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Superbad

Recent superhero movies—Green Lantern, Thor, Superman—are terrible. The solution? Hollywood should make these heroes more Jewish.

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(Photocollage by Tablet Magazine; image from Green Lantern)
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Our Heroes

What if movie superheroes—Thor, Wolverine, The Fantastic Four, and Captain America—got in touch with their Jewish roots?

Pity the comic-book fan who, with plucky optimism, skips to the movie theater to see one of this summer’s superhero flicks, only to leave two-and-a-half hours later with a CGI-induced hangover. Green Lantern was a travesty—you could feel the producers looming just off-camera, pleading with whatever fallen deities they pray to that this overdone stew of a movie would earn enough money to enable a franchise. Thor had moments of levity, and its star, Chris Hemsworth, appears to know his way around a Shake Weight, but the title character and his brother Loki seemed more like cosseted brats than Norse immortals locked in fratricidal conflict. Captain America, which will be released this Friday, is directed by Joe Johnston, a man who would probably rather forget the aughts (when he brought us Jurassic Park III, Hidalgo, and The Wolfman), and stars an actor, Chris Evans, whose best performance—by far—was a 10-minute cameo as an imbecilic action star in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Need we even bother?

There are plenty of other examples of terrible recent superhero films. There are some exceptions, of course, but most of the last decade—an era when Hollywood has supposedly rededicated itself to producing quality superhero movies featuring iconic characters—has been a wash.

What happened? Popular entertainment, after all, need not shy away from complexity or genuine moral conflict; the recent revival of Batman as the Dark Knight proved that well. Rather, the problem is one common to most superhero movies: Too often, filmmakers treat comic books as a brand rather than as source material, emptying them of all the intricacies and ironic reversals that made the beloved characters beloved in the first place. Put simply, contemporary superhero movies suck because they’ve forgotten their Jewish roots.

What I’m advocating here isn’t a cartoonish resort to stereotypes—Wolverine working as a mohel, after all, is an incongruity most of us aren’t ready for—but rather a return to the dynamic, complex, identity-focused storytelling that the American Jewish fathers of the comic-book industry produced so well.

One of this summer’s superhero movies almost gets it right. X-Men: First Class, which tells the story of the formation of the first X-Men under the tutelage of Professor X and Magneto, opens with a harrowing scene in Auschwitz, where Magneto, né Erik Lehnsherr, is separated from his parents, who wear the obligatory yellow star. His power—the ability to manipulate metal and magnetic fields—manifests in that traumatic moment. Later in the film, when asked to think back to a time when he was truly happy, Lehnsherr flashes back to lighting Hanukkah candles with his mother.

These markers of Jewishness are briefly presented and may seem clichéd, but they make First Class not only a very Jewish film but also an interesting if ultimately flawed one, a work of popular fiction concerned with the ethics of revenge. As Lehnsherr spends much of the movie hunting down the Nazi doctor who killed his mother, he turns into a cold, scarred man and eventually develops some ideological commitments that are not too far off from those of his German tormentors.

Unfortunately, all this wonderful complexity is abandoned in the film’s second half, a bizarre revisionist depiction of the Cuban Missile Crisis that throws around lines like “never again” and “they’re just following orders.” It’s as if the filmmakers want to leverage all of the moral authority of Jewish suffering without confronting any of the salient aspects of being Jewish. The tragic irony of Magneto—that he has taken on a version of the Nazis’ master race ideology, by literally believing that mutants are a “chosen people”—is lost amidst the computer-generated pyrotechnics and fatuous dialogue.

Like many recent superhero films, First Class, too, contains many Joseph Campbell-lite scenes—discovery of powers, early trauma, rejection of identity, assumption of responsibility, and so on. This isn’t a coincidence. In a short time, superhero movies have become remarkably derivative of their predecessors. Unwilling to connect to the characters’ true origins—those dark and layered stories that dealt with morality, mortality, race, powerlessness, rejection, and yearning—Hollywood is continually reinventing its superheroes, creating paler facsimiles of the original with each attempt. With 2012’s The Avengers, for example, the Hulk will have been rebooted three times in nine years, each time as a less compelling character.

