Why 'The Falcon and the Winter Soldier' Character Isaiah Bradley Is a Big Deal

The character's introduction in Episode 2 has huge implications for both this show and the MCU.

the falcon and the winter soldier
Marvel Studios
Marvel Studios

Two episodes in, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier feels pretty straightforward and less of a puzzle-box show than WandaVision was. But that doesn't mean it's skimping on lore. In its second episode, "The Star-Spangled Man," we learn a bit more about the new Captain America, John Walker (Wyatt Russell); get some prickly back-and-forth between Sam and Bucky as they try to infiltrate the anti-patriotism group the Flag-Smashers; and settle a bit more into the world these characters are living in post-Blip. But the really important stuff happens after all the stunt-heavy action scenes, when Sam and Bucky go to visit a very important Marvel character.

Going up against the Flag-Smashers hand-to-hand, they realize it's going to take a lot more than one guy with a vibranium arm, one guy with high-tech wings, and two regular guys (albeit one with a famous red, white, and blue shield) to hold their own against the mysterious band of soliders who have somehow gotten their hands on super serum. After Steve Rogers left the Avengers, we all assumed that Bucky was the only one left with super-soldier abilities, having been experimented upon by HYDRA during and after World War II. But that's never been the case—the truth about America's super soldier project has been hidden for decades, and Bucky, who has somehow figured this out, takes Sam to see a man named Isaiah, who explains it all to them.

Isaiah (played by Carl Lumbly), whose full name in the comics is Isaiah Bradley (first introduced in Truth: Red, White & Black in 2003), was a Black American WWII soldier who was part of a group of 300 Black soldiers used as test subjects in Project Rebirth, the American military's attempt to recreate the success of Steve Rogers' serum. Most of the experiments went horribly wrong, and Isaiah was one of a handful of survivors who became a covert black ops team, sent into the most dangerous and secretive parts of the war. After his fellow team members were killed, Isaiah dressed up as Captain America for a mission, taking his shield, and was captured and then rescued by a band of freedom fighters before being sent back to the States, where he was court-martialed and sent to prison. He was freed years later, but his body had begun deteriorating as a side-effect of the serum. Nevertheless, rumors about him turned him into a folk hero for Marvel's Black America.

The introduction of Isaiah into the MCU pokes some very complex holes into the Avengers' world, which has so far been very tentative about the subject of race and how it relates to superhero stories. Kevin Feige hinted at the fact that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier wouldn't shy away from Sam Wilson's background, explaining to Variety that, "He's an African American man. He's got experience in the military and doing grief counseling with soldiers who have PTSD. But where did he grow up? Who is his family? Mackie was excited to dig into it as this man, this Black man in particular, in the Marvel version of the world outside our window." 

The second episode of the show takes this further, with a few mildly clumsy and yet no less effective moments: Sam is immediately recognized and called "Black Falcon" by a young boy they pass by in Isaiah's neighborhood, and then in contrast he's racially profiled by a pair of white police officers before they realize who he is. The scene with Isaiah could have been a one-off, meant only to provide some explanation about how America tried to replicate their Captain America success once before, or the show could take it further, examining what it means that the American government authorized their military to perform grisly, deadly experiments on people whose lives were deemed disposable because of their race, and then punished their only survivor—and then happily allowed the Black man to whom Steve Rogers bequeathed his legacy to turn it down, before replacing him with a white man. 

Whether it's in this show or further down the line, though, Isaiah will probably return—or, if not Isaiah, then most definitely his grandson Eli, the faceless boy who answers the door for Sam and Bucky. Fans will recognize Eli Bradley as the name of Patriot, one of the founding members of the Young Avengers, which could very well be the direction Marvel is planning to go after this next phase. Other members of the Young Avengers include Wiccan and Speed, who were introduced in WandaVision and likely will return in a following movie; Kate Bishop, a teen incarnation of Hawkeye who will be introduced in the upcoming Hawkeye show; Kamala Khan, a.k.a. Ms. Marvel, who will appear in Captain Marvel 2 and in her own show; and Kid Loki, a young incarnation of Loki, who rumor has it is going to pop up in the upcoming Loki show. Nothing has been confirmed, of course, but we wouldn't be surprised if Phase 5 upends the entire MCU.

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Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.