A Super Soldier’s Story: A 80 Year Retrospective On Race & Marvel’s Super Soldier Serum
Exploring the 80 year history & legacy of Marvel’s Super Soldier serum involving race & the constantly changing social landscape outside the world of comic books
Back in 2016 fter seeing “Suicide Squad” in the theater and being underwhelmed by the end result, I decided to go back and see how both Marvel’s recent films and Netflix series’ up to that point had eclipsed DC’s latest films, television series and animated output. This was originally going to be a piece detailing exactly where DC fell off but, while watching “Captain America: Civil War”, I had a realization. During one climatic scene, Winter Soldier, Black Panther and Captain America are all in the street running after each other and passing cars like nothing. Later on Captain America, Winter Soldier, Black Widow and Black Panther are all engaging in combat both against and alongside each other. It was then that I came to the realization that several of the most popular Marvel characters on the screen were enhanced by different variations of the original Super Soldier process.
The Super Soldier Serum was concocted by Marvel back in 1941 to explain the extraordinary origin of Captain America. The supposed Super Soldier Serum was a creation of defected German scientist Dr. Abraham Erskine, who was the crown jewel of the United States’ own Operation: Rebirth. The government and the US Army handpicked several candidates for consideration to become Super Soldiers, and Steve Rogers turned out to be a peak potential candidate.
He received the serum, was exposed to what were called “vita rays”, and afterwards was enhanced to physically and mentally perform at optimal human levels. He then later became one of the key heroes for Marvel — then named Timely Comics — once he was released from his icy prison by Prince Namor of Atlantis, The Sub Mariner. What soon followed were waves of more Super Soldiers from Marvel Comics.
The concept behind the creation of the Super Soldier Serum originated from Nazi Germany, and Adolf Hitler’s racist assertion that supposed blonde-haired, blue-eyed, full-blooded “Aryans” were the so-called Master Race. Hitler’s flawed Uber Mensch theory was first destroyed by Black American athlete Jesse Owens’ victories in the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics. They were later dispelled again by the Black American boxing heavyweight champion Joe Louis when he defeated German boxer Max Schmeling (Louis lost to him back in 1936) by knocking him out in the first round of their 1938 rematch.
Schmeling was completely dominated by Louis from the opening bell and only managed to throw two punches in the entire 2:04 the bout lasted. His corner was forced to throw in the towel after his third knockdown. These developments would set up a timeline for the first Black Super Soldiers to appear in Marvel Comics, unfortunately they wouldn’t be created for almost seven decades and only mostly through retconned storylines.
Every superpower or massive corporation in Marvel Comics ultimately had their own Super Soldier program or developed means of enhancing candidates, volunteers or test subjects based on the original Super Soldier program. Since Dr. Erskine was murdered shortly after the success of Steve Rogers’ treatment, he never fully recorded his formula. In actuality, the Super Soldier Serum was a misnomer. It was more of a particular multiple step process of varying treatments that ultimately gave candidates their enhanced abilities.
The Nazis/Germans had a program, the Soviet Union had multiple programs, as did the United States. The CIA funded Canada’s Department K which ran their Weapon X program. Notable Super Soldiers and enhanced agents created through these various methods include Captain America, Union Jack, Destroyer, Master Man, Black Widow, Wolverine, Winter Soldier, Omega Red, Deadpool and Isaiah Bradley.
Variations of the old Super Soldier Serum process have appeared on film in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”, “Captain America: The First Avenger”, “Deadpool”, in the Netflix series “Luke Cage”, and most recently in the new series “The Falcon & The Winter Soldier”. Several more alternate treatments that replicated the Super Soldier Serum were developed by Hydra, AIM (Advanced Idea Mechanics), The Maggia, Roxxon Oil/Energy, The Kingpin, Power Broker and Dr. Noah Burnstein at Seagate Prison. It was in 1972 that Marvel Comics readers were introduced to Luke Cage, Marvel’s answer to the so-called burgeoning Blaxploitation film phenomenon that was kicked off by Melvin Van Peebles’ 1971 film “Sweet Sweetback’s Baaaadaaaasss Song” but exploded with 1972’s “Shaft”. Luke Cage’ powers were acquired via Dr. Noah Burnstein’s process while he was an inmate at Seagate Prison, thus he is also part of the Super Soldier family tree. As fate would have it, Noah Burnstein’s father was originally a Nazi scientist tasked with replicating the results of Dr. Abraham Erskine’s original Super Soldier method, and Noah had continued his father’s research. However, it doesn’t end there.
