Why Marvel’s Israeli Superhero May Pose a Big Problem for the Studio?

Why Marvel’s Israeli Superhero May Pose a Big Problem for the Studio?

Marvel has a slew of fan-favorite superheroes. Of course, there are the Avengers, like Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor, while the studio is also setting up to introduce its next generation of heroes. However, one character, the Israeli superhero Sabra, may pose a big problem for the company, especially with the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Officially introduced at the recent D23 expo 2022, Marvel announced that Sabra would join the Marvel Cinematic Universe. She’s set to debut in the 2024 film Captain America: New World Order opposite Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson—the first black Captain America in the MCU. Though it may still take time before this movie hits the big screen, this may result in a huge controversy.

The Controversy Surrounding Marvel’s Israeli Superhero

Sabra has been part of Marvel Comics since the 1980s, though the upcoming Captain America: New World Order will be the first time she will be seen on the big screen. She also appeared in the Fantastic Four: The Animated Series Episode Doomsday.

But since her introduction to Marvel, her inclusion has been met with controversy. In her appearance in The Incredible Hulk comics in 1981, Sabra attacked The Hulk, believing he was helping an Arabic militant group. A Palestinian boy was caught up in the middle of the fight between Sabra, The Hulk, and the terrorists. Sadly, the boy died, and Sabra showed no remorse, though The Hulk taught her about human values.

“Boy died because boy’s people and yours both want to own land!” The Hulk told the Israeli superhero. “Boy died because you wouldn’t share!”

From there, her presence in the Marvel universe has been the subject of debate, bringing her character and the comic book into the middle of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Though the issue between the two states is more complicated than the problem Sabra introduced, this is one of the reasons her character has been dubbed controversial.

Sure, Sabra has learned compassion over the death of an innocent boy. Still, her negative views toward Arabic characters, even to her fellow superhero Arabian Knight, is also an issue to many. Her compassion doesn’t even last long, as her motivations get somewhat reversed and less nationalistic after disliking Palestinians following the death of her son due to a terrorist attack.

In addition, Sabra’s name itself also poses a big problem. According to The New York Times, Sabra may only be the name of a person born in Israel to Israeli Jews. However, it’s also the name of a refugee camp in Lebanon where “a Christian militia killed hundreds of Palestinians while Israeli troops stood by” in the 1980s.

The Concerns Over Marvel’s Israeli Superhero

CNN noted, via Variety, that Sabra’s move to often battle offensive Arab stereotypes in the comics has caused Palestinian concerns over her introduction to the MCU. This means that she will be seen by a wider audience, which may send a different message to the viewers.

In a post on X (formerly Twitter), the Institute for Middle East Understanding, a U.S.-based pro-Palestinian organization, made a list of concerns over the Israeli superhero’s representation to big screen. The group didn’t only see her feature in the Marvel movie ironic; it’s also seen “offensive, dehumanizing, and actively harmful to Palestinians and Muslims.”

  • Knowing Sabra is an Israeli police officer and a spy for an Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, there’s already a negative connotation that comes with this character. Her origin story featuring the death of a Palestinian child is also seen as problematic, seemingly promoting a “slew of racist, anti-Muslim stereotypes and dehumanizing depictions of Palestinians while glorifying Israeli military violence.”
  • Her name also reminds them of Israel’s human rights atrocities, like the mentioned Sabra and Shatila Massacre. That said, IMEU sees Sabra’s coming to the MCU as a move to glorify the Israeli army and police, accusing Marvel of promoting Israel’s violence against Palestinians and enabling the continued oppression.

Elsewhere, Deepak Sarma, a College of Arts and Sciences professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, told Newsweek that Sabra’s character increases “nationalist and political ideologies and convictions.” Hence, being seen by the many, especially around the world, may only worsen the ongoing tensions in the Middle East.

She continued that it couldn’t help that Sabra would be considered “offensive” not just by the Palestinians but also by the Arabs, Muslims, and their supporters due to the complexities of nationhood and nationalism in the Middle East.

