Marvel made waves last month by announcing a slate of movies that will flood theatres through 2021. Rabid fans went predictably nuts, not just for the films themselves, but for the diversity reflected onscreen.
And so they should. The first deaf superhero! The first Chinese superhero! The first gay, black and female superhero! Hands clapped, tears were shed.
It all leaves a modest Jewish Marvel fan scratching his head, asking, “What about us?” After all, most of today’s box-office superheroes were created by Jews. Marvel godfathers Stanley Martin Leiber and Jacob Kurtzberg (a.k.a., Stan Lee and Jack Kirby), plus Superman creators Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, are the biggest names, but even contemporary creators like Brian Michael Bendis continue the legacy with outcast characters like Jessica Jones.
Superheroes have rarely themselves been Jewish because of mid-20th century taboos. Of course, if you scour Wikipedia, you’ll find a handful of Jewish superheroes, mostly minor oddballs like Marvel’s Israeli mutant Sabra and D.C.’s Seraph, a Hebrew school teacher who can teleport because of secrets he learned in the Torah. Yet we Jews never got our own Black Panther – no broadly marketable big-screen face. A handful of X-Men are technically Jewish, sure, but those movies are already so convoluted by time travel and real-world copyright conflicts that nary a het is uttered.
So for the purposes of this brief essay, I’d like to hone my pitch to Marvel – particularly Kevin Feige and his partners behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
There is, in fact, a simple way to represent Jews onscreen in your upcoming slate of films. There is one chance – one character – whose Jewish background is already well established and is already starring in one of your upcoming movies.
That character is the Thing – a giant rock monster and member of the Fantastic Four, a brand whose cinematic adaptations have fallen extraordinarily flat thanks to mishandling by 21st Century Fox (which sub-licensed the rights to the franchise around the turn of the century). Since Disney, which owns Marvel, recently purchased Fox for more than $70 billion, one of its first projects is integrating the foursome into its pre-existing cinematic universe.
That’s good news for Jews, because the Thing (born Benjamin Grimm) has a fantastic Jewish backstory. He’s a rough-and-tumble Lower East Side Jew, based on creator Jack Kirby’s real-life upbringing. In one comic, he recites the Shema, and later celebrates a belated bar mitzvah on the 13th anniversary of his transformation into a giant rock monster by inviting a bunch of other Marvel superheroes over to play poker. If that doesn’t sound like a post-credits Marvel scene, you clearly haven’t watched enough Avengers movies.
The Thing is uniquely positioned to represent the Tribe in the MCU. Firstly, he’s already reasonably well known among non-nerds, certainly as much as Black Panther or Shang-Chi. Secondly, his Judaism influences his persona: poverty forced him to be a streetwise scrapper, but his observance hints at a softer side. Thirdly, he’s already starring in a movie, so it’s not like Jewish comic fans have to push for representation by throwing our weight behind some rando like Sabra.
Finally, he’d be a hit in Israel. (Sure, not as big a market as China, but, hey, it’s a market.)
So I have a request to any readers who want to see our people represented onscreen: take to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or Tumblr and rally behind the cause: #MakeTheThingJewish. All we need is a simple indication of his religion: a Star of David necklace somewhere, a mezuzah on a door, a Hebrew phrase, a bar mitzvah flashback – something to canonically confirm that this guy is one of us. Hollywood Jews, always relegated to comedic roles, rarely get to be action heroes. It would deepen the film and let Marvel embrace (and pander to) a new culture.
So let’s set aside our differences, bicker about Middle Eastern politics another day and focus on a single mission: #MakeTheThingJewish.