Captain America’s First Movie and The Real First Avenger

By Guest Contributor Jabari Sellars

Superhero movies routinely take liberties with established storylines and characters, with famously mixed results. But even with all the disappointment recent efforts brought to theatres, this summer offers one final comic-book adaptation with the potential to cleanse the palette.

Marvel Studios’ Captain America: The First Avenger hits theatres on July 22nd in hopes of joining Iron Man and The Dark Knight as financially successful comic book adaptations that earn the acclaim of critics and fans alike, bridging the gap between generations of comic-book lore and bringing characters and messages powerful enough to interest audiences beyond Cap’s customary fanbase. It would seem impossible for First Avenger to satisfy everyone, but one way the film could earn some goodwill from both fandom and mainstream audiences would be to introduce the man who was Captain America before Steve Rogers, Isaiah Bradley.

As shown in Robert Morales and Kyle Baker’s 2003 series Truth: Red, White & Black, Bradley actually preceded Rogers in surviving test doses of the Super Soldier Serum procedure. In the story, based on the tragic accounts of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments of 1932, Bradley was the only one of a group of misled African-American soldiers during early World War II to do so; his comrades suffered from issues of rage, depression and suicide, or were killed in action.

While the perfected serum was then given to blonde-haired, blue-eyed Steve Rogers, who was then promoted as a symbol of American military exceptionalism, Bradley was court-martialed after going on a mission against the command of his superiors while wearing a Captain America uniform. Bradley was subsequently imprisoned and tortured during the 1960s, and left a shell of his once energetic and talkative self.

Isaiah’s legacy of heroism would survive into the modern Marvel Comics universe. His son, Josiah X, wore the stars and stripes as a member of The Crew, a team led by War Machine. And Isaiah’s grandson, Elijah Bradley, has emerged as perhaps the best-known hero in the family, thanks to his exploits as Patriot, in the various Young Avengers series. Elijah has also been very vocal about the treatment his grandfather received from the government – even reminding Steve Rogers himself of the debt he owes Isaiah:

Including Isaiah in First Avenger – even as an “easter egg”-type mention – would fit in with Marvel Studios’ approach of using some story ideas and character depictions from the more modernized, more diverse Ultimate Marvel Universe; depicting Nick Fury as an African American male and Thor as a mental case with illusions of grandeur are plot devices taken directly from the works of Mark Millar and Brian Michael Bendis.

But even with that source material, there’s still a significantly small number of heroes of color found in the movies. Acknowledging Isaiah adds authentic diversity to a film that, aside from Derek Luke’s small part as Howling Commando Gabriel Jones and Samuel L. Jackson’s inevitable after-credit cameo, is completely white – a setting that ignores the sacrifices of thousands of Black and Hispanic U.S. soldiers during the real World War II, and the discrimination they still had to fight after returning home.

Other recent Marvel-based movies have handled diversity inconsistently: in Thor, Heimdall’s race was changed, while X-Men: First Class embraced the title of socially conscious historical fiction without discussing the most important aspects of the 1960s. First Avenger wouldn’t have to resort to any revisions – one black man’s sacrifice is already part of the Captain America mythos, and that should be respected.

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  • Mike

    “Acknowledging Isaiah adds authentic diversity to a film that, aside from
    Derek Luke’s small part as Howling Commando Gabriel Jones and Samuel L.
    Jackson’s inevitable after-credit cameo, is completely white”

    You forgot actor Asian American actor Kenneth Choi who plays “Jim Morita”.

    And First Class was surprisingly poor in handling its nonwhite characters. It literally executed two of the most cliche acts that Hollywood tends to do with nonwhite characters (i.e. kill them off, make them turn bad) in the same scene! All of this in an X Men film which is ironic because the entire inspiration behind the X Men comics in the first place was the civil rights movement.

  • Ellington

    All I know is that Captain America is a character that has NEVER interested me, too jingoistic. And it always annoyed me that they show them testing this super soldiers serum stuff on a white guy when you know full well that if this was real they would have tested first it on black and latino men to see if it worked. He is one comic book character that has never sat well with me. I will not be seeing this film, I will wait for the new Spider-man film for he is the only Marvel character that I enjoy.

  • ch555x

    It would be interesting to see a squad of “Super Soldiers”. 

  • Michael Hoskin

    If you take the time to read Truth from front-to-back, you’ll see Isaiah didn’t predate Steve at all, he was part of the 2nd round of super-soldiers which began after the US went to war, while Steve became Cap months before US entry. But thanks for playing.

    • Bradley Fan

      Ha! Fail! But still, it’d be nice to see them mention Bradley in the movie. First or second, he’s yet another example of the US (real and fiction) not recognizing or covering up the contributions and sacrifices of black and brown folks at home and abroad.

      • Anonymous

        Well I’m not sure if its an example of what you said. Comparing the real life suffering and sacrifice of black/brown people isn’t the same as translating the most popular image of a fictional media to another media. Bradley wasn’t introduced until very recently, Captain America was created nearly 70 years ago. While it would be a fun lip-service to fans, its not the same as some of the other strikes against Hollywood.

  • Jadey

    To my sorrow, I initially misunderstood this post – I’m not familiar with the new movie coming out (no cable, no commercials!), so upon reading this article I thought that it was going to be a film *about* Isaiah Bradley and was confused and distressed by the top billing of Chris Evans with no mention of the character being white-washed. But I see that the film is not actually about the real First Avenger after all.

    Acknowledging Isaiah is of course not a disappointment itself, but with my first impression I can’t help but wish it was so much more than that.