Voiceover artist and activist Eliza Jane Schneider seconded and told Newsweek that putting an Israeli superhero under the spotlight, especially an intelligence anti-terrorist, on a global scale is “potentially offensive.” With the wide reach Marvel has, the implications may just further the division between the people and the states. “It could be seen as Marvel and the United States supporting and aggrandizing Israel’s policies,” she said.

How can Marvel Avoid Further Controversies Surrounding its Israeli Superhero?

This won’t be the first time nationalism has been an issue in Marvel. In the 1960s, the comic book franchise introduced Red Guardian, a communist Russian version of Captain America, who David Harbour played in Black Widow in 2021. The studio also introduced other cultural counterparts, like Captain Britain.

Schneider suggested that Marvel could treat Sabra as it did with Red Guardian to avoid further steering controversies. The company could make her a more complex character that wouldn’t rely on stereotypes. This could even give the character a chance to “experience life and love from both sides” amid the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If it happens, this can even promote harmony between the two states.

This could be done by showing the Israeli superhero allegiance to universal love and not by choosing what side she should defend and fight on. She should have the desire to protect all the children and civilians from both sides, giving value to human life, whether Israeli or Palestinian.

Marvel, alternatively, promised to give Sabra a “new approach” when she debuted on the big screen.

Her character might be controversial in the comics, but it told Variety that she would be “freshly imagined for the screen and today’s audience.”

Marvel has been increasingly featuring representation on screen. So, to avoid getting caught up in controversies, it employs cultural consultants so that there will be no harmful stereotype issues that may arise. It brought a Stanford professor and an Egyptologist to its projects, Ms. Marvel and Moon Knight, to prevent making mistakes, resulting in disputes.

It has also effortlessly handled introducing a controversial comic book character, Fu Manchu, on the screen in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings for taking a fresh approach. In the comics, Shang-Chi’s father is a racist stereotype. But Marvel refashioned the character, played by Tony Leung, and made it original for the movie, making it widely celebrated by many. The character and Leung’s performance were even lauded, dubbed “one of the better and more dynamic MCU villains.”

What Backlash Marvel May Experience if It Doesn’t Change Its Approach to Sabra?

Though Sabra has been part of Marvel since the 1980s, the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict makes her introduction in Captain America: New World Order more contentious.

The war is once again in the front and center after the Palestinian militant group Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel on October 7, resulting in firing airstrikes on Gaza. As of October 30, there were already 1,400 people killed in Israel, while there were over 8,000 casualties in Gaza, per the Associated Press.

If Marvel didn’t change its approach to its Israeli superhero, and feature her origin story in the comic book on the big screen, the studio may face a huge backlash. Protests may happen at movie theaters when the film hits the big screens, while it may also be banned in Arab or other Muslim countries.

Who is Sabra in Marvel Comics and the MCU?

Real name Ruth Bat-Seraph, Sabra was born near Jerusalem, Israel, and raised on a special kibbutz run by the Israeli government and her family. She was the first superhuman agent created to serve the Mossad and a part of the Israeli Police forces of Tel Aviv, working as a policewoman and a cover.

She possesses a mutant power manifested when she saves a dying woman in an alley by transferring her life energy. She can help others heal quickly.

In the MCU, Sabra will be played by the 28-year-old Israeli actress Shira Haas, who also led the Netflix mini-series Unorthodox, which follows the story of a Hasidic Jewish woman who moves to a different country to escape an arranged marriage.

Sabra was created to be the Israeli counterpart of Captain America. She dons a white bodysuit with a blue star of David and is trained in hand-to-hand combat.

With her ability, personality, and character, Sabra is seen as the perfect person to promote love, forgiveness, humanity, peace, and positive change in the warring states of Israel and Palestine. Hence, if only Marvel develops this character into a woman who will support the Israeli and Palestinian governments, her introduction may even help encourage peace.

So, let’s see how Marvel will take on Sabra’s character in the upcoming Captain America: New World Order when it releases on May 3, 2024.

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