Warning: SPOILERS ahead for Agents of SHIELD, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage
The revelation of Project Patriot in this week’s episode of Agents of SHIELD is more than just another twist in a long line of twists across the show’s four-year run – it’s the latest variation on the super-soldier theme that has been with the Marvel Cinematic Universe since the very beginning, as Jemma Simmons’s (Elizabeth Henstridge) reference to Abraham Erskine’s program in Captain America: The First Avenger makes clear.
As a matter of fact, given all the various initiatives and side-experiments that have populated the MCU’s various films and television shows across the past nine years, and given that they’ve been introduced nonlinearly, it might be a bit hard to keep tabs on everything and everyone affected by one top-secret serum or another. That’s where our handy guide to MCU super soldier programs comes in – we’re going to provide a brief chronological tour through Marvel’s complex fictional history. It’s amazing what new connections can be made or insights can be had when everything is presented in its proper context.
The beginning: 1940s
As Nazi Germany spreads its military might across the entire globe, one of its most brilliant scientists, Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), continues his decade-long work on a super-soldier serum that will transform any man into the strongest, fastest, and most effective soldier on the planet. In 1940, he is forced to inject a test subject with an imperfect version of the solution; the result is the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), also known as SS General Johann Schmidt, who would go on to become one of Hydra’s most legendary leaders.
Erskine eventually has a change of heart and defects to the United States of America, where he takes his now-complete serum and helps the Strategic Scientific Reserve (the war-era predecessor to SHIELD) fashion Project: Rebirth - the Allies’ version of the German super-soldier program. Using Vita radiation to help stabilize the transformation process, the initiative successfully produces Captain America (Chris Evans), the first American enhanced military operator. Unfortunately for everyone involved, Cap also becomes the last, as Hydra agents infiltrate the SSR, assassinate Dr. Erskine, and destroy the last samples of the miracle drug.
All the while, Hydra has been attempting to pick up where the good doctor left off, with researcher Dr. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) replacing Abraham Erskine. They find success with none other than James Buchanan Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Captain America’s childhood friend and military brother-in-arms, who is captured in 1943 during an operation in Europe. When Zola and other top German minds are absorbed into the American industrial-military complex as part of Operation: Paperclip, the scientist secretly continues serving Hydra – and continues to secretly work on Barnes’s physical development and mental conditioning, eventually dubbing it the Winter Soldier program. The Soldier would become the most lethal assassin in the entire world over the course of the next seven decades, being kept in cryogenic stasis when not needed by his Hydra handlers.
The diversification of efforts: 1990s
It is not only Hydra that continues its attempts to successfully complete Abraham Erskine’s super-soldier serum. Dr. Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper/John Slattery), one of the chief architects of Project: Rebirth who would become the co-founder and co-director of SHIELD just a few years later, considers the creation of another Captain America to be something of his life’s work. By 1991, he mostly succeeds, manufacturing a series of five serum packets – which Hydra is only too happy to appropriate from him, sending the Winter Soldier to retrieve the items and assassinate Stark.
This time attaching itself to the Soviet Union’s vast armed forces instead of Germany’s, Hydra selects its top kill squad to serve as the long-awaited next wave of super-soldiers. The result is the creation of five new Winter Soldiers – which would be enough to accomplish any mission or overthrow any government on Earth had Stark’s variation of the chemical compound not left them too erratic and, therefore, untrustworthy in the field. Rather than being retired, Hydra keeps them on ice in Siberia in the hopes of eventually “fixing” them.
Concurrent with efforts to revive Dr. Erskine’s original super-soldier serum, another Hydra division, in conjunction with the Cybertek corporation, hatches a new initiative: called Project: Deathlok, the effort is aimed at using a series of technological implants to increase an individual’s physical prowess and to outfit him with formidable armaments on the battlefield, such as rocket launchers that can retract into an operative’s arm. The first patient was SHIELD Agent John Garrett (Bill Paxton), who was severely injured in a 1990 mission in Sarajevo and whose series of prosthetics saved his life; believing that SHIELD had abandoned him while Hydra had rescued him, Garrett would go on to become one of the organization’s main leaders, to help it secretly grow within SHIELD’s ranks (as it had already been doing since the first day of the spy agency’s existence), and to head up the Deathlok program itself.
The resuscitation of the super-soldier program: 2000s
After the events of 9/11, the United States Military opts to officially reopen the long-dormant Project: Rebirth (a decision which was perhaps aided by Director Howard Stark’s recent death, allowing the experiment to be moved from SHIELD to the Army). General Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) heads up what is now known as the Bio-Tech Force Enhancement Project and oversees the choice to replace Dr. Erskine’s Vita rays with Gamma radiation, believing that may be the key to replicating the SSR’s success 60 years earlier.
To assist with the project, T-Bolt Ross recruits Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), the world’s leading expert in Gamma rays (and his daughter’s boyfriend at the time). When the brash young researcher decides to use himself as a test subject, the result is not the creation of another Captain America but, rather, the Hulk, a giant, green “rage monster” that is nonetheless seen by the military as a promising biological weapon that could be deployed on the battlefield. Banner escapes and goes underground, living a life of exile and penance.