Another Black subject named John McIver (Bushmaster I) received the same variant version of the Super Soldier Serum process Dr. Noah Burstein gave Luke Cage to gain superhuman enhancements and became an enemy of Luke Cage & Iron Fist. After his death, his younger brother Quincy McIver (Bushmaster II) took up his name after undergoing bionic enhancements via the Roxxon Oil Company. He joined the Serpent Society and become a regular foe of Captain America. A version of Bushmaster appeared in the second season of Netflix’s “Luke Cage” depicted by Mustafa Shakir.
Now, let’s get into how Marvel decided to retcon the history of the Super Soldier program.
In 2003, Marvel released the mini series “Truth: Red, White & Black” written by Robert Morales and drawn by Kyle Baker, which served as a seven issue retcon of the Captain America history, post his enhancement at the hands of Project: Rebirth following the assassination of Dr. Abraham Erskine by a Nazi infiltrator. In it, 300 Black soldiers are picked by the US Army to become test subjects in an attempt to replicate the lost Super Soldier Serum process. Their families are informed that all the soldiers were killed in action. The infamous Tuskegee Experiment that ran from 1932 to 1972 (incidentally the same year “Luke Cage, Hero For Hire” first debuted on newsstands) was the inspiration for this particular story. Of the original 300 test subjects, only 5 survived to actually become field operatives. Of these 5 survivors, they each suffered varying levels of side effects such as physical deformities, a hyperactive thyroid gland, which sometimes made them erratic and impulsive, and sterility (Black Widow’s enhancements have also made her incapable of bearing children). Over this seven part series, all of the enhanced soldiers end up dying, except for Isaiah Bradley.
In his final mission, Isaiah Bradley outfitted himself in a Captain America uniform and shield to spite the government, who refused to outfit him in the gear he felt he’d earned the right to don. He set off on his assigned task of eliminating a German scientist also working on a variation of the Super Soldier Serum and liberating a Nazi death camp in enemy territory. He ultimately succeeded in his mission, but he was subsequently captured by the enemy, freed by Allied sympathizers then returned to America. Upon his return, he was court-martialed and imprisoned for life for illegally assuming the identity of Captain America and stealing government property with the highest level of clearance: Captain America’s shield.
After being in solitary confinement for 17 years, he was finally freed, thanks to his wife Faith harassing the government and pleading on his behalf repeatedly. The side effects of his Super Soldier procedure took their toll on his mental faculties, and his body began to atrophy during his prolonged detainment. He was released, pardoned, and the entire project and his role as a covert operative/Super Soldier for the US government was sealed and kept under wraps. However, Isaiah Bradley became an underground legend among Black folks.
Marvel later introduced more members of the Bradley family carrying on the family legacy. Turns out before Isaiah Bradley became sterile, his semen was harvested, since he was deemed a Peak Potential Candidate by the scientists in charge as a contingency plan. They used eggs from Faith Bradley and semen from Isaiah without either of their knowledge, and after 38 attempts, they successfully brought a child to term. The child was born a Super Soldier without any of the drawbacks or side effects that plagued his father. He was named Josiah (or A-39) and grew up to become a Super Soldier/hero himself.
Josiah Bradley had a sister born before their father Isaiah was picked as a Super Soldier candidate, and she gave birth to a son named Elijah. Elijah Bradley would become a member of the Young Avengers while using the Mutant Growth Hormone to synthesize the powers he’d possess if he had been born a Super Soldier. In order to save his life, he later receives a blood transfusion from his grandfather Isaiah Bradley that ultimately gives him the abilities of a Super Soldier.
Josiah Bradley (as Josiah X) would join The Crew alongside War Machine, and Elijah Bradley (as Patriot) would become the leader of the Young Avengers before joining the Secret Avengers in later years. Both would wear variations of Captain America’s uniform with his blessing, once he discovered the (retconned) back story behind Elijah Bradley and Josiah Bradley’s existence. In the second episode of “The Falcon & The Winter Soldier”, we encounter versions of both Isaiah and Elijah Bradley played by veteran actor Carl Lumbly and young actor Elijah Richardson, who might become Patriot in the MCU down the line.