The other recurrent feature of these movies is that the stakes are global but rarely personal. Many comics, true, have featured storylines with the entire world in danger, but this is by no means a rule. First Class, for example, could have done away with the Cuban Missile Crisis bunk and focused on the relationship between Magneto and fellow mutant Charles Xavier, the powerful mind-reader who opposes Magneto’s plan of mutant domination. The comics did just that: In Uncanny X-Men No. 161, the two men meet in Haifa, at a psychiatric hospital for Holocaust survivors, a meeting far more effective at establishing an enduring rivalry—and comics franchise—than First Class‘s bloated revisionism. The movie could have also benefited from the rich irony of Magneto’s early history, as presented in the comics: After he realized his philosophical outlook was incompatible with the more peaceable Xavier, he stole some Nazi gold—itself, of course, stolen from Jews—and used it to fund his mutant supremacy project.

There are many such storylines ripe for adaptation in the various superhero comic books, but they lose out to Hollywood’s maximalist impulse time and again. Add to that a raft of screenwriters (Thor had five credited writers), and the result is an amalgam of vignettes and traits related to the character without any overarching coherence.

It needn’t be this way. For a quick lesson on how to save superhero movies, let’s look at Iron Man. Currently, Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, Iron Man’s creator and alter ego, is the consummate limousine liberal, a weapons designer whose doubts about the unseemly sides of his profession sound, at best, half-hearted. From the original movie to the sequel, the character became flatter and simpler, bordering on the farcical and often depending on Downey’s considerable charms to rescue it. If the series’ studio handlers, however, looked at the comic books, they might discover some script gold in “Demon in a Bottle,” the 1979 Iron Man comic in which Stark plunges into an alcoholic spiral of self-destruction. It’s a dark and engaging story. It’s also one unlikely to make it to the multiplex anytime soon. Jon Favreau, who directed both Iron Man movies, referred to the story in a 2008 interview, saying, “I don’t think we’ll ever do the Leaving Las Vegas version.” It’s a pity: Downey, no stranger to addiction, could bring real depth to such a plot line; instead, all he’s allowed is one scene where he gets sloshed and makes a fool of himself at a party, destroying a gorgeous Los Angeles mansion while a popular DJ spins in the background.

Perhaps because their creators were forced to reckon with their sense of identity (Stan Lee and many of his peers anglicized their names), comics have been better than their filmic descendants at pushing their protagonists to extremes. In 1941, the now-famous cover of Captain America No. 1 showed the Cap fighting Nazis. A nebbishy, desperately patriotic Brooklyn boy (read: Jew) who, with the help of a Jewish scientist, was turned into a physical specimen, Captain America was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, both Jewish. But even though he began as a Nazi-busting macho, he was never out of touch with the ambivalence with which so many Jews approach power. By 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War, Captain America has had a crisis of conscience, calling himself “an anachronism” in “the age of the rebel and the dissenter.” In Comics: Anatomy of a Mass Medium, Reinhold Reitberger and Wolfgang Fuchs describe this Captain America as “torn by self-doubts: the Hamlet of comics.” Like Hamlet, Cap feels unequal to the circumstances he faces: “Perhaps I should have battled less and questioned more!” There could be no sentiment more Jewish—to feel painfully out of step with the society whose ideals one has so ardently tried to uphold—and no better prescription for drama. There’s also very little chance that any of this ambiguity would ever be permitted to make a cameo in Captain America’s current Hollywood iteration.

