Marvel’s got a pretty big universe that they can play with on screen, and the studio has been eager to bring some side elements of that universe into the movies in small, easter egg sorts of ways. There was a Project Pegasus crate in Iron Man 2, as well as a map featuring Wakanda, home of the Black Panther. There was what I swear was the Eye of Agamatto, Dr. Strange’s mystic amulet, in Thor. And now Captain America: The First Avenger has my favorite easter egg yet: The Human Torch.
No, I’m not talking about Chris Evans, who played the Human Torch in the Fantastic Four movies but rather the original Human Torch, a character who first appeared in 1939’s Marvel Comics #1 from Timely Publications. The original Human Torch is one of the weirdest characters in Marvel history, and his presence is still felt to this day.
The original Human Torch was an android, created by Dr. Phineas T Horton. Dr. Horton kept his creation in a big glass case, and when he opened that case at a press exhibition exposure to oxygen caused the android to not only explode into fire but obtain sentience (it was 1939, ok?). The Torch wasn’t exactly a hero yet - he accidentally set parts of New York ablaze and then killed a mobster who wanted his powers. Eventually he gained control of his fiery abilities, which included flight and fireballs.
The Torch eventually took on a human name, Jim Hammond, and joined the police force for a while. He also got himself a boy sidekick, Toro, the child of Dr. Horton’s lab assistants who, for reasons I have never fully comprehended, also has flame powers.
The Human Torch is also notable because he took part in the first full-scale comic book crossover; he battled Namor, the Sub-Mariner. Namor had been technically introduced earlier in 1939 in a giveaway comic which was reprinted in Marvel Comics #1. The Sub-Mariner was an enemy of America and an anti-hero, so of course the Torch battled him.
In the 1970s a retcon made it so that the Human Torch and Toro fought in WWII alongside Captain America and Bucky, the Sub-Mariner, Spitfire and others in a super team called The Invaders (for some weird reason Cap’s team of fighting men in the movie was originally called The Invaders, but some time in post they decided to call the the Howling Commandos, after Nick Fury’s team of WWII soldiers from the comics. It really makes more sense, as The Invaders were all superhuman). And the Torch beat Quentin Tarantino to the punch - it’s accepted Marvel Comics continuity that he burned Adolph Hitler to death in Der Fuhrer’s bunker.
It turns out that The Vision, the android member of The Avengers created by Ant-Man, Dr. Henry Pym, was made up of the parts of the original Human Torch. There’s been a lot of waffling back and forth about this over the years as the Human Torch has come back a couple of times, but last I heard there was a real fence-sitting decision to make it that the Vision’s Human Torch parts came from an exact duplicate timeline, so he has all the Human Torch’s parts but that the android Human Torch who was resurrected in West Coast Avengers is also the original Human Torch. Comics. They haven’t come that far since 1939. The Torch eventually sacrificed himself in the line of duty, then was rebuilt as a weapon of mass destruction and then died again.
You can see the original Human Torch for a split second in Captain America: The First Avenger during the World’s Fair sequence. During one of the establishing shots the camera glides across a guy in red long johns inside a glass tube; over him is a banner that reads something like ‘Phineas T. Horton’s Amazing Invention!’ - I’m paraphrasing here, as there is no visual reference right now short of going back to the movie.
Could the original Human Torch show up in another Marvel film - like a Captain America sequel? I wonder how the rights issues with Fantastic Four would impact that. Could he show up and be called Toro? Or just Torch (as he’s not really human)? Or is the whole flaming man thing way too far over the line? I suspect that the appearance of the Torch in this film was mostly just a nod and a wink. Doesn’t stop me from dreaming of an Invaders movie, though…