Luke Cage also follows Marvel’s layered Super Soldier lineage, although he’s often not thought of in that manner. Since Luke Cage worked independently of the government or any agencies such as SHIELD, AIM, HYDRA or The Maggia, and for years even avoided working with the Avengers (although he did spend stints with both the Defenders and Fantastic Four), he never seemed like the Super Soldier/operative type. He was a man of the people. The bulletproof protector of Harlem. Hero for hire. Luke Cage was a street level hero who looked like the kids who loved other street level heroes (like Spider-Man and Daredevil) but didn’t share their backgrounds, even though they lived in similar neighborhoods. People really connected with Luke Cage.
By proxy, T’Challa also qualifies as a Super Soldier, due to the fact that he was enhanced by the application of the mysterious properties of the heart based herb grown only in Wakanda. T’Challa was a Peak Potential Candidate for enhancement using this process, and he developed his heightened abilities sans any debilitating side effects. Both Black Panther and Luke Cage are the stars of two of Marvel’s hottest properties: “Marvel’s Luke Cage” on Netflix and the Ryan Coogler helmed “Black Panther” film that hit theaters on February 16th, 2018 starring the late Chadwick Boseman as King T’Challa of Wakanda.
Another Black superhero acquired his powers via becoming a test subject. Runaway Tyrone Johnson was injected with the designer drug Darklight, AKA D-Lite, engineered by the demon D’Spayre and Maggia chemist Dr. Simon Marshall. All of Dr. Marshall’s test subjects died except for three, Tyrone Johnson (Cloak), Tandy Bowen (Dagger) and villain Mr. Negative. Cloak became a prominent hero in the Marvel Comics Universe whose origin, while being similar to Elijah Bradley and Luke Cage’s, is rarely acknowledged for it. Tyrone Johnson and Tandy Bowen were both introduced in the Freeform series, “Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger” but neither of them were enhanced by a variation of the Super Soldier serum in that version.
Then there’s Lemar Hoskins. 40 years ago, in the pages of “Captain America”, soldier Lemar Hoskins and his friend John Walker (U.S. Agent) volunteered to undergo Dr. Karl Malus’ process, which was also derived from the original Super Soldier procedure. While half of Malus’ subjects or volunteers either died or became severely deformed, Hoskins somehow survived the process without any serious side effects or deformities.
Lemar was asked to become the new Bucky, once his friend John Walker was asked by the US government to become Captain America (Captain America was fired). Eventually, he declined being called Bucky, as “buck” is an offensive term to describe Black men, and settled on the code name Battlestar instead. So, here we are discussing yet another Black Super Soldier who worked for the government and wore some semblance of the Captain America uniform, but isn’t often mentioned. Maybe it’s because Lemar Hoskins was originally written as being functionally illiterate before readers complained about it, and the fact he accepted being called “Bucky” by a bunch of White folks all day?
In the 2021 Disney + series “The Falcon And The Winter Soldier” neither John Walker or Lemar Hoskins — played by Wyatt Russell and Clé Bennett respectively — are enhanced, but are facing a gang of rogue Super Soldiers that likely got that way from the Power Broker through the manipulation of Isaiah Bradley’s blood. Instead of Dr. Karl Malus, the scientist who managed to synthesize a version of the Super Soldier Serum using Isaiah Bradley’s blood is named Dr. Wilfred Nagel. This version of John Walker is prompted to take one of the few remaining doses of the Super Soldier Serum after being beaten in hand to hand combat by not only the enhanced Flag Smashers, but also the Dora Milajae from Wakanda. Much like Maria Sharapova resorted to doping only to lose to Serena Williams anyways.
Dr. Wilfred Nagel is the scientist heading the experiment at Camp Cathart in Mississippi for Project: Rebirth which resulted in Isaiah Bradley becoming a Super Soldier in “Truth: Red, White & Black”, yet another easter egg for Marvel heads watching this series. Let’s talk about Luke Cage’s ties to the Super Soldier legacy some more, shall we?
