D23 was full of plenty of exciting announcements (and a few surprises) for Marvel fans. In addition to new footage from films like Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and The Marvels, and the cast announcement for Marvel’s Thunderbolts, a fourth film in the Captain America series was unveiled—Captain America: New World Order. While the biggest surprise may have been the reveal of Tim Blake Nelson’s return as Samuel Stearns, a.k.a. The Leader (not seen since 2008’s The Incredible Hulk), stalwart studio maestro Kevin Feige also announced that the upcoming Anthony Mackie-starrer would serve as the debut of Sabra (Shira Haas, best known for her Emmy-nominated work in Netflix’s Unorthodox), an Israeli hero. Response was swift, with various critics both hailing and denouncing the character. But who exactly is Sabra, and why is she such a flashpoint?
Created by Bill Mantio and Sal Buscema, Sabra, real name Ruth Bat-Seraph, first appeared in 1981’s The Incredible Hulk #256. In the canon of Marvel Comics, Bat-Seraph is a mutant—a concept Marvel Studios is just beginning to introduce in properties like Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Ms. Marvel, and the upcoming Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Her mutant powers give her superhuman strength, stamina, speed, and durability as well as enhanced reflexes and agility. Additionally, she is able to transfer a portion of her “life energy” to another being to help them heal faster from injury or fatigue. She is an agent of Mossad, the Israeli Secret Service, and is trained in hand-to-hand combat. Essentially, she is the Israeli counterpart to Captain America, whose mission is to serve her country to the best of her ability. However, the character’s existence has been fraught with concerns and allegations of whitewashing and Zionist ideologies.
Sabra’s Origin Story Is Complicated
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has roots in the late 19th-early 20th century, when attempts by the British to create a Jewish homeland in the Palestinian territory inflamed tensions among both Jews and native Arab Palestinians, an ongoing and complex conflict that has sadly resulted in mass casualties on both sides. Where the character of Sabra courts controversy is in both her appearance and the way in which she speaks of Arab people as essentially terrorists and butchers. For many years, the character wore a white bodysuit emblazoned with a blue Star of David, a blue quilled cape, and sported a blue Star of David tiara—in other words, a walking, talking Israeli national flag. While seemingly innocuous, certainly to the majority of readers in the U.S., the costume was seen as blatant disregard of Arab Palestinians and their long-fought history. Furthermore, in her debut issue, much is made of Sabra seeing the body of a dead Arab boy and “for the first time,” seeing Arabs as human beings—a narrative that’s slap-in-the-face shocking by today’s standards.
While in more modern stories she’s ditched the nationalist garb for more Black Widow-type attire, the character has still had a relatively stagnant evolution over the past forty years, never questioning the state, never bristling at what it demands of her. While at different times she’s interacted with Iron Man and the X-Men, as The Daily Beast puts it: “This, in the end, is the tragedy of Sabra: She was made to represent an Israel that cannot ever change, so she, in turn, cannot change. She’s less a character than Israel Girl, a floating signifier of ‘geopolitical complexity,’ and a toy Marvel uses to stand in for a vast conflict, the realities of which are too ugly to imagine genuinely engaging with.”
Sabra’s interactions with the Hulk family of characters in the comics certainly lends credence as to why she might show up in a New World Order film featuring The Leader, and Marvel has tackled heavier issues before—perhaps most notably in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, also starring Mackie and a returning Carl Lumbly. It remains to be seen if Marvel can find a way to tell a compelling story that both includes Sabra and gives the necessary respect and consideration to those citizens she ostensibly represents.