie i’m surprised marvel did that.
— ✨ⓊⒼⓁⓎ✨ (@pinkvan666) March 26, 2021
We'll have to wait and see if the current Captain America, John Walker (Wyatt Russell), has a meet-and-greet with Isaiah Bradley as well. After his brief introduction last week, Walker got considerably more screentime in "The Star-Spangled Man," as viewers learned more about his background and particular skill set. Unlike Steve and Isaiah, Walker doesn't have super soldier serum coursing through his veins. But that doesn't make him any less of a formidable fighter: an early action set-piece shows him and his partner-in-crimefighting, Lemar Hoskins (Clé Bennett) — better known as Battlestar in the comics — brawling with a group of Flag Smashers led by Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman) after the team knocks the Falcon and the Winter Soldier out of commission.
Of course, Walker ultimately doesn't win that fight, and he certainly doesn't win over Sam. Despite his promises that he's "not trying to replace Steve," he and Wilson end the episode on unfriendly terms. "Stay the hell out of my way," Walker advises Bucky and Sam after they reject his offer of a team-up to take on the Flag Smashers. With an attitude like that, it's no wonder that fans aren't eager to see him carrying the shield for much longer.
— 🄳🄾🄼🄰🅈 (@superdorkstuff) March 26, 2021
i wanted bucky to punch john walker at the end and just hand the shield to sam and say like “there problem solved”
— cap/ro • fatws friday (@bvckysam) March 26, 2021
i hate this john walker dude
— carol 🥁ミ☆ watching the oc s3 (@hudsonsfilm) March 26, 2021
can sam or bucky please punch john walker in the face idc when or how just as long as it happens
— hope/zoey 🤍 tfatws era (@misshoIIoway) March 26, 2021
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Co-Presidents of the "I hate #JohnWalker and I want to punch him in the face every time he speaks Club".
Memberships are open #FalconAndWinterSoldier pic.twitter.com/HglI3PDSGY
— J Hon (@jiajiunnhon) March 26, 2021
Following Bucky's meet-up with Isaiah, the episode ends by teasing another reunion: Bucky and Zemo (Daniel Brühl). The architect of Captain America: Civil War is currently hanging out Hannibal Lecter-style in a Berlin prison, contemplating a chess set like a certain metal-bending mutant. As falcon-eyed viewers noticed, his cell number is an Easter egg to another Disney franchise. Despite what Kevin Feige himself vowed, it looks like we got a Marvel-Star Wars crossover after all.
— paula ➶ watched ZSJL (@reyscamanders) March 26, 2021
Is this why Zemo’s cell block number is 2187?
— MannyThingsToCome (@TrueVoidChaos) March 26, 2021
Can’t wait to see my boi Zemo next week #FalconAndTheWinterSoldier
— Zekrom916 (@zekrom916) March 26, 2021
BARON ZEMO FINALLY HERE AGAIN LET'S GOOO
— desil (@silverkatsu) March 26, 2021
Great episode! Loved how it developed Sam & Bucky's relationship & the Isaiah scene was heartbreaking. We also finally got to see Karli Morgenthau & I LOVE her! Also nice little Star Wars reference at the end with Zemo's cell number being the same as Leia's in A New Hope. #TFATWS https://t.co/wlpYvwVxls
— Henning 💚 (@SestraHulk) March 26, 2021
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is currently streaming on Disney+.
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