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Superhero Academy 101: History (The Quest for the Supersoldier Formula)

Updated on November 8, 2017
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Chris Peruzzi is a comic book superhero historian who is passionate about how today's comic book heroes are the new mythology for America.

The One Shot Miracle to a Perfect Body

From wimp to hero in one minute. The story of Steve Rogers
From wimp to hero in one minute. The story of Steve Rogers

Following Marvel Comics is like beginning a lifelong adventure into fantasy and pseudo-science. That’s not meant to be an insult. It's similar to how every man, woman, and child who follows Star Trek needs to know that most of the science in the show is just made up and combined to make logical flow for a good story.

One of the longest-running plot threads to the MU has been the quest to the super soldier formula. As part of Project: Rebirth, this formula made scrawny pint-sized weakling, Steve Rogers, into the unstoppable patriotic fighting machine known as Captain America. The formula was the brainchild of Doctor Abraham Erskine (codenamed: Josef Reinstein) and has never been successfully reproduced after his untimely death. As Erskine was killed shortly after its first successful application, he never got the opportunity to commit the final version of the formula to paper. Steve Rogers remains one of the few successful recipients of the formula. The working theory was the formula could only successfully work after stabilization through “vita-rays."

The true effects of the super soldier formula leave the recipient with peak human conditioning, strength, stamina, dexterity, coordination, balance, reflexes and reaction time far greater than any Olympic athlete could possibly achieve. What’s more, the formula speeds healing time and eliminates toxins from the recipient's bloodstream (both natural fatigue poisons and administered poisons). The byproduct of this is enhanced endurance, immunity to diseases, and slower aging.

While it can safely be said the only successful recipient to the American version of the super soldier formula has been Steve Rogers (and with that his clone that housed the Red Skull’s mind), others have had mixed results with varying degrees of success and failure. What can be said is that in both the comics and in film, it remains a continuing quest for Marvel Universe scientists to either duplicate the super soldier formula or come up with a new enhanced fighting machine ready to carry out missions for the government.

Super Soldier Failure Stories

Isaiah Bradley found that his version of the Supersoldier formula led to Alzheimer's Disease.
Isaiah Bradley found that his version of the Supersoldier formula led to Alzheimer's Disease.

While Steve Rogers has been a poster boy for a successful trial of Project: Rebirth, several characters have not fared so well. Based solely on the early formulas of Erskine, in order to refine the formula, three hundred African-American soldiers were injected with the formula. Five survived. Throughout World War II, the only recipient of this formula to survive was Isaiah Bradley.

The only downside was that eventually the formula began to affect Isaiah’s mind and body. The effects were similar to Alzheimer ’s disease.

There were two other people who attempted to use a surviving dose of the original super soldier formula. The first was William Burnside also known as “Steve Rogers”, also known as Captain America IV (the Commie Basher), also known as The Grand Director. Burnside, who was an obsessed Captain America fan back in the fifties, obtained one of the last surviving doses of the original super-soldier formulas used on Steve Rogers. When Rogers disappeared during the last days of World War II, two men had taken the mantle of Captain America. The third man, Jeffery Mace, had retired leaving no one to carry the Captain America name.

The Supersoldier formula drove Captain America IV (William Burnside - aka the Commie Bashing Cap) quite insane.
The Supersoldier formula drove Captain America IV (William Burnside - aka the Commie Bashing Cap) quite insane.

Burnside, after obtaining the formula, leveraged it to convince the government that he should be the next Captain America. After getting plastic surgery to resemble Steve Rogers, he was placed in a boy’s private school where he met a student, Jack Munroe. He used the super soldier formula on both himself and Monroe to make themselves the next Captain America and Bucky. Unfortunately, as they had not used the vita-ray treatment in addition to the formula, both Burnside and Munroe began to slowly go insane. When this happened the government placed them in suspended animation.

As the Americans weren’t the only country attempting to create a super soldier formula, the Germans had also come up with their own. Their first attempt produced Master Man. Master Man was the German Übermensch with powers and abilities far beyond peak human. Master Man had super strength, stamina, durability, speed, and could fly. What made Master Man a failure as a super soldier was the instability and unreliability of the formula that periodically and unpredictably would reduce him to his frail pre-super soldier ninety-pound weakling self. This same formula, through an accident, produced the Nazi super-soldier woman, Warrior Woman. She has yet to experience a reversion to normal human levels.

