Marvel's New Super Soldier Serum Has Shocking Historical Roots

“She’s the most important person in the world and her family living in poverty. If our mother is so important to science, why can’t we get health insurance?” - Lawrence Lacks, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Chapter 21)

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier continues to delve into ideas about agency in Episode 3. During the episode, Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes uncover the truth behind the Super Soldier serum that the Flag-Smashers stole. Isaiah Bradley might have only been in a few minutes of Episode 2, but he’s the driving force behind all these super-powered beings running around the Marvel Cinematic Universe now. He told Sam and Bucky that the government had been experimenting on him, but many viewers were probably shocked to learn just how twisted things have become. In the older hero’s journey, the show manages to weave yet another strand of our reality into the world of Marvel comics.

In effect, the real world’s treatment of Henrietta Lacks has a ton to do with Isaiah Bradley’s character. While the large basis for the Black Captain America stems from the Tuskegee Study, there are parallels to this woman’s life. In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot explains how researchers at John’s Hopkins Hospital used her cancer cells to develop the HeLa cell line.

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(Photo: Marvel Entertainment)

George Otto Gey used her treatment for cervical cancer to help power the first immortalized human cell line. It’s a bedrock for medical research that allows people to help develop all kinds of treatments, including the Polio Vaccine, HPV vaccines, HIV treatments, and the Human Genome Project. That’s right, all of that forward progress came from the unknowing contribution of one Black woman.

Much like Lacks, no one ever asked Bradley for his consent to take blood samples. That genetic material is what leads to Dr. Nagel being able to replicate the Super Soldier serum in the present day. In the MCU, Project Rebirth (the experiments that led to Bradley and his fellow soldiers getting powers) is much more literal than during the character’s introduction in Truth: Red, White, and Black.

Episode 3’s most chilling element might be that the United States government is behind these experiments. It’s easy to call out evil when HYDRA is the one doing the mad science. But, both Sam and Bucky have to contend with the fact that the CIA is the one who conscripted Nagel to continue his research initially. However, now he’s out of commission, which means the serum won’t be as easy to duplicate. In a nightmarish turn, we could see a turn where the Power Broker could abduct Isaiah to try and get more blood samples. (We desperately hope we're wrong about that.)

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(Photo: The Lacks Family)

For Bradley, he’s fought for America during multiple wars and been imprisoned as a way to keep the truth from the public. He’s not well-off or as light on his feet as before, but, it’s all by design. Bradley has “outlived” his usefulness. However, he’s never going to really go away as long as there’s a Captain America around. The Super Soldier’s lineage is immortal in that way, too. It’s not as noble as some would like it to be, but it is the truth. Sam Wilson seems to understand the gravity of the situation pretty quickly.

The Flag-Smashers’ goal to give the serum to people in danger of dying takes on a different shade now. Helping people is objectively good, yet there is so much blood that has already stemmed from the experiments. There could be side effects that no one knows about, and tragic consequences could be right around the corner. It’s not a stretch of the imagination to say that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is morally the “grey-est” thing that Marvel has ever put on film. (Though it could push a bit harder sometimes and pick its spots better.)

It would seem as though Falcon will be confronted with the choice to take the serum at some point. Though, it’s hard to imagine him going through with it, given the sordid history of those vials. Unfortunately, that isn’t going to stop bad people from using that formula for their own personal game. So, now Sam Wilson will have to protect the legacy of the most important Super Soldier in the world. Now, we know that’s probably not Steve Rogers.

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is available here.

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