IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Netflix's 'The Punisher' is a reminder that unlike Jewish creators, Jewish superheroes remain a tough sell in Hollywood

The series suggests that no matter who made them, we still have great difficulty imagining Jewish characters as mighty figures.
Joe Bernthal gets broody in a scene from "The Punisher."Cara Howe / Netflix

Are superheroes Jewish?

Many people would answer this question with a "yes." The first superhero, Superman, was created in the 1930s by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, both Jewish. The Marvel universe was mostly the brainchild of Jewish creators Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. Jewish writers and artists, shut out of much of the mainstream newspaper and magazine business before World War II, and to some degree even afterwards, because of prejudice, poured their talents into comics. The Jewish experience and Jewish networks were largely responsible for creating the the modern superhero.

The stereotype of Jewish people as weak, nerdy, and lacking in physical courage and aptitude persists, as perhaps does a sense that most viewers don't identify immediately with Jewish characters.

But the Netflix series “The Punisher,” which just released its second season, makes it clear that Jewish creators don't necessarily lead to Jewish superheroes. The stereotype of Jewish people as weak, nerdy, and lacking in physical courage and aptitude persists, as perhaps does a sense that most viewers don't identify immediately with Jewish characters. The series ends up a reminder that no matter who their creators were, we have great difficulty in imagining Jewish people as mighty figures.

This disconnect between Jewish creators and Jewish creations goes back to the beginning of the genre. Jewish creators, in order to avoid prejudice and to appeal to a mainstream audience, virtually never wrote their characters as Jewish. Superman was an alien who fell to earth as a child to be adopted by Kansans. While the narrative arguably speaks to a Jewish immigrant experience, there's no explicit reference to or acknowledgement of Jewish identity in Superman's origin story. Superman is Kryptonian and Christian not Jewish.

Another Jack Kirby/Stan Lee character, the Thing, was given an ethnic working class background. Many fans read him as a kind of stand-in for Kirby himself. But the Thing wasn't openly identified as a Jewish character until 2002 — 40 years after his creation.

The evolution of the Thing’s public identity shows that there has been some change over time; Jewish superheroes are less rare than they once were. Yet, it's still remarkably difficult to see Jewishness in our heroes. Besides the Thing, the only onscreen Jewish superhero on film is the Flash — who self-identified as Jewish in an ad-libbed quip by Jewish actor Ezra Miller in “Justice League: Dawn of Justice.” Magneto from the “X-Men” is Jewish, but he's mostly a villain, not a hero.

The dearth of Jewish heroes is especially noticeable because Jewish actors are not rare in Hollywood, and some very prominent Jewish actors star in these films. Scarlett Johansson plays Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films. Gal Gadot plays Wonder Woman in the DC film universe. The actors are Jewish, but their characters are not.

“The Punisher” carries this dynamic to almost parodic extremes in its first season. Just about every major character in the series is Jewish. That includes Joe Bernthal as the Punisher/Frank Castle and Ben Barnes as antagonist Billy Russo. It also includes Amber Rose Revah, whose mother is of Polish-Jewish ancestry, and who plays Dinah Madani, a member of Homeland Security.

If these Jewish actors played Jewish characters, “Punisher” would provide strikingly diverse Jewish representation. Frank is a working-class bruiser, oozing testosterone and integrity with a face that looks like a "rough road," as one character quips in the second season. Billy Russo is a slick pretty boy with a ruthless core. Madani is a determined crusader traumatized by violence. She's also a Jewish woman of color — a group almost never represented in the media or entertainment.

If these Jewish actors played Jewish characters, “Punisher” would provide strikingly diverse Jewish representation.

But of course, Madani's not a Jewish woman of color onscreen in the narrative; she's Iranian-American. Frank and Billy aren't Jewish either. Billy's background is nebulous, but Frank is Italian-American — an ethnic group often associated with violent masculinity. Jewish people play a range of roles in the “Punisher,” but the range is dependent on them pretending to no longer be Jewish.

There is one central character identified onscreen as Jewish in the first season. That's David Lieberman (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), a government computer programmer who risks his life to expose a drug-running ring run by national security higher ups. Lieberman is a great character in many respects: witty, intense, unexpectedly courageous. At several points he shows himself to be more than a match for Frank, and he serves to some degree as the moral center of the show. He also, though, plays into a lot of stereotypes about nerdy, intellectual unmasculine Jewish men — his nickname is Micro.

“Expected” Jewish roles don't include traditional heroism. David is admirable, smart, and fights the good fight, but he's not the star. Instead, that role goes to Frank, the angry white man. Bernthal is a wonderful actor, and he gives Frank a brooding, laconic physicality. The Punisher is a man who lives in his body, a stubbornly uncompromising cowboy with a code who is beaten and battered and bloody but never broken. That's a common, beloved American heroic archetype. But it's exceedingly rare for that archetype to be inhabited by American Jews (though it's somewhat more common to see Israeli Jews inhabit these roles onscreen.)

Twisitng the knife a little, the second season of “The Punisher”specifically underlines the connection between stoic heroism and Christianity in the character of John Pilgrim (Josh Stewart). Pilgrim is a kind of anti or alternate Punisher. He's a former criminal who has converted to conservative Christianity, and now serves as the cat's paw for a fundamentalist right-wing oligarchs. Pilgrim's reserve and uncompromising determination are presented as an outgrowth of his rigid belief system — a rigid belief system oddly like the Punisher's. Pilgrim and Frank even have parallel crises of faith.

“The Punisher” doesn't approve of Pilgrim's brand of Christian fundamentalism, but by creating a parallel between the characters, it acknowledges that Christianity has something to do with the Punisher's code and the Punisher's heroism.

Again, Jewish actors shouldn't have to only play Jewish characters. Just because Bernthal is cast as the Punisher, that doesn't mean that the Punisher has to be written as Jewish.

But it's notable that, despite the importance of Jewish comic creators to the genre, and despite the fact that many Jewish actors do end up portraying superheroes, there is not a single major film or television superhero show centered on a Jewish hero. When Jewish people are heroes, they're not seen as Jewish; when they're seen as Jewish, they often aren't heroes. Jewish people made Superman, Captain America, Batman and the Avengers. But the culture that loves them still can't quite see us at the center of our stories.