Disney’s D23 Expo came with a whole lot of announcements for fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, one of them being the upcoming film Captain America: New World Order. If backlash from racist fans over a black Captain America (Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson) wasn’t enough, the announcement has spurred a new debate among pro-Israel and pro-Palestine fans.
Who is Sabra, Marvel’s first Israeli superhero?
Emmy-nominated Israeli actress Shira Haas was announced as a part of New World Order ensemble with Haas playing Sabra. While no official look has been revealed for Sabra’s MCU debut so far, her comic book costume follows an ‘in-your-face’ approach to establish her national and ethnic identity.
Wearing a white costume with blue stripes (and a blue cape) and even sporting the Star of David on her neck, Sabra was created by Bill Mantlo and Sal Buscemo in 1981. Since her debut, Sabra’s look has changed to a more grounded one: a stealthy secret agent reminiscent of Black Widow. She has even lost the cape and the star.
But that still doesn’t change her Israeli identity as even in later comics, she is revealed to have worked for the Israeli secret service, Mossad.
How does Sabra treat Palestinians?
Just because a significant share of Palestinians practice Islam, they are often put under the same identity as Arabs even though Palestinian and Arab cultures are vastly different. Sabra and the 80s-era comic book writers go down the same route, referring to “the enemy” as “Arabs”.
Her origin story finds Sabra serving as a police officer by day and an anti-Palestinian crusader by night. Sabra’s hatred towards Palestinians is such that it takes a giant like the Hulk to evoke some humanity from her. In one of her earliest arcs, she fights the Hulk until the latter surrenders after he finds the body of a dead Palestinian child.
A melodramatic speech by the Hulk finally makes her realise that Palestinians (or just Arabs as Sabra would say) are “humans” too.
What’s the controversy around Sabra?
Given Marvel’s universality, it is obvious that Palestinians as well as pro-Palestinian audiences are bothered with Sabra’s MCU debut. On the one hand, it goes in tandem with Marvel’s approach to include more diverse “non-white” stories (as can be seen from Black Panther, Shang-Chi, and Ms Marvel). But this comes at the cost of upsetting the minority (Palestinians, if compared with Israelis).
I'm fuming over this. Way to glorify war criminals @MarvelStudios @Marvel.— Amy Arsamakova (@amyarsamakova) September 11, 2022
And Sabra?As in Sabra&Shatila? The massacre that was carried out by Israeli terrorists?This can't be real.@shirahaas if you have an ounce of morality you will drop out if this.#Palestine #فلسطين_قضيتي pic.twitter.com/duINZrONBc
The land of Israel is claimed as a Jewish homeland by the Israelis. The Palestinians feel that the Israelis have wrongfully displaced them from the land that was originally theirs. And as is common knowledge, the Israel-Palestine conflict has only intensified since last year.
In May 2021, Israeli forces as well as civilians raided and attacked the predominantly Palestinian Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood claiming that the Palestinian inhabitants dwelled there illegally. This kicked off a series of clashes and deadly airstrikes between Israel and Palestinian militant organisation Hamas.
In such a sensitive socio-political environment, Israel is often seen as a “coloniser”. While Israeli-origin actress and Wonder Woman star, Gal Gadot, who herself has served in the Israeli army, has spoken in support of the military superpower, Palestinian-origin siblings and supermodels Gigi and Bella Hadid have constantly voiced their solidarity with Palestine. Such a binary is what is dividing some factions of MCU fans now.
Marvel and its mixed record of diversity
To overanalyse the MCU itself, it is filled with white-dominated American perspectives. Tony Stark (Iron Man) can very well be compared to an Elon Musk or a Jeff Bezos. Then there is Steve Rogers, the first Captain America, a true American patriot who literally wears “Stars and Stripes” and carries a shield as his costume. While these heroes might easily fit within a hegemonic, coloniser “archetype”, Marvel is trying hard to present perspectives of heroes from “colonised” communities.
Disney and Marvel’s own capitalistic intentions aside, the studio has tried to feature more diverse voices in terms of both the cast and crew, from featuring its first Asian superhero in Shang-Chi to touching upon the Partition of 1947 in Ms Marvel. To what extent is this representation genuine or just tokenistic, that can make for a whole other debate.
Capitalism, again, plays a part behind Marvel’s diversity. Just take the case of Doctor Strange. The comics originally feature Strange’s mentor to be a sorcerer called the Ancient One, a Tibetan man. And who did Marvel cast as the Ancient One? British actress Tilda Swinton.
The Internet was abuzz with allegations of Marvel’s whitewashing but as Doctor Strange screenwriter C Robert Cargill explained later, this decision was a means to appease China. When it comes to MCU’s international collections, the Chinese box office has proven to be a major revenue earner. And given China’s authoritarian occupation of Tibet, the decision to retain Ancient One’s original ethnicity would have definitely led to anger from China if not a total ban in the country.
Doctor Strange went on to earn $109 million in China.
Is it too soon to react?
It wouldn’t come as a surprise that several Asian heroes and villains in 20th-century comics were racist caricatures. The Ancient One, Shang-Chi, and Mandarin are just a few of many such racist characters.
However, Marvel’s cinematic treatment of the latter two characters offers some hope for this century. In Iron Man 3, Mandarin is introduced as a white man dressed in “exotic Asian robes” and releasing video threats like a stereotypical “Muslim terrorist”. But the plot twist revealed that this wasn’t Mandarin but just a British actor posing as one.
In last year’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of Ten Rings, Hong Kong actor Tony Leung plays the real Mandarin, a good-looking man with some serious fighting skills. Leung’s portrayal was a new take on the character, doing away with the “mystical Chinese from Shangri-La” stereotypes from the comics. Similarly, Simu Liu’s Shang-Chi has been hailed as a positive role model for international Asian representation.
The movie is set in China, features hand-to-hand combat reminiscent of kung fu films, and even adds flying dragons to the mix. But Destin Daniel Cretton’s direction still manages to retcon the characters’ comic origins in a sensitive and self-aware way.
When it comes to a character like Sabra, it is worth noting that US and Israel have almost always had friendly relations, including Trump opening a new embassy in Jersulem in 2018. So, upsetting a crucial military power by siding with Palestine would obviously be off the cards for Marvel. That’s why many social media users are questioning the very need of bringing back a vague Israeli superhero on the big screen in the first place.
I am worried the inclusion of Sabra, marvel is so wishy washy that I feel like they’ll both sides Israel/Palestine— נתנאל גנין (@OpOnions) September 11, 2022
Or just ignore it entirely and present Sabra as what, the Israeli hero whose power comes from dead martyrs but has never done a war crime
With New World Order slated for a 2024 release, it is yet to be seen if Marvel will similarly reboot Sabra’s origins or retain her Israeli hypernationalism, Star and Cape intact.