One culprit for this cult of simplicity is technology. Ironically, it is the technology that would seem so well suited to transitioning comics to the big screen that has been the death of them. These movies have the sheen of unreality. There is no texture or grit. No environment looks lived or worked in. Sweat is rare. The stars are always gorgeous and too perfectly coiffed. Even in scenes without CGI, the aesthetic is CGI—the kind of high-gloss perfectionism found on the covers of fashion magazines.

And so, as Hollywood is beholden to bottom lines, let me state mine directly: It is the balance between the real and the superhuman, the Jewish and the assimilatory, the quotidian and the uncanny, that the Jewish pioneers of comic books understood and that is lost on most directors today. A century of Jewish-American literature, high and low, shows us that this kind of story has universal appeal. If Hollywood wants to save the superhero genre from inevitable oblivion, it has to learn how to capture the same tension for two hours.

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This sort of cultural commentary is exactly why I keep reading Tablet. Like the writer, I keep waiting for the pop-cultural pendulum to swing away from over-simplification and toward nuance/complexity. (It’s got to happen eventually, right?) One thing which might help would be a “Howard the Duck” movie that’s actually based on the comic; can’t think of a more Jew-as-ironic-outsider title than the wise waterfowl “trapped in a world he never made!”

Tamis Renteria says:

I second Neal Attinson. This article really made me think. As a Jew who values many of Campbell’s insights, I was intrigued with the idea that Hollywood has made their super heroes more shallow by using his archetypal approach. This makes sense; they are stripped of their historical specificity, the nitty-gritty of real life struggles of injustice and inequality. By focusing on the individual hero’s struggle to claim their internal power, they psychologize and individualize the hero, and thereby completely miss the larger story of coming up against — and fighting — the real evils of corrupted power in the concrete, real world.

MethanP says:

Could the problem with todays superhero movies be that the overwhelming majority of the people who make these flicks are liberals who don’t believe in anything. The way Magnito is done, his Jewish origins are just enough to portray the Jew as bad guy. Name a positive Jewish role model in TV or movies. The Jews are always shifty lawyers or landlords.
Or am I over reacting?

Jennifer says:

I take issue with the notion that liberals “don’t believe in anything”. As a liberal I believe in a great many things, but they may or may not be the same things you believe in. And that ia okay with me. After all, I am a liberal.

I didn’t see the second Iron Man movie, but based on the first one, I don’t think that’s a good example of a superhero franchise that needs saving. (Agree with the rest of the piece, tho.) Maybe, as is so common, the second movie tarnished the first one, but I thought the portrait of Tony Stark was pretty nuanced and intriguingly self-hatey, and I appreciated the character’s journey. Specificity is much more interesting than hero archetypes, Joseph Campbell be damned. I’d love if more superheroes were more explicitly Jew-y or at least immigrant-y, reflecting the genuine outsider-ness of their creators.

It’ll be interesting to see the Spiderman reboot — Andrew Garfield — JEW! — can definitely give good nebbish (Tobey Maguire could too, but they glammified and technified the character all around him as the movies went on) and it sounds like they’re going to go back to the spirit of the origin story.

jake says:

First off Green Lantern sucked, because like most DC products, they mostly suck. (Team Marvel!!)

I thought Thor was good but mostly because of the casting.

Captain Ameica looks like a skip.

X-men first class was o.k ( though the ending I thought was poor- it was too easy)…….except that as anyone who knows x-men, it really isnt representative of the x-men at all…and hence back to your statement of treating “comic books as a brand rather than as source material”.

But Iron Man? Source material for that comic book is pretty bad…the suggestion of going all the way back to 1979 is an indication just how boring the comic book was (was anybody really a die hard fan of Iron Man?). Thor had some good runs in the past….but not many. Hulk had some amazing runs under Peter David who writes with a comedic bent.

The idea of otherness was the mainstay in X-men for years (I havent picked up anything recently) while the Avengers (thor, iron man, captain america and co) were well respected citizens of the US. And funny enough, most folks like the Avengers character movies – which tells you that really, some of the themes may not be a selling point with the public.

