There are certain questions that keep me up nights. Are the polar ice caps really melting? Will Iran enrich enough uranium to create a nuclear weapon? Is Spider-Man Jewish?
On paper at least, Peter Parker, the teenage science whiz turned superhero and principal character in the Marvel Universe, is a non-specific American Protestant of vague Anglo descent. Anyone who has an ear for these things, however, can tell you that Spidey’s as Jewish as Tevye. (Technically, George Costanza isn’t Jewish either.)
With the 50th anniversary of the creation of the character, Sony Pictures is releasing a major motion picture reboot of the franchise this summer. I had the good fortune to talk with the Israeli-born producer, Avi Arad, about this burning question as well as the likelihood of seeing other possibly Jewish superheroes on the screen.
But first, a little background. Created by Jewish-American Stan Lee (nee Lieber) in 1962, Spider-Man is considered to be the character most likely to be Lee’s alter ego. Prior to getting his superpowers, Peter Parker is a bit of a nebbish, often bullied by the blond jock Flash Thompson. He is a “good, smart boy” living with his aunt and uncle in Forest Hills, Queens, a neighborhood that had and still has one of the largest Jewish communities in New York. (His member-of-the-tribe neighbors would have included half of Steely Dan, both Simon and Garfunkel, the Ramones as babies and Hank Azaria of “The Simpsons.”)
One could argue that Spider-Man, a representative of the second generation of comics (known as the Silver Age), embodies the first generation of post-war Jewish-Americans. His parents are simply gone (symbolically, in a wiped-out Europe?) in contrast to the classic “Is He Jewish?” character from the earlier Golden Age, Superman, who himself had to actively leave his homeworld behind as it self-destructed.
More important, perhaps, is the evidence right there on the page. Peter Parker doesn’t just sling webs, he slings zing. The Parker patter, as written by Stan Lee and other legendary Jewish writers like Brian Michael Bendis and Peter David, is an endless stream of yiddishe schtick that livens up the action.
'Oy!' says Spider-Man in a current issue, 'Amazing Spider-Man #686,' written by Jewish author Dan Slott. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Unfortunately, all of this is bleached out of the new movie “The Amazing Spider-Man.” There’s only one key scene, against a carjacker, where we see the classic Parker sense of humor shine.
Despite the fact that the young actor now playing the role, Andrew Garfield, was raised Jewish, it doesn’t show in his portrayal of the character. It’s only in the second half of the film, where Parker is invited to girlfriend Gwen Stacey’s very blonde, very disciplined home (where he’s expected to wear a tie to dinner!) that he has any sort of outsider identity at all.
Luckily I met one of the movers and shakers behind “The Amazing Spider-Man” at the film’s New York City press day.
Avi Arad, born in Ramat Gan in 1948, founded and led Marvel Studios and recently produced for that studio the megasmash “The Avengers.” Broad-shouldered, energetic and clearly proud of his success, Arad was sporting a Spider-Man hat and T-shirt and a large X-Men bracelet.
The father of the modern comic book film, Avi Arad. (photo credit: courtesy)
Unafraid of a little straight talk, he didn’t bat an eye when I hit him with the questions that have been on my mind for so many years. Is Spider-Man Jewish?
Well, this is a somewhat controversial statement, perhaps, but to me when Stan Lee, excuse me, Stanley Lieber, puts the family in Forest Hills, this is a first sign. These are practically shtetl Jews living in Queens. You look at Aunt May – she is tough as anything, tough as nails. She is a defender of the family. Uncle Ben thinks he is the protector but all she needs is “You, you go in the basement, sweep out the garbage.” This is like a shtetl play.
Peter Parker, of course — his primary defense is his wit. Jokes first, webs second.
It always has been, and you see some of that in this movie. Now that there are so many overlapping Marvel films, and more on the way, I’m wondering what are the chances that one of the adventures will take us to the Middle East and we’ll meet the all-too-obscure superhero Sabra? You remember Sabra, of course, the raven-haired, beautiful special forces agent Ruth Bat-Seraph?
No, they changed her name, now, it is Refaeli. I’m kidding. Of course, we are now in a time when the name “Sabra” it does not…it is not so good for selling a film in international markets. When you have international, corporate interests…I do not think we could take a film to Dubai with Sabra right now, unfortunately. Aw, come on! Can’t you just say “screw ‘em!” and make a great, independently-minded character?
Listen, no one would like to say “screw ‘em!” more than me. But the studios, they’d probably make me pair her up with a Palestinian superhero. Could you meet ‘em halfway? Maybe Jordanian? Or Turkish but, you know, three years ago?
More like five years ago. I don’t know. This will have to take some time. “The Amazing Spider-Man” is out in the US on July 3 and Israel on July 5.