In another attempt to recreate the formula, scientist Theodore “Ted” Sallis, had come up with his own variant while working on Project: Gladiator in the Florida Everglades. In addition to working on the formula, Sallis was in collaboration with Doctor Curt Connors shortly after Connors’ arm was amputated. Their research together would be the building blocks to Connors’ unsuccessful formula, turning him into The Lizard.

Ted Sallis, who took the super-soldier formula as a last resort, had a violent unexpected transformation into the Man-Thing.
Ted Sallis, who took the super-soldier formula as a last resort, had a violent unexpected transformation into the Man-Thing.

After a security breach in the lab by Sallis’ lover, Ellen Brandt, Sallis destroyed his own notes on the formula and attempts to escape with the only sample of his work. In his escape, his car goes out of control. Sallis injects himself with the formula and crashed his car into the swamp. The combination of both the unstable version of the super soldier formula and magical forces in the swamp (present due to the lab’s close proximity to the mystical doorway known as the Nexus of All Realities), Sallis is transformed into the near-mindless vegetation monster known as the Man-Thing.

The government through the Weapons Plus program took a darker turn when they began working outside what most people would call “ethical means”. Frank Simpson, an unstable child tricked into killing his mother by the woman babysitting him, was kidnapped by Wolverine (who was working for the Weapon Plus program) for the purposes of using him as a guinea pig for a new super soldier formula.

Frank Simpson, aka Nuke - Red, White, and crazy.
Frank Simpson, aka Nuke - Red, White, and crazy.

Simpson, who later became a black ops agent in Viet Nam, was systematically tortured by Wolverine until his mind broke. Wolverine carved an American flag into Simpson’s face and programmed him similar to the methods used in The Manchurian Candidate. Tattooing over the scar with a red, white and blue flag, Simpson was later brought aboard Project: Homegrown where he was surgically made into a cyborg and given chemical pills to increase his adrenaline to his surgically added second heart. While pills keep his levels stable and blue pills bring his adrenaline down. Simpson’s character was later brought into the live action series, Jessica Jones (sans the facial flag tattoo).

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Super Soldier Success Stories

Captain America isn’t the only super soldier. He’s just the one to benefit from Project: Rebirth.

As mentioned before with Master Man, the Germans were also working on their own version. German scientist, Eric Schmitt had also produced a working formula that enhanced human beings to peak levels.

One of the first successful versions came after Steve Rogers with an American journalist named Keen Marlow. Keen was being held prisoner in a German concentration camp. Schmitt, a scientist who had very anti-Nazi sentiments, injected Marlow with the German super soldier formula. Keene used his peak human powers to become the Golden Age mystery man known as The Destroyer. The same formula variant was also given to Keene’s friend, Brian Falsworth, who had taken up his father’s mantle as Union Jack.

Union Jack and The Destroyer - WWII Chums
Union Jack and The Destroyer - WWII Chums

The Americans continued their work pursuing a super soldier with the offspring of Isaiah Bradley while keeping him prisoner. After Bradley was caught by the Nazis and rescued by German insurgents, he was later sent to Leavenworth in 1943 – until 1960 when President Eisenhower pardoned him. While in prison, the government took his DNA and placed it in surrogate mothers. In thirty-nine attempts, only one was successful. That child was known as Josiah X, who inherited all of the positive attributes of the super soldier formula.

Another super soldier program emerged. This time it wasn’t from the Nazis – it came from Russia during the cold war. One of the first known subjects to be a Soviet counterpart to Captain America was the Soviet super soldier known as the Red Guardian. However, none of the seven Marvel characters had been exposed to any scientific transformation to be a super soldier. Each was trained through a rigorous physical workout regimen and were outstanding athletes (with the exception of Dr. Tania Belinsky who gained superhuman powers outside government experimentation).

The program that actually led to a Soviet super-soldier came through their government’s “Red Room” program that produced the Black Widow. Natasha Romanova is both biotechnologically and psycho-technologically enhanced. All of the benefits of the super soldier formula have been recreated within her while not being part of a super soldier formula. The Black Widow has a slowed aging process as well as a peak human physique and a tolerance to fatigue making chemicals and toxins.

Natalia Romanov - Soviet Super Soldier and Graduate of the Red Room
Natalia Romanov - Soviet Super Soldier and Graduate of the Red Room

James Buchanan Barnes, also known as Bucky and the Winter Soldier, was one of them. Technically, he is a product of a super-soldier program that gave him both a cybernetic arm and enhanced conditioning (without a formula). Barnes has also been trained by both the US as an operative as well as the Soviet Union in their programs.

