“I frankly have been delighted, if not a little surprised, by the number of times that I’ve gotten an opportunity to play superheroes,” Lumbly said to The Washington Post.
Lumbly, 69, is one of the rare actors who has performed through many eras of superheroes on-screen. Well before the genre became mainstream — and almost a quarter century before Chadwick Boseman graced the screen as the ultimate Black superhero, the Black Panther — Lumbly was putting on a mask and fighting crime in front of the camera. He has recognized how the Black superhero has evolved — and why “Falcon” is an important milestone.
In 1994, he starred in “M.A.N.T.I.S.” as a scientist who was paralyzed by police gunfire and builds a high-tech suit to fight crime, corruption and racism. Debuting just two years after the Rodney King verdict in Los Angeles, the show was produced by Sam Raimi — who would go on to direct the original “Spider-Man” trilogy and help give birth to the modern superhero era of cinema — and developed by Sam Hamm, who had a hand in writing Tim Burton’s “Batman” and “Batman Returns.” “M.A.N.T.I.S.,” would not create a television superhero boom however — it was canceled after one season.
“Unfortunately, what took place subsequently was unable to rise to the same creative level of potential that had been laid out by the pilot,” Lumbly said.
The Justice League came calling in 2001 with what would go on to be a cult hit animated series. Lumbly was the voice of J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter, alongside some of superhero animation’s greatest vocal talents, including Kevin Conroy (Batman), Tim Daly (Superman), Susan Eisenberg (Wonder Woman) and Phil LaMarr (Green Lantern).
Now he was being asked to be Marvel Studios’s first Black super-soldier, Isaiah Bradley, with an origin story that would serve as a prelude to Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) becoming Captain America in the series’ sixth and final episode, which began streaming Friday. Bradley debuted in 2003 in the Marvel Comics mini series “Truth: Red, White and Black” which told the story of secret government experiments with super-soldier serum that led to him becoming the first Black Captain America.
Lumbly, despite his success with super heroics on-screen, has never been into comic books, even while growing up in Minneapolis after his parents immigrated there from Jamaica in the 1950s. His son Brandon, however, was very familiar with Isaiah Bradley, and told his father of the significance the role carried within the Marvel Universe.
It was Lumbly who had perhaps the most impactful moment in “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” looking Mackie’s Sam Wilson in the eye before Sam’s ascension to the role of Captain America and telling him he wanted no part of it. Bradley felt what the United States had done to him in making him a super-soldier and then locking him away for decades to hide the secret of his superpowered existence was an unforgivable act.
“You think things are different? You think times are different?” he asked Sam. “They will never let a Black man be Captain America. And even if they did, no self-respecting Black man would ever wanna be.”
Lumbly said he couldn’t help but feel something when reading and then acting out the line.
“If I’m being completely honest, what I felt was the impact it had in me,” Lumbly said. “I feel that the responsibility I have whenever I try to do a character is to bring as much as what is real about me to what I believe is real about the character.”
He added, “In that particular line, Isaiah’s experience based on what he dealt with, serving the country, what he dealt with being mistreated by the country that he had served and loved, made him feel that he could not imagine [a Black Captain America] happening and … it caused him to wonder what it was that would have made [Sam Wilson] want to be Captain America, or in service to this nation knowing what he knew about how he had been treated.”
Lumbly equates the scene with the conversation many Black Americans were having as Barack Obama became president, about the fears for his safety given America’s history with Black men with power. Bradley represents the old guard of Black men who would never trust the United States. Mackie’s Falcon has hope for a brighter and more inclusive future, thinking more of positive possibilities and not inevitable responses.
“Because of efforts of people who put their head down and kept moving forward it leads this generation today to a place where Anthony Mackie [as Sam] can have agency and make a decision” to become Captain America, Lumbly said. “Isaiah had no agency. And with that agency comes responsibility. He’s thoughtful about it. It means something to him.”
For every Black person in America who believes in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, Lumbly says, there are just as many who say such faith will never make a difference. In “Falcon,” he sees a tale that is striving to be what America has the potential to stand for.
“I think this story line says, yeah, it can make a difference. And in some ways, the very bridges that make it possible have come from the generations before.”
When asked if he’s grasped just how big and expansive the Marvel Cinematic Universe is during his brief stint in it, Lumbly replies: “Holy cow, yes.”
“For one thing you find out that there are more people around you who are Marvel fans than you knew,” he said.
As for whether his time as Isaiah Bradley is complete, Lumbly says that is up to Marvel Studios.
“I like Marvel,” Lumbly said. “If there’s more, I’m here. If there’s not, I loved being here.”