The Problematic Nature of Sabra in the MCU

The Problematic Nature of Sabra in the MCU

In September, Marvel announced their newest addition to the Captain America movies at the D23 Expo, Disney’s annual showcase of their upcoming slate of shows and films. “Captain America: New World Order” will star Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson in the main role as Captain America for the first time on the big screen. The film’s cast also includes Danny Ramirez reprising his role as Joaquin Torres and Carl Lumbly reprising his role as Isaiah Bradley from the series “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” (2021).  Also returning to the MCU is Tim Blake Nelson, reprising his role as The Leader, Samuel Sterns, for the first time after his appearance in “The Incredible Hulk” (2008). 

The film will also introduce a new character to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU): Sabra, whose real name is Ruth Bat-Seraph. She is a mutant, with super-strength and speed, who in the comics serves as an agent for Mossad, the national intelligence agency of Israel. 

The reaction to the announcement of the new character was swift and angry, with many users on social media calling for Marvel to rethink their inclusion of a character that is inherently and deeply involved in upholding and supporting the occupation of Palestine. 

For a universe supposedly filled with heroes who fight against injustice, you would think Sabra is quite the outlier. But Marvel is well-known for being a franchise that never ventures beyond vague critiques of the U.S. military-industrial complex. The inclusion of Sabra does not bode well.

Sabra was introduced in the comics in a cameo in “Incredible Hulk” #250 (1980), and then had her first full appearance  in “Incredible Hulk” #256 in 1981. In “Incredible Hulk” #256, Sabra is introduced as an Israeli superhero, and her name is said to denote a cactus fruit with a prickly surface native to the area. Another meaning of “Sabra” is a Hebrew term that defines any Jewish person born in Israel. Sabra is capable of flight and superhuman strength and has stinging quills that can suck out her enemies’ energy. 

A significant amount of the backlash against the character was because of her name. While it was inspired by a fruit, the name Sabra also is a reminder of the Sabra and Shatila massacre in September 1982, when between 2,000 and 3,500 Palestinian refugees and Lebanese civilians were killed in an attack by a right-wing Lebanese militia and the Israeli army. The refugees had fled Palestine due to the Nakba in 1948, the violent ethnic cleansing of Palestine. 

While Sabra was introduced in Marvel comics before the massacre, her introduction to the MCU with the original name is a remarkably thoughtless move from Marvel/Disney. Either they did not do their research, or — more likely — they did not care that they were introducing a character that was so tied to the violence that Israeli occupation inflicts upon Palestinians every day. 

“Incredible Hulk” #256 is filled with stereotypes and tropes of Palestinians and Arabs. As a matter of fact, the Palestinians are only portrayed as either helpless victims caught in a “conflict” or as terrorists, and they are never actually called Palestinian. 

Source: Marvel

One of those victims is a Palestinian boy named Sahad who befriends Bruce Banner and feeds him in return for Bruce’s protection. When Sahad is killed in a bombing by Arab “terrorists,” the Hulk becomes enraged, saying that  his people and Sabra’s people were responsible for his death because they could not just “share” the land. The Hulk then causes Sabra to finally see the humanity in the people she fights against.

Clearly, this portrayal of Palestinians is simplistic and trope-filled, which is to be expected of the time in which these comics were written. 

Source: Marvel

The move to introduce Sabra, a relatively minor character in the comics, in a major film featuring Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson as Captain America for the first time is a puzzling choice, although not all that surprising considering the MCU’s association with the U.S. military industrial complex. The most egregious example is “Captain Marvel”’s promotion, which included advertisements for the Air Force, since the film’s main character was an Air Force pilot herself. The MCU has never ventured to give anything more than vague critiques of the occasional abuse of power by the U.S. military and government, most notably in “Ms. Marvel,” “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” and “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.” However, most of the critiques were of corrupt people trying to take advantage of the system, as opposed to of the flawed system itself. 

While it is certainly valid to criticize Marvel for its lack of Jewish representation in the MCU, this is not the step to fix it. There are also Marvel superheroes who are in the MCU whose Jewish identity has been erased: namely Wanda Maximoff, a.k.a. The Scarlet Witch, who in the comics is Romani and Jewish, but in the MCU, volunteers to be experimented on by HYDRA, who were a part of the Nazi government in Germany. Jewish heroes should absolutely be included in the MCU, especially considering the lack of substantive Jewish representation in the franchise. 

Sabra’s introduction to the MCU in “Captain America: New World Order” is indicative of Marvel’s decision to ignore the Israeli apartheid government’s actions and violence against Palestinians, which is an offense against to Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim fans of the franchise.

Great! You’ve successfully signed up.

Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.

You've successfully subscribed to Fann.

Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.

Success! Your billing info has been updated.

Your billing was not updated.