Opinion: Israeli superhero introduced to Marvel – American imperialism through the franchise


Date published: Mon, 10 October 22

The introduction of an Israeli Superhero, named Sabra, has been met with backlash from pro-Palestinians. The announcement comes at a time where Marvel is at a heightened success – the movies, TV shows, and the franchise are extremely well-liked. However, Marvel, a US-owned company, is guilty of perpetuating American soft power and pro-American imperialist rhetoric. 

Current Affairs writer Peter Taylor writes about how Marvel comic books frequently held up US imperial rhetoric. In the 1950s-1960s, Marvel’s heroes “straddled the line between purely commercial comic books and propaganda titles. These characters and narratives supported the Cold War consensus, a domestic coalition that crossed party lines and embraced the exertion of American power around the world and confrontations with Communism wherever it surfaced. By the early 1960s, comic book superheroes were waging war against the communists in Vietnam. Armed with the fruits of American technological prowess and wealth, Iron Man fought a one-man war against Soviet-style totalitarianism. Thor also went to Vietnam, where he used his godly powers to halt a North Vietnamese sneak attack.”

In the first Iron Man movie, the protagonist Tony Stark, is in Afghanistan and is captured by a terrorist group. The film uses orientalist imagery to reflect on the understanding of the US war in Afghanistan for an American audience. In the third Iron Man movie, the imagery used is obvious in its propaganda – “shots of the Mandarin watching executions, bearded men in turbans waving guns and shouting, bombs exploding all juxtaposed against shots of the White House, the American flag, American children playing, and two white women smiling.”

Other films like Doctor Strange have been accused of orientalism, propagating imperialism, and so on. Even Ms. Marvel, with its focus on the first Pakistani-American superhero, had a scene in its final episode that glorified law enforcement. When the films don’t outright call for support of the US army, superheros often enlist the help of CIA agents or other US institutions that uphold US imperialism and hegemony. 

The Israeli superhero, Sabra, made her first appearance in 1980 in an issue of The Incredible Hulk. Sabra is introduced as a Mossad agent and the product of an Israeli supersoldier program. A panel shows Sabra seeing the dead body of a young Arab boy. The narration says, “She is, after all, an Israeli super agent…a soldier…a weapon of war. But she is also a woman, capable of feeling, capable of caring. It has taken the Hulk to make her see this dead Arab boy as a human being.”

Her main antagonist is an orientalist caricature called the Arabian Knight. She is a symbol for Israel – she says at one point, “I’m small and you’re huge…but so is Israel small, and we stand up against our enemies.” 

Furthermore, Sabra’s name is the same as the Sabra (and Shatila) massacre that occurred in 1982 in Lebanon. Israeli-backed groups killed Palestinian refugees who fled in the 1948 Nakba. Living in Shatila and Sabra with Lebanese civilians, a right-wing Lebanese militia coordinated with the Israeli army killed between 2,000-3,500 people.

As Marvel films start employing more and more diverse characters from different backgrounds, we can argue that the inclusion of individual members of marginalized groups in a franchise that posits American imperialism and hegemony is not eradication of racism, it is not structural change. Representation in Marvel films only aids the imperial agenda, and the demonization of those who do not hold a blue passport.