But I simply believe that the main problem is that when you have 2 hours in movie, the stories become second tier to the the “effects” of any given film. Does anyone really feel bad for the characters who carry this “burden” or responsibilty to save mankind (or Gotham, or NY)?
Not really.

Though I agree with what your saying, it comes down to dollars. Keeping to source material as was in the case with Watchmen, simply may not work either.

Hey, anybody want to help create the next superhero?
“Chutzpah-man” is waiting to emerge.
Click my name.

Technology killed Star Wars for me. The first three were great adventure pictures. Then they got into computer animation and kind of lost the plot.

Agreed also that much of today’s movies lack nuance. And also lack humor. The thing I loved about Fantastic Four comics when I was old enough to appreciate them (about 12 – they were part of my bar mitzvah training) was the banter.

Thanks for the article.

Sara Greenberg says:

Magneto was born Max Eisenhardt.

Martin Brennan says:

I agree the deeper implications in First Class were not developed (they rarely are in Hollywood or outside) but the problem with the comic hero films seems more a formal one. They are essentially action films but in the first iteration have to provide so much exposition the plots are rarely satisfying (x-men using their origins as a key theme escapes this) and secondly their wide audience reach to male action huggers and their female companions creates too many oppositions thematically. Spiderman is overly feminised for my taste. But still we are able to view wonderful spectacles of fantasy, action, romance and plot in both Hellboy film. Maybe its the noirish and sociopathic tone in Hellboy that rescues it.

There is nothing Jewish in superheroes. The fact that they were created by half-assimilated Jews does not make them Jewish in anything. On the contrary, the superheroes are the opposite of anything Jewish, these are stupid stories for teenagers.

Jacob Silverman says:

Thank you all for your comments. To Sara Greenberg: Magneto was born Max Eisenhardt, but in the films he’s been called either Magneto or Erik Lehnsherr (which, in the comics, was an identity given to him by a Romanian forger).

To Jake: it’s true that the Iron Man comics are pretty thin compared to some. Iron Man might be most interesting in the Civil War storyline, which is obviously inspired by the national security and civil liberties dilemmas we face today (although there are some antecedents in earlier comics, with the mutant registration stuff, which also appeared in the X-Men cartoon). I’d love to see Civil War brought to the big screen — and to see Iron Man’s role in it emphasized — but that’s probably a post-”Avengers” project, if it ever happens. Still, that’s the kind of adaptation where Iron Man could really be taken seriously and fleshed out. And since Captain America plays a big role in “Civil War,” it might be a perfect storyline to adapt, since those two characters are obviously big in Marvel’s movie plans.

The casting pool for Spider-Man was very Jewish last year: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Logan Lerman, Anton Yelchin, Alden Ehrenreich, and of course Andrew Garfield.

Not really true of most other superheroes… but then most aren’t played by Americans.

This is a specific reply to Ben a few comments up about the unjewishness of the superhero.
Consider Superman for a moment. His name on Krypton was Kal-El, which isn’t at all a subtle reference to the God of Jacob. Going from there, Kal-El is a minority among the population of Earth, completely separate (Holy ==> Kadosh ==> separate) from that of the Earth people. He lives according to a set of laws not of the world (since it’s probably illegal to chuck cars at bad guys), and he is constantly in a struggle with himself about whether he can be with a woman who isn’t of the same type as he.
Many superheros could be considered a part of a different type of human, who, while in exhile, lives according to a law that transcends the normal law, and he can’t figure out how he feels about exogamous relationships. Seems like the Jews who created these characters did so with the intention of making them Jew-ish.

How can you not dig a superhero like “Chutzpah-man”? I mean if they can build billion dollar industries around the latest round of super action comics turned movies why not?

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Superbad

Recent superhero movies—Green Lantern, Thor, Superman—are terrible. The solution? Hollywood should make these heroes more Jewish.

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