Where Did All the Jewish Superheroes Go? The Changing Narrative of Character Backgrounds in Superhero Adaptations

In this guest post, University of Glasgow PhD researcher Jordanna Conn explores how adaptations of comic books to film and TV shows, particularly within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, tend to leave behind or retcon important details of characters’ lives or backgrounds, heavily impacting the Jewishness of specific characters. You can read more about Jordanna and her research in her ‘5 Minutes With’ interview.

The comic book cover of the very first 'Captain America' comic. Captain America punch Adolf Hitler and they are surrounded by soldiers.
Captain America #1, 1941

In 2011, Captain America: The First Avenger was released as the first movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe for their oldest Avenger, Steve Rogers. The titular character, created in 1941 by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby for a title comic book series, was introduced with a larger purpose than simply appealing to children: he was meant to be a symbolic defence against the rise of fascism in Europe, as well as in the United States. The Jewishness of the creators added a layer of urgent meaning to their fictional hero, and his popularity surged in the upcoming war years. In some ways a metaphorical fictional golem, Steve Rogers was a complex play of political propaganda and social justice, but despite the anti-fascist message, the 1940s’ Steve Rogers was presented as a normative, all-American soldier, overtly absent of any sense of religious or cultural identity markers beyond patriotism.

Yet, what does the Jewishness of his creators mean for his character? This has been one of the central questions of my own research into thematic Jewish continuity and intentions in specific hero narratives as represented in text-and-image, many of which include superheroes. While thinking of this, and re-watching the MCU’s adaptation of Steve Rogers’ origin story, I began to think of the cinematic absences that seemed, to me, to parallel the mid-20th century Comics Code Authority which, in seeking to reduce religious ridicule, left a blank space within comics of the ‘50s and ‘60s to have religion remain unspoken. It wasn’t until the later decades of the 20th century that religious or ethnoreligious identity was explored with comic book superheroes, and readers began to see more complex social and cultural lives weaved into superhero narratives.

Picture of a scene from the film 'Captain America: The First Avenger'. Captain America stands on a stage in front of a person acting as Adolf Hitler. Captain America pretends to punch him.
Captain America: The First Avenger, Paramount Pictures, 2011

In 2011, the writers of Captain America: The First Avenger decided to reinterpret Howling Commando Bucky Barnes, a character who, in the comics, was a child soldier Steve Rogers met on the warfront and took under his command. This origin is completely different from the cinematic one, which presents Bucky Barnes as a fully grown adult, and Steve’s childhood best friend from Brooklyn. To fans of the Captain America comic, this background is familiar, given the claims that the screenwriters may have pulled it from another comic character: Arnie Roth, Steve’s Jewish and queer best friend. For some in fandom circles who desired representation outside the normative not seen in canon, this left the space open to explore Bucky Barnes as a Jewish (and potentially queer) soldier fighting Nazism in WWII Europe. Within that exploration, there is an echo back to the Jewish creators’ intentions to use a fictional character to fight a real-world threat. Outside fandom, however, the failure on-screen for an overtly Jewish and Romani Wanda Maximoff is part of a deeper problem of erasure of marginalised communities in both the MCU and DCEU.

In Captain America: Civil War, there is a visualised implication that Wanda Maximoff is normatively Christian, as the viewer sees a cross on her bedroom wall. And in 2021’s Wandavision, many viewers criticised the show for both continuing to erase and, in one instance, appearing to mock the Jewish and Romani heritage. This divergence from the once established comic canon background (her background has gone through a series of retcons before and after her introduction in the MCU regarding her parentage) as Romani and Jewish, erases extremely important facets of her character and representation within the superhero genre. The MCU, for the most part, parallels early comics canon in terms of ethnoreligious representation, and with the slight textual glimpse of potential Jewishness in Sony’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse for Peter Parker (who many believe was written in his comic series with Jewish subtext), it becomes a bit more glaringly obvious. The 2015 adaptation of the Fantastic Four, not officially part of the MCU, gives a brief nod to Ben Grimm’s religion by showing, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, a menorah in his childhood home, but Fox’s X-Men skates around Kitty Pryde. We’ll see if the same happens with Marc Spector in the upcoming Moon Knight series. Still, the MCU is not the only cinematic franchise to gloss over the Jewishness of comic characters. DCEU’s Birds of Prey has nary a mention of Harley Quinn’s comic-book-canon Jewishness, and it’s doubtful that any Batman cinematic portrayal will mention his mother’s Jewishness. Though Justice League took the non-Jewish (in the comics) Barry Allen and reinterpreted him as Jewish for the big screen, albeit limiting his character to one line.

A picture of a panel from Scarlet Witch #8. Wanda Maximoff is dressed in her Scarlet Witch outfit (all red, with a pointed headpiece) and is poised as if to start using her magic. Gold and white circles frame her hands and in the bottom left, speech boxes state: 'Then, recently, I learned my real mother is a different Romany woman. Natalya Maximoff--'; 'Same last name?'; 'Yes, I'm assuming there may be a familial link with the couple who raised me -- I'm still looking into that.'
Scarlet Witch #8, 2016

Research wise, the question remains: why on-screen is Jewishness a passing mention or outright ignored, but the comics themselves have made strides to move past the former Comics Code Authority restrictions? Is it time? Is it audience? How often will Jewish themes remain in the subtext on screen, and what does that mean for the exploration of Jewishness within comics? Normative characterisation of superheroes has always and will remain represented on-screen. And so, in terms of my research, the question becomes: how much does the unmentioned determine the subtext, the hidden Jewish experiences and meanings within the narratives themselves?

In the 1950s and 60s, comics creators were forced to structure their characters around more normative text, in some cases ignoring their Jewish subtext all together. In 2021, seventy years later, cinematic creators are this time choosing to stay within the normative rather than explore the interesting and diverse identities already canonically introduced in the comics after the loosening of the CCA. Though there is a rich and diverse canon of overt Jewish themes and characters in graphic novels and comic series, especially within the last forty years, the superhero is still one of the most mainstream and recognizable comic genres. Aside from The Rabbi’s Cat, a French-language graphic novel, not many textually Jewish comics have made it to film. And, for many fans, their familiar superheroes were introduced to them on the big screen rather than paper panels. Despite this, expressively Jewish superheroes hardly appear. They remain within the margins; the hidden, rather than included in the norm.

A picture of Jordanna, leaning against a brick wall and looking past the camera.

Jordanna Conn is a third-year PhD researcher at the University of Glasgow in the School of Modern Languages and Culture. Her research explores the tradition of graphic narratives in Jewish culture, from religious illuminated texts such as the Haggadah to the creation of comic-book superheroes. Her methodology focuses on strictly Jewish interpretations of these narratives, diverging from the common practice of including Christian, or other non-Jewish, interpretations. In 2018 Jordanna was awarded the Silverstone Trust Award in Jewish Studies, and in non-Covid times she volunteers at the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre in Glasgow.

Feature Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash

If you’d like to write a guest post for the SGSAH Blog, email Danielle.Schwertner@glasgow.ac.uk

One thought on “Where Did All the Jewish Superheroes Go? The Changing Narrative of Character Backgrounds in Superhero Adaptations

  1. Henry Chamberlain says:

    This is such a great post. I totally agree that all these blockbuster superhero movies present a golden opportunity for full-bodied characters given the mass audience alone, if not just for the sake of good storytelling. Alas, the dysfunctional and wrong-headed marketing mindset believes otherwise. I welcome you to post on my blog anytime you like. I think part of the solution to a continual calling out of these practices. Just think of the progress that is being made since the #OscarsSoWhite movement began in earnest back in 2015.

    Like

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