Moon Knight is the Jewish hero we deserve

Moon+Knight+is+the+Jewish+hero+we+deserve

Rebecca Glazer, Hey Alma

This story originally appeared in Hey Alma

I’ve been holding my breath for two and a half years. Two and a half years since Marvel announced that Moon Knight would be joining their roster of silver-screen superheroes. All that time, we’ve been waiting to hear whether the mummy-wrapped vigilante would be as Jewish as he is in the comics. Now, the wait is almost over. After 27 feature films and five TV series, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is finally getting its first Jewish hero. We think.

If that sounds crazy to you, it’ll sound crazier when you realize that Marvel Comics was created by a bunch of Jews: Stan Lee was Stanley Lieber, Jack Kirby was Jacob Kurtzberg and Joe Simon was — well, Hymie Simon, but he was Jewish, too. But they kept most of their Jewish representation coded: Captain America punched Hitler on the jaw on the cover of his first issue in 1941, but his Brooklyn-born alter ego had nothing personal at stake.

Moon Knight wasn’t meant to be Jewish. When he received his first title series in 1980, Marc Spector was just your average Indiana Jones–type ex-mercenary who got cursed by an Egyptian god and struggled with multiple conflicting personalities. But when Jewish fans pointed out that “Marc Spector” sounded like someone they knew from shul, Marvel leaned in. Spector’s father became a rabbi, and when the series was rebooted in 1985, they brought a former yeshiva principal on board to write it. Under Alan Zelenetz, Spector’s Jewishness became more than just a fun fact — Marc struggled with antisemitism, assimilation and even a kabbalistically-inspired villain named Zohar, all while driven by a “moral zeal” we might define as tikkun olam.

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And with that, Marc Spector became one of only a handful of openly Jewish characters in Marvel Comics. Others you might recognize include The Thing (Ben Grimm) of the Fantastic Four— who, as a pile of rocks, is arguably a golem by any other name — and longtime X-Men antagonist Magneto (Eric Lensherr), a Holocaust survivor who can bend metal with his mind.

Both The Thing and Magneto have made it onto the big screen, though not as part of the grand architecture of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) — which means, practically speaking, that their films weren’t produced by Marvel Studios. It’s a whole mishegas involving character rights, legal jargon and several boatloads of money, but the upshot of it is that Magneto and The Thing are (most likely) never going to pop over to hang with the Avengers. They’re siloed away on what’s become the fringes of Marvel cinematic fandom.

Neither Fantastic Four adaptation, 2005 or 2015, makes verbal reference to Ben Grimm’s Jewish identity, though the latter movie does contain a brief glimpse of a mezuzah in a flashback scene. Which means that if you’re looking for Jewish representation onscreen, Magneto’s your guy.

The issue with stanning Magneto is that he’s, well, a villain.

Don’t get me wrong — he’s still one of my favorite characters. He’s arguably one of the most compelling mutants in the X-Men franchise — he hunts down escaped Nazis and understands mutant persecution on a deeper level than most — but ultimately, he’s the bad guy. And Marvel never lets us forget it. Magneto tortures, kills, and somehow twists his trauma into a version of mutant supremacy that makes cruel mockery of Never Again. His Jewishness isn’t incidental, either: The films tie it explicitly to his power. He first develops the ability to manipulate metal in a concentration camp when he’s separated from his mother by a barbed wire fence. (Yes, not one but two X-Men movies open with Holocaust scenes.) Later, Professor X helps him master his power by telepathically bringing to mind a bittersweet suppressed memory: his mother lighting the shabbat candles. Presumably, this is the memory Magneto is thinking of every time he uses his power to throw Wolverine through a train. Which, yikes.

The relationship between Magneto’s Holocaust trauma and his villainy is a whole separate can of worms. For now, let’s just say that it would be great to have some Jewish representation we’re actually supposed to applaud.

Enter Moon Knight, who, despite being something of an antihero in the comics, now gets to be the protagonist of his own show. Though Spector’s transformation into an avatar of the moon god Khonshu leaves his mind fragmented and his sense of self divided between multiple personalities, this curse is also a blessing: He gains the superhuman strength and skills he needs to kick evil’s ass. We’ll get to root for him as he struggles with his mental illness — a topic writer Jeremy Slater says they’re committed to representing in an empowering way — and cheer him on as he goes toe-to-toe with Ethan Hawke’s Arthur Harrow, a cult leader with mind-control powers. The details of Moon Knight’s abilities have evolved over the course of his comics run, sometimes even waning and waxing with the phases of the moon, so the show writers have some latitude to tailor him into the exact sort of hero they need.

At the same time, he’s not meant to be any type of model minority. In the comics, his relationship with Judaism is complex and often fraught, from the way he takes shelter in his non-Jewish alter-ego Stephen Grant to his turbulent relationship with his father, and I hope they keep this element in the show. Good Jewish representation doesn’t mean morally unambiguous; it means realistic. And how many of us haven’t struggled with our identities? There are times I’m proud to plaster my Jewishness across the internet, and times I tuck my magen david into my shirt. Moon Knight just masks himself with a bit more dramatic flair.

While it’s not clear how much of Marc Spector’s Jewish background will be explored on screen, Oscar Isaac has confirmed that the character is, in his words, a “Jewish Chicago guy,” and director Mohamed Diab recently teased in a tweet, “Wait until the end of the show. You’ll be pleased.” I really, really hope he’s right.