Superheroes And The Jews

Jacob Silverman, observing that the American superhero genre is largely is highly informed by Jewish history, argues that the problem with today's superhero blockbusters is that they've gotten away from their Heeb roots:

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.

I enjoyed Silverman's piece but I don't really think the issue with modern superhero epics is that the filmmakers haven't tried focusing "dynamic, complex, identity-focused storytelling." All filmmakers aspire towards that. Moreover, while the originators of many of beloved comic book superheroes were Jewish, the best stories in the superhero canon weren't necessarily told by the original creators. Also Tony Stark is not a "limousine liberal," a term that might describe a lot of rich folks but few high tech weapons developers with lucrative defense contracts.

The problem with the latest crop of superhero films isn't that they're not focused on "complex, identity focused storytelling." It's that they're not particularly creative at telling those stories. Green Lantern in particular, is a perfect example of DC attempting to infuse Hal Jordan with the seriousness of Chris Nolan's Bruce Wayne, only to come away with a film that is comically earnest. He's angsty and conflicted, moreso than his comic book iteration, who isn't really either. It's just not a very interesting film. Marvel, on the other hand, as A.O. Scott points out, has settled on a kind of ponzi scheme approach, where their desire to construct a interlocking continuity for Marvel's film universe has resulted in a lot of halfhearted superhero films whose main purpose is to get you to watch the next one. The latest trailer for the upcoming Spider-Man reboot suggests that Marvel is going to try its hand at DC's earnest "realism" as well.

Superhero films, I think, struggle with a different problem than simply insufficient faith to the source material or cultural origins, which is the pressure for box office success has stifled any sense of creativity in playing with a new medium. Comic books involved episodic storytelling in which the characters actions have years of continuity that can serve to infuse their actions with meaning. Films have two hours. But rather than try to figure out a way to tell compelling stories despite those limitations, the major film studios and comic book companies have largely copied whatever aspects of storytelling they felt "worked" in previous films, which has lead to their offerings becoming stale even to a consummate geek like myself.

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