Undeterred by the years-long manhunt that ensues, General Ross eventually decides that he needs, perhaps somewhat ironically, a super-soldier in order to catch the Hulk. He turns to Captain Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), a member of the British Royal Marines that is loaned out to him, to be the next subject. Though the initial dosages are mostly successful, there are also some side-effects in the form of mutation, and when the now-power-hungry Blonsky also demands a transfusion of Banner’s gamma-irradiated blood, he similarly transforms into a monstrous being that gets unofficially dubbed the Abomination.
There are two other – and, for the time being, seemingly unrelated – efforts at creating a super-soldier that also crystalize during this time period, though information about them is currently scarce. On the one hand is Dr. Noah Burstein’s clandestine research at Georgia’s Seagate Prison, where he experiments on inmates in his efforts to create a chemical bath that could theoretically heal any wound or condition and, thereby, essentially make an individual immortal. When this process goes awry, it accidentally results in granting Luke Cage impenetrable skin and super-strength; though unintentional, Burstein is only too happy to replicate the experiment years later, allowing him to shop around a super-soldier process of his own in the present day.
On the other hand is the mysterious organization known only as IGH, which appears to be like Cybertek in that it is involved in highly classified efforts with established governmental entities – this time, the American armed forces – to create enhanced soldiers. The company’s efforts are centered around a series of pills called combat enhancers, which increase the production of adrenaline to give one increased strength and healing along with decreased sensitivity to pain and fatigue – and which provide the unpleasant side-effect of uncontrollable, almost psychotic anger. The most well-known test subject here is Will Simpson (portrayed by Wil Traval and known as Nuke in the comics), though there are, at the least, dozens of others enrolled in the program.
IGH has been simultaneously engaged in an expanded version of this enterprise, slipping similar pharmaceuticals to wounded patients in hospitals around the country. When a young Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) is involved in a car accident that kills the rest of her family, she survives thanks to the treatments secretly provided by the group, though it also – perhaps accidentally – grants her super-strength similar to Luke Cage’s. How prevalent this pilot program is, and to what ends it is being conducted, are entirely unknown.
The explosion of super-soldiers: 2010s
The current decade has seen a veritable explosion of super-soldier programs as previous attempts, whether intentional or not, crystalize and new initiatives are undertaken.
Separate from the military’s efforts at reviving Project: Rebirth and, of course, Hydra’s attempts to create a technologically-enhanced super-soldier, scientists Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) and Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) start up the think tank known as Advanced Idea Mechanics (AIM) in order to perfect a process they call Extremis. Rewriting an individual’s DNA, it substantially increases the pace of cellular regeneration, allowing, say, a severed limb to grow back in just a matter of minutes, and allowing one to manually control the now-increased heat output of his body. Much like Noah Burstein’s work, Extremis wasn’t originally meant to create super-soldiers, but the resultant increase in test subjects’ physical and mental capabilities makes them precisely that, and their ability to literally make themselves explode means they’re the ultimate suicide bomber – a distinct advantage on the battlefield.
The Centipede Project, meanwhile, is something of an intersection of the Winter Soldier and Deathlok programs, using a grand combination of nearly all previous attempts – a variation of Dr. Abraham Erskine’s serum, Gamma radiation, Extremis, and, even, Chitarui metal salvaged from their invasion of New York – in order to create the perfect super-soldier. The originator and overseer of the initiative is none other than John Garrett, whose Deathlok-supplied augmentation was no longer adequately working and who needed a new source of regeneration to stay alive. Despite being, arguably, the most successful super-soldier program since the ‘40s, Centipede is quickly scrapped, thanks to a combination of not having the full support of all the other Hydra leaders (competition runs thick among the organization’s many heads) and to the success of SHIELD in hunting down and eradicating all the secret test sites around the globe.
Finally, Project: Patriot is the latest arrival on the superhuman scene. With Captain America’s departure from the government payroll as an officially-sanctioned superhero, and with the quietly-rebuilt SHIELD (now free of Hydra’s presence) getting ready to be reintroduced to the public as an international institution, a new United Nations poster boy is needed - one who can both follow in Cap’s footsteps and who can serve as the new director of SHIELD. The answer is Jeffrey Mace (Jason O’Mara), a normal man who (wrongly) gets heralded as a hero during the bombing of the UN in Vienna. The American Armed Forces picks him to be the recipient of – what else? – a super-soldier serum that was confiscated two years previously by SHIELD.
Originally created by Dr. Calvin Zabo (Kyle MacLachlan) in order to heighten his strength and thereby allow him to protect his family from Hydra’s merciless agents, it is a chemical cocktail that consists of steroids, methamphetamines, and gorilla testosterone. All this results in putting the user into an almost Hulk-esque state (hence the character’s name of Mister Hyde in the comics). The military manages to clear nearly all of the negative side-effects for Director Mace’s usage, allowing him to take the serum without becoming psychologically unhinged – and allowing him to be called the Patriot, replete with an almost-Captain America suit of armor, and to become the new superpowered leader of a new international effort to regulate and monitor all enhanced individuals around the world.