Marvel Needs to Tread Carefully With ‘Captain America: New World Order’s New Superhero
Captain America: New World Order has started filming, and last fall, Marvel announced that the film will introduce a new superhero to the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Sabra, played by Israeli actress Shira Haas (Unorthodox). However, Sabra has a complicated—and controversial—history in the Marvel comics universe, and the MCU will be navigating some thorny territory when it debuts Sabra in 2024.
Sabra in the Marvel comics universe
Sabra first appeared in 1980, and later went on clash with the Hulk in The Incredible Hulk. Born Ruth Bat-Seraph, Sabra is what some might consider the quintessential Israeli Jew: she’s born on a kibbutz near Jerusalem, and later works for the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad. Sabra becomes a superhero when she discovers she’s a mutant, with enhanced strength, speed, and stamina, along with the ability to temporarily grant energy and powers to others.
Sabra’s character has generated controversy throughout her history in Marvel comics, starting with her name. On its most basic level, the word “sabra,” referring to a type of cactus that grows in the Middle East, simply means a Jew born in Israel. However, the word has also come to mean a Jew who is bigger, stronger, and tougher than their supposedly feeble counterparts in the Jewish Diaspora. The stereotype of the Sabra has been used to justify and romanticize Zionism, supposedly demonstrating how much happier and healthier Jews are in Israel.
As hurtful as Sabra’s name is to many Diaspora Jews, though, the character is infinitely more offensive to Palestinians. The Institute for Middle East Understanding broke the problem down in a Twitter thread when the casting was announced last September, pointing out that the character glorifies the occupation of Palestine and erases the Sabra and Shatila Massacre, in which thousands of Palestinian and Lebanese people were murdered.
Yumna Patel, Palestine News Director at Mondoweiss, also laid out the problems with the character.
Sabra’s storylines in the comics are also cause for concern. In the comics, Sabra battles dehumanizing caricatures of “terrorists,” and her origin story includes the Hulk helping her see a murdered Palestinian boy as human.
Sabra’s debut in the MCU is complicated even further by Captain America 4’s title, New World Order, which is based on a phrase with antisemitic origins. The phrase refers to a world takeover by a secret cabal, and originated with antisemitic conspiracy theories like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Given this troubling history, is it possible for Marvel Studios to ethically introduce an Israeli superhero—especially since Jewish Marvel fans have been clamoring for better representation? It looks like Marvel is at least aware of the problem.
Marvel: MCU characters are “freshly imagined for the screen”
Variety points out that the MCU has successfully reimagined other problematic characters, including Shang-Chi and Moon Knight. Phase 4 saw the introduction of the most diverse roster of superheroes yet, and Marvel gave a refreshing amount of creative control to marginalized people. It also must be said that Captain America’s persona is also steeped in colonialist and imperialist propaganda—yet Marvel interrogated that persona in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.
Marvel told Variety that its characters “are always freshly imagined for the screen and today’s audience, and the filmmakers are taking a new approach with the character Sabra who was first introduced in the comics over 40 years ago.” Based on that statement, we can hope that Marvel is aware of the deep problems with this character.
We can also hope that Marvel doesn’t just consult with Israeli Jews about Sabra’s character, given her impact on Palestinians and Diaspora Jews. There’s nothing inherently wrong with an Israeli character, and to suggest that Sabra doesn’t belong in the MCU simply because she’s Israeli is antisemitic. However, In order to really reimagine this particular character, Marvel will need to face the brutal reality of the occupation of Palestine—and perhaps find a less problematic name for Ruth Bat-Seraph in the process.
(featured image: Marvel Entertainment)
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