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Is Superman an Illegal Immigrant? Reviewing The Law of Superheroes

Christopher Pegg investigates the enjoyable application of fictional (or not-so fictional) comic-book scenarios to modern day legal principles from the book, The Law of Superheroes

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Are superheroes that beat on criminals civilly liable for damages? Is imprisoning an immortal “for life” a violation of the 8th amendment protection from cruel and unusual punishment? Does the 2nd amendment protect laser vision, adamantium claws, or magic powers? Who pays for the damage when the Avengers demolish downtown Manhattan protecting the city from aliens, or robots, or alien robots? Are all of these supervillains really “criminally” insane? (All you fans of the M’Naghten rule take notice.) If, like me, these questions keep you up at night, then strap in because boy do I have a book for you. Co-authored by lawyers and self-professed comic aficionados James Daily and Ryan Davidson, The Law of Superheroes applies American jurisprudence to the legal questions created by the existence and activities of superheroes, supervillains, and the many other unique individuals and entities that call the Marvel and DC comic book universes home. The text itself is organized thematically by recognized areas of the law like criminal, constitutional, and the like, but reserves its last few chapters for issues which our existing law hasn’t, at least for now, contemplated, such as immortality, resurrection (does the fact that your victim came back to life vitiate a murder conviction? Spoiler alert: no, it doesn’t), alter egos, and the status of non-human intelligences (like Rocket Raccoon and Groot for all you Guardians of the Galaxy fans). On the legal side of things, Daily and Davidson draw their authorities from sources such as the American Model Penal Code, the Restatement of Torts (2nd), case law, state and federal legislation, and of course the Constitution of the United States.

They also weigh in on the status of some of the fictional pieces of legislation used as plot devices in certain comic book universes such as the “Watchmen’s” Keene Act which prohibited costumed crime fighting, the Marvel Universe’s Superhuman Registration Act (SHRA) which kicked off Marvel’s “Civil War” arc, and the DC universe’s twelfth amendment protecting the right of registered metahumans to testify in court while masked. (Note: the real twelfth amendment was passed in 1803 and modified how the president and vice president were elected. So now you know, and knowing is half the battle *Insert GI Joe theme here*). Whether or not Congress actually had the power to pass legislation like these ones are the subject of some controversy which turns on, among other things, the American style of federalism which divides governing powers between the state and federal governments. Take for example the SHRA, which not only forces all powered individuals to register themselves with the government or face felony charges; it also requires them to enlist in government service. Daily and Davidson compare this to the controversial true to life instance of American conscription which, while not being expressly authorized in the constitution, has never the less been treated with great deference by the American Supreme Court under Section 1 Article 8 of the US Constitution which allows Congress to, among other things, raise and support an army and navy as well as make rules which govern and regulate both.

Further, while most of the questions posed in the book are and will remain hypotheticals and thought exercises, as our technology and social values continue to evolve, other questions are eerily prescient of issues we are now facing or will have to tangle with in the foreseeable future. This should probably come as no shock considering that eccentric billionaire Elon Musk just strapped his car to a rocket and launched it to Mars orbit for funsies hoping that it will kick off “Space Race 2”. Consider the legal position of non-human intelligences such as A.I’s (Vision, Brainiac), super intelligent animals (Gorilla Grodd), as well as the various intelligent alien entities encountered in comic books (Kryptonians, Asgardians, Kree). Could an A.I own its own intellectual property (i.e. itself)? If it is a legal person, is deleting It murder? What about making copies? According to our intrepid authors, while the current American legal framework imputes all legal benefits and liabilities to A.I “owners”, it could theoretically allow for intelligent machines to copyright their own creative works as well as hold valid patents without any drastic changes to the law. What about intelligent aliens, animals, or other unique sentient species in comic book worlds? It turns out that the Endangered Species Act could possibly be used to give certain protections to intelligent non-humans in the absence of any other appropriate regulatory regime, which considering the subject matter, there probably isn’t.

Coming in at just under 300 pages not including the index, compared to some of the texts and cases we’ve had to slog through in class, this little layman’s introduction to the American legal system is a quick and concise breath of fresh air. While by no means going into depth about every possible hypothetical question posed about the Marvel and DC Universes, the book stands as a great introductory survey to many of the questions pondered by both the casual and veteran comic consumer. With the increasing popularity of Marvel and DC movie and television properties, for those of you out there wanting to take your first foray into comics or really anyone who wants to view familiar legal principles through a truly one-of-a-kind lens, I would heartily recommend The Law of Superheroes. If you’d like to keep up with the authors or submit your own burning questions, you can find them at http://lawandthemultiverse.com/. As the genesis of the questions that would form the basis of The Law of Superheroes, the site features an array of articles meditating on further legal questions arising out of comics, such as if Matt Murdoch has a conflict of interests being both Daredevil and a lawyer, or the immigration status of Wonder Woman (is Themyscira a legally recognized nation? Does it issue passports? How would its strict gender segregation affect its standing in the international community?) However, be advised that the updates there tend to be infrequent. But when they do come, they tend to be both illuminating and entertaining.

Christopher Pegg is a 1L Staff Writer.

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