Why a U.S. Federal Court Ruled That Marvel's X-Men Aren't Humans

Ever since their introduction to the Marvel Universe in 1963, the X-Men have always had to deal with questions about their humanity. While their enemies will stop at nothing to cast them as monsters, the team continues to fight for a world where they are treated just like humans. Of course, that's just a moral on a comic book page; in the real world, it's in Marvel's best financial interest that the X-Men not be considered humans. In fact, they even went to court over it.

According to the podcast Radiolab, the question over the X-Men's heritage began in 1993, when international trade lawyers Sherry Singer and Indie Singh found an interesting provision in a book of federal tariff classifications. It turns out a "doll" can only be a representation of a human being, like a Barbie or Ken doll. A "toy," on the other hand, includes anything else—a robot, monster, demon, etc. Normally this would be nothing more than a technicality, but it turns out there's a marked difference between a doll and a toy when it comes to taxes. When a company imports a doll to sell in the U.S., they are taxed at 12 percent, while toys stand at 6.8 percent. There's no concrete reasoning behind this, but Radiolab speculated that domestic doll manufacturers had something to do with it.

Singer and Singh knew this distinction could be a sizable financial benefit for their client, Marvel Entertainment, who had an ownership stake in ToyBiz at the time. For years, Marvel had been importing its action figures as dolls, despite the fact that the company's cavalcade of brightly colored characters could hardly be classified as human in most cases. The two lawyers went to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection headquarters in Washington, D.C. with a bag full of action figures to try and convince the government that Marvel wasn't importing humanlike dolls, but instead very non-human toys.

The legal battle raged on for a decade, with a judge looking at various Marvel figures (beyond just the X-Men) to decide whether or not individual characters were human or not. Everything from Beast's blue skin to Wolverine's claws and Kraven the Hunter's muscle-bound physique were scrutinized, with lawyers on both sides weighing in on the philosophical ramifications of being human. After all, ToyBiz argued, how can these action figures be human if they have "tentacles, claws, wings, or robotic limbs?"

Official court documents [PDF] from the case are just as surreal, often sounding like overly formal Comic-Con discussions:

"The figure of 'Kingpin' resembles a man in a suit carrying a staff. Nothing in the storyline indicates that Kingpin possesses superhuman powers. Yet, Kingpin is known to have exceedingly great strength (however