Flash in the new “Justice League” film is the first Jewish superhero.
I’m sure this statement will provoke some disagreement among people who pay attention to firsts in films. Depending on how you look at it, you could argue that the first superhero was also the first Jewish superhero. Superman, after all, was created by two Jews, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and fans have found some (often overstated) traces of Jewish cultural influence in his creation.
There’s also Thing of “The Fantastic Four,” who wasn’t officially declared Jewish in the comics until the 2000s, and hasn’t been identified as Jewish in the films. But he was often seen by fans as a working-class ethnic stand-in for his creator, working-class ethnic Jew, Jack Kirby. The X-Man Kitty Pryde was Jewish in the 1980s, and the X-Man villain Magneto was retconned into a Holocaust survivor at about the same time.
Flash, though, is the first character in our ongoing superhero film frenzy who is identified specifically as Jewish — he mentions he’s Jewish quickly, offhand, when he first meets Batman (Ben Affleck). Magneto is the only other Jewish character I can think of in major films so far, and he’s a villain. Moreover, Magneto has been played by Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender, neither of whom are Jewish. However, Ezra Miller, who plays Flash, is Jewish.
So what does it mean to finally have a Jewish hero almost two decades into the superhero boom? For most people, including most Jews, it’s probably no big deal. People of color struggle to get meaningful roles in Hollywood, but that’s not the case for white Jews. Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman) and Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow) are both Jewish actors with high-profile superhero roles, for example. The fact that their characters aren’t Jewish just underlines the extent to which white Jews are treated like any other white ethnic group.
In Hollywood, Irish people can play Italians, Italians can play Jews, Jews can play Greeks from mystical Amazon islands. Flash’s Jewishness is hardly noted in the film because Jewishness, in Hollywood films, is hardly notable. White Jews are just read as white (and black Jewish people are almost completely invisible.)
Still, given the history of superheroes, it seems a little odd that there have been so few superheroes identified as Jewish, even if only in an aside. Jews, after all, created the superhero genre. Siegel, Shuster and Kirby are probably the three most influential creators in the superhero genre. Marvel writer and editor Stan Lee is Jewish. Batman creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger were Jewish as well.
These Jewish creators, though, generally did not create Jewish heroes. Jews still faced widespread discrimination in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, which is why many artists had to work in comics, rather than in more prestigious illustration careers. Jewish creators also often saw themselves primarily as Americans, and didn’t see a need to emphasize their Jewish backgrounds.
Superheroes have traditionally been less about presenting Jews as heroes, and more as presenting white Jews as continuous with a non-specific, non-ethnic Americanness. Jews in popular culture are stereotypically portrayed as victims or as wimps and nerds; Holocaust survivors or the class brain. Jews are comedians, but not action stars. Americans have an ideal of heroism which is white, male, heterosexual, and default gentile. Jews don’t fit.
There have been some deliberate efforts to push back against this; Jeff Goldblum in “Independence Day,” for example, or (non-Jewish actor) Daniel Craig in “Defiance.” But Jewish superhero creators, working in an earlier time, rarely went this route. Instead, Jewish superhero stories are mostly parables about leaving identifiable Jewishness behind in a successful bid for (white) Jewish assimilation. Clark Kent is a nebbishy awkward Jewish stereotype, until he turns into perfect gentile specimen Superman. Steve Rogers (created by Kirby and Joe Simon, also a Jew) is a spindly, nerdy Jewish stereotype, unfit for military service, until the super-soldier formula transforms him into the literal quintessence of Americanism.
When Jewish superhero creators imagined themselves as heroes, then, they imagined themselves as non-Jewish heroes. Whether this was because of social prejudice or personal preference, the fact remains that superheroes are rarely Jewish. To be heroic, Jews are supposed to lose their Jewishness, and become something else, as Gadot and Johannson become heroes by playing non-Jews.
Flash, to some degree, supports this idea that heroes can’t be Jewish. The most famous version of Flash in the comics wasn’t Jewish; he was a blond, gentile police scientist named Barry Allen. The film’s Jewish version is less advanced in his career; he’s down on his luck and his dad’s in prison. He’s also younger, smaller and notably less confident. Miller plays the character with a bit of Woody Allen self-deprecation and a bit of Mel Brooks/Jerry Seinfeld fast talk. He’s the Yiddish comic relief.
He’s also, not coincidentally, the least heroic of all the collected heroes. One of the best lines of “Justice League” is his quavering admission, “It’s really cool you guys seem ready to do battle and stuff, but, full transparency, I’ve never done battle. I’ve just pushed some people and run away.” Batman has to give him a pep talk to help him find his inner hero. The billionaire gentile teaches the working class Jew how to be brave and care for other people. The fact that the billionaire was created by working-class Jews is just another twist of the batarang. Jews can write heroic narratives as long as they put someone else at their center.
In a telling “Justice League” scene, Victor/Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and Flash are deputized to unpleasant midnight grave-digging duty. Barry awkwardly tries to give Victor a fist bump, which Victor spurns, leaving Barry babbling awkward apologies for being racially insensitive. The two then bond, though, about their origins. Barry was hit by lightning, and Victor was injured in an unspecified disaster that killed his mother. “We’re the accidents,” Barry says. Barry isn’t black, the scene makes clear, but there’s some common ground between black people and white Jews. Heroes are supposed to be white and gentile. In that context, both Victor and Barry look like mistakes or blips. They’re not supposed to be there.
And yet, Victor does get to be a hero; he figures out how to save the world. Barry, much to his own surprise, gets to be heroic as well. He rescues people, he pushes some bad guys and runs away, he risks his life and runs super fast and trades quips with the greatest heroes ever.
Barry’s still a bit of a stereotype, and the script struggles, despite itself, with the supposed disconnect between heroism and Jewishness. But nonetheless, some 80 years after two Jewish kids created Superman, there’s a Jewish superhero played by a Jewish actor on the big screen. Flash may not have been quick, but he did get there first.
Noah Berlatsky is the author of “Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics.” Follow him on Twitter: @nberlat.