Marvel fans following this past weekend’s D23 Expo may have been surprised by the news that Israeli actress Shira Haas has been cast as the character Sabra in the upcoming film Captain America: New World Order. The surprise, however, wasn’t in the casting, but in the immediate hubbub that erupted online about a character to whom the reaction might have been simply, “Sabra who?” But in some ways, the outcry was inevitable.
As an Israeli, a mutant, and an agent of the Mossad, Sabra sits at the intersection of more than a few highly fraught political fault lines. And in the world of Marvel Comics, she isn’t alone.
Who is Sabra?
The creation of writer Bill Mantlo and artist Sal Buscema, Sabra (real name: Ruth Bat-Seraph) first appeared in 1980’s The Incredible Hulk #256 as a deliberate and self-conscious Israeli echo of Captain America. Initially said to be a product of the Israeli military’s attempt to replicate the Super Soldier formula that had transformed Steve Rogers, Sabra (like her U.S. counterpart) was a visible and far-from-subtle collection of patriotic Israeli symbolism, from her white-and-blue costume bedecked with a Star of David to her powers (based on an Israeli fruit, as a footnote in her first appearance helpfully informs us, which projects “a spiny outer surface to protect it from its enemies”). Even her codename means, literally, “a person born in Israel.” Marvel Comics may have been many things in the 1980s, but politically subtle was not among them.
Even more obviously, and perhaps more troublingly, Sabra is a proud and unapologetic agent of Israel’s intelligence service, the Mossad — a role which casts her not only as a superhero for a sovereign state, but one who makes no bones about her support for political policies that are, at minimum, deeply and painfully divisive. That comes through loud and clear in her first appearance, during which she attacks the Hulk, presuming him, somewhat improbably, to be in league with a group of Arab terrorists. In the battle that follows, a young Palestinian boy is fatally caught in the crossfire — leading Sabra to reconsider, for the first time, the bullish, ethnic militarism around which she has built her superhero career.
Not that the lesson stuck: Indeed, later writers have, if anything, leaned even harder into ethnic and jingoistic elements of Sabra’s character. In a later Hulk story by longtime scribe Peter David, Sabra drags the title character into a long, unwinnable, and ultimately self-destructive battle that serves pointedly (if perhaps a little on-the-nose) as a metaphor for the entirety of Israeli and Palestinian history: “I’m not fighting a woman. I’m fighting the Zionist recruiting board,” thinks the Hulk.
That tendency to fall ever deeper into lockstep with the party line has come to define Sabra’s character over the years. Later retconned to be a mutant, rather than a human creation of Super Soldier science, she has been at odds with her fictional minority identity as often as she’s sided with her real-life national one: helping to monitor and arrest mutants in the wake of Marvel’s House of M crossover, for instance, and at one point working to hunt down the terrorist Magneto — himself a character with backstory rooted in both Judaism and Israel, albeit one that’s more complex and less one-dimensional than Sabra’s own.
Marvel Comics and international nationalism
Truth be told, however, this sort of flattened hyper-patriotism has a long history within the Marvel Universe, and Sabra is far from the only superheroic national figurehead to problematically embody the traits of her home country. Not long after introducing Ruth Bat-Seraph to the Marvel Universe, Mantlo and Buscema debuted the equally over-the-top Arabian Knight (née Abdul Qamar), a Saudi-born desert nomad with a scimitar and flying carpet. The character was eventually succeeded by Palestinian expat Navid Hashim, who used Qamar’s scimitar and carpet to work for the Saudi Arabian government. But either way you slice it, Arabian Knight is to authentic Saudi Arabian patriotism what the Hamburglar is to authentic American cuisine.
Earlier still were the archetypes of America’s Cold War enemies, introduced during the first decade of the Marvel Age. Introduced by writer Roy Thomas and artist John Buscema (Sal’s big brother) in 1967, the Red Guardian was Communist Russia’s own mirror image of Steve Rogers, with all the late-’60s paranoia and soft prejudice that suggests (he was also the hitherto unrevealed husband of Black Widow Natasha Romanova, a character for whom he gave his life at the end of his debut story arc). Where Captain America is thoughtfully patriotic, persistently wrestling and debating with his country’s more unpalatable actions and histories, the Red Guardian was unquestioningly obedient and politically doctrinaire — a portrait of America’s (mis)conceptions about its one-time political archenemy.
What makes Sabra a trickier prospect by far for the MCU is that she represents not only a national identity but an ethnic and religious one. As one of only a handful of Jewish superhumans in the Marvel Comics Universe (some of whom have appeared in the MCU already, though some without any acknowledgement), and virtually the only Israeli one, her very existence wraps Jewish representation up with the political actions and beliefs of a sovereign state. That’s an association that American Jews have been grappling with, often unwillingly, for more than half a century — and it goes a long way toward explaining why so many Jewish and Palestinian fans especially have reacted dubiously to the newest casting news.
Even in less touchy cases, however, Marvel’s national archetypes have generally faced a common pitfall: Their storytellers have, historically, been outsiders to the nations and ethnicities they represent. It’s tough enough to have the weight of Jewish or Arabic representation sit on the shoulders of characters as kooky as Sabra or the Arabian Knight. It’s that much worse to have it hoisted by writers who know those identities only from a distance, and through the filter of prejudices, whether intended or not.
One positive way forward might be suggested by the case of another patriotic figurehead: Captain Britain, initially created as the flag-bearing steward of Marvel’s U.K. comics line. There was as little subtlety to Captain Britain’s original conception (a blond-haired English aristocrat with powers granted for the defense of the realm) as there was in Sabra’s. But as the decades have passed, subsequent generations of writers have used the patriotic identity as an opportunity not to affirm the stereotypes of the country, but to question, complicate, and debate them: Alan Moore and Alan Davis’ refashioning of the character into one of a multiversal multitude; writer Al Ewing’s passing of the Captain Britain mantle to the Muslim and Pakistani Faiza Hussain; to the more recent introduction of Betsy Braddock as a female, mutant, and multinational bearer of the title.
It’s worth noting that Moore, Davis, and Ewing are themselves white and English — willing to engage and acknowledge the sometimes sordid history of their own empire, but not themselves belonging to the marginalized groups it pushed aside. Making space for creators from minority communities to take the lead with patriotic characters is a bigger and more important challenge, one that Marvel is only now beginning to take on (as, for instance, in Tochi Onyebuchi’s current run on Captain America: Symbol of Truth).
Adapting a creation as loaded as Sabra into one that explores the actualities of Israeli and Palestinian politics, in all their cruel, violent reality, is no easy task for a comic book universe. If Marvel Studios pulls it off, it could be a superheroic achievement all on its own.