In Season One Episode 4 of “Marvel’s Luke Cage”, titled “Step In The Arena”, we’re transported to Seagate Prison, a privately owned institution where they show Carl Lucas undergo the process that gave him his superpowers, headed up by Dr. Noah Burstein. In previous Marvel films, they’ve either depicted the entire arduous Super Soldier process (like in “Deadpool”) or just given short glimpses of it (like with Black Widow’s brief Red Room flashbacks in “Avengers: The Age Of Ultron”), but here Luke Cage is given the treatment as a last resort to heal his extensive injuries. Due to interference by a racist prison guard attempting to kill him (happened in the comic book, too), he is instead given powers that far surpass the intended results.
In comic book history, it’s common for popular heroes to get stronger and/or more powerful as both their fanbase increases and the world changes around them to make them more viable. It happened to Superman, Wonder Woman, The Hulk and it eventually also happened to Luke Cage.
At first, Luke Cage had approximately the same strength level as fellow street level super hero Spider-Man, who had Class 10 strength (able to lift 10–15 tons), but had increased invulnerability that helped him hold his own against overpowered foes. In the 90’s, Luke Cage experienced a brand new surge in popularity, so his power/strength level was tripled. He can now lift between 25–30 tons. Eventually, he even joined the Avengers and became defacto leader of one group, until he discovered he was leader and declined the position during Civil War. Post Civil War, Marvel entered The Heroic Age, and Luke Cage finally officially assumed leadership of the Avengers.
When we look back at the 80 year history of Marvel’s Super Soldier Serum and its legacy, which includes the Infinity Formula (Nick Fury, Nick Fury Jr. & Winter Soldier) and spawned numerous offshoots that created super soldiers, superspies, operatives and enhanced/super powered mercenaries alike, the discussion rarely considers the racial politics involved. Way back when the United States first looked to dispel Adolf Hitler’s Nazi doctrines and propaganda they used and exploited Black bodies to further their agenda whether it was Jesse Owens, Joe Louis or Dorie Miller.
The sad and ironic part is the United States still treated these people as second class citizens and openly discriminated against them, all while criticizing Hitler’s eugenics program in Germany. In the United States, they were detaining Japanese families who were American citizens and sterilizing women of several ethnicities in secret for decades.
It was extremely hypocritical to use Black Americans as examples negating the Nazi “Master Race” rhetoric while subjecting these same Black citizens to the American brand of White supremacy consisting of lynching, widespread discrimination via Jim Crow laws, lack of access to quality education, economic disenfranchisement and segregation.
It’s even more crazy when you fully explore the history and legacy of the Super Soldier Serum in the pages of Marvel Comics and see tragic characters like Sharon Ventura and Laura Kinney (X-23) who were both test subjects who were enhanced, one was constantly sexually assaulted and the other became an underaged sex worker. Several of the enhanced subjects that underwent the many different offshoots or iterations of the Super Soldier process either became drug addicts or were captives, pawns or indentured servants of the agencies or corporations that gave them their powers. Some were lucky enough to take control of their own lives. Most weren’t…
Whether it’s through harnessing Gamma radiation, synthesizing the Wakandan heart shaped herb, utilizing Mutant Growth Hormone, or the AVX method which synthesized the Luke Cage “Power Man process” in a steady controlled dosage that resembled a NicoDerm CQ extended release patch, or the new synthesized version derived from the blood of Isaiah Bradley used to create the Flag Smashers in the present MCU, Marvel has come up with several new & innovative ways to replicate the Super Soldier Serum process that they first concocted 80 years ago.
Throughout those years, the role that race has played has oddly enough never been broached or even explored until the release of Marvel’s 2021 Disney + series “The Falcon And The Winter Soldier” which debuted almost 5 full years after I first wrote this piece on Medium. Now that we’ve seen Isaiah Bradley and Elijah Bradley enter the MCU, this opens the door for Josiah Bradley to possibly join them and the Super Soldier floodgates will continue to burst open once Marvel’s oft-delayed “Black Widow” film finally debuts on July 9th, 2021 presenting the Red Room and Russian super soldiers like Red Guardian, Iron Maiden, White Widow & Crimson Widow will be introduced as well.