A product of the super soldier program that is between success and failure is the subject known simply as Omega Red. This man, Arkady Rossovich, who was a psychotic to begin with, was delivered to the KGB by the mutant known as Banshee. The KGB experimented on Rossovich and gave him retractable carbonadium tentacle within each of his arms. The carbonadium, while not adamantium, is virtually indestructible. The rest of his abilities come from his mutant heritage and near vampiric need to regularly take a life. While this could be considered a failure from some angles, we need to remember the subject started off crazy.

There is an entire team known as the Soviet Super Soldiers. The other members of the team include Vanguard, Darkstar, Gremlin, the Crimson Dynamo, and Ursa Major – who are members but not creations through a super soldier program.

Omega Red - Just a freaking nightmare
Omega Red - Just a freaking nightmare

The super soldier program in Canada also known as the Weapon X program has taken subjects and mutants and enhanced them. The best-known examples of this program are Wolverine, Sabretooth, Silver Fox, Maverick, Deadpool, X-23, X-13, and Garrison Kane. There are others who are not as well-known and have, for the most part, either been killed or depowered.

America continues to search for more working super soldiers. In both the comic book continuity as well as the Netflix television shows, it was highly probable that both Luke Cage’s experiment under Doctor Noah Bernstein and Jessica Jones’ car accident that gave her meta-human powers were originally experiments for the super soldier program. It was only when the experiments had gone out of control that Luke Cage came out with super strength and steel-hard skin, while Jessica Jones acquired a gravity manipulation power and super strength.

This happens when the program is looking for other ways to make meta-humans. After Steve Rogers had abandoned Captain America’s mantle in the nineties, the government turned to John Walker who was known as the Super-Patriot back then and later became the red, white, and black costumed USAgent. Walker got his powers, not through any kind of formula but through an entity known as “The Power Broker” (aka Doctor Karl Malus).

John Walker - aka Super Patriot, Captain America V, and USAgent, really just a jerk.
John Walker - aka Super Patriot, Captain America V, and USAgent, really just a jerk.

The Power Broker’s process could give superhuman strength to anyone who was willing to pay the price. John Walker went through the process with his army buddies Battlestar, Left Wing, and Right Wing in an attempt to usurp Steve Rogers position as Captain America. Other characters that dealt with the Power Broker were Dennis “Demolition Man” Dunphy, Sharon Ventura (one of the Ms. Marvels) as well as several members of the Unlimited Class Wrestling Federation. However, it was only Walker and Battlestar that came aboard and worked as super soldiers for the government.

The other thing that few people talk about were the near misses that no one knows about. Professor Silas X. Cragg, an enemy of Captain America from World War II, appeared in the modern age with a super soldier formula variant. Cragg correctly surmised that if the super soldier formula worked well on a frail man like Steve Rogers, it would work awesomely on a normal man. Using an ex-convict he found on the street, he injected the formula into him so he could beat the stuffing out of Cap. It nearly worked as it boosted the convict’s strength by a factor of twelve. The convict took the name “Man Brute” and later “Blockbuster”. When he fought Cap, he nearly won. While Cragg was later killed by his creation, he did manage to come up with a working solution.

Why is this important?

The Marvel Universe is constantly looking for good stories to work with many of their story arcs. Whether they’re looking to make a super soldier from the Extremis Program as told in Iron Man 3 or looking to bring in a character like Deathlock for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., it is one of the constant elements buzzing in the background when government “men in black” come along and hush something up.

When Marvel had separated their main 616-universe from their “Ultimates” stories, the original mission for their Ultimates team was to find another super soldier solution. In that storyline, Bruce Banner mixed Steve Rogers’ blood with his “Hulk formula” to make a version of the Hulk who was out of control. Even their new members of Hank Pym and the Wasp were looking for new solutions. That solution came when Pym not only created a shrinking “Pym particle” but adapted it to be a “giant man” solution. He went further in bio-mutations to adapt his wife into being a “wasp” organism.

All of these elements came when Erskine made a miracle man who became an instant Adonis with some chemicals and some exotic radiation.

For the comic book readers, it’s what we all want. Who among us wouldn’t love to instantly become greater than what we are through a magic word, a chemical process, or an alien technology? It’s quick, easy, and cuts out all of the pain.

Therein also lies the terrible seduction of abuse. Those of us who are looking for the quick fix, instant gratification, or a shortcut might do something irresponsible like take anabolic steroids, methamphetamines, artificial stimulants, or performance-enhancing drugs.

While we look at that road, we look at the consequences of it. The health risks, the susceptibility of cancer, and possibly, heart disease and stroke are things we cannot gamble with. In this, we need to remember the super soldier formula is a pipe dream. Power, whether it’s in the form of intellect or physical strength and speed, is always a matter of slowly attained discipline

Ironically, it always comes back to the comic book mantra of power and responsibility. The slow, gradual attainment of power through discipline gives a person the time to learn and adapt. The bodybuilder who spends hours at the gym watches himself in a mirror as he goes past each hurdle. The financial investor who pours over facts, figures, and informed calculations to build his fortune doesn’t waste his hard earned money to lose it all quickly. The intellect who spends time reading through volumes of text to become a better programmer, doctor, lawyer or scientist builds on everything he learns and applies it with confidence.

Each lesson comes with the price of dedication and discipline.

The real heroes are the ones who work for what they have.

Supersoldier: Success or Failure

Character
Result
Captain America (Steve Rogers)
Success
Isaiah Bradley
Failure - Succumbed to mental side effects
William Burnside
Failure - Went insane
Curt Connors
Failure - Became a lizard
Theodore "Ted" Sallis
Failure - Bad reaction with the swamp around him. Became the Man-Thing
Frank Simpson (Nuke)
Failure - Became a super-soldier through pharmaceuticals. Red pills activate powers. White pills stabilize, Blue pills bring him down. Mentally unstable.
Master Man
A bit of both - When working he's like Superman. Unpredictable wearing off time. Becomes weakling afterward.
The Destroyer
Success - Workable Super-soldier variant
Union Jack (Falsworth)
Success - Workable Super-soldier variant
Josiah X
Success - genetically stable
Black Widow
Success - Age retardant Soviet version. Graduate of the Red Room
Omega Red
Success - was already crazy
James "Bucky" Barnes
Success - Super-solder through cybernetics
Wolverine
Success - Adamantium implants combined with mutant physiognomy through the Weapon X program.
Deadpool
Success - Genetic engineering made healing factor. Practically immortal
Sabretooth
Success - through the Weapon X program
Luke Cage
Success - Survived accidental experiment in making skin steel hard and strength increase
Jessica Jones
Success - Survived accident that gave her superpowers. No ill effects.
USAgent
Success - Body enhanced by the Power Broker. No side effects

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    • cperuzzi profile image
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      Christopher Peruzzi 2 weeks ago from Freehold, NJ

      The Curt Connors Super Soldier theory was introduced within the not too distant past. I can't lay my hands on the source, but when I do, I'll let you know.

      The Quest for the Super-Solider formula has been a thick vein within the Ultimates Universe for a while now. I think you can go back to Ultimates #4 where Bruce Banner combined Cap's blood with his Hulk formula (you heard me right) to become a gray Hulk and went on a New York rampage. In that universe, it was a quirk that it worked on Steve Rogers at all - it didn't seem to work on anyone else.

      This is what you get when your chief scientist doesn't commit his notes to paper. There's a lot of vita-rays in the process. Imagine if Cap IV and Nomad had gotten the right stuff. Things might have ended a bit different. However, it wasn't going to. They needed something to address the political incorrectness of Cap in the 1950s for everything he said and did to Asians. It's easier to say he just went nuts.

      In order to talk about Luke Cage, all we need to do is look to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and follow that storyline. The Netflix stuff is still tied to the movies and it seems right that not only were there just spectacular failures within the time Cap got frozen and his awakening but terrible things happened with the misfits that came forth.

      Nuke is a prime example. So are several of the Weapon X subjects. Others were just sad - like the Man-thing and Elijah Bradley.

    • Nathan Kiehn profile image

      Nathan Kiehn 2 weeks ago

      Never sure how I felt about these different characters--Curt Connors, Wolverine, Luke Cage--all being part of the same line of experimentation. I mean, part of me likes the cross-universe unification Marvel's going for, but I guess I wonder why it just so happens that a lot of heroes or villains transformed by science stemmed from this idea. Doesn't it get to be too much after a while? Can't Curt Connors just have been trying to restore his arm? Why the Cap connection?

      That minor complaint aside, I loved reading the article. Very rich in history and connections, as I've commented previously. And I love your little lesson at the end. These aren't just stories for stories sake...there's something to learn, even from the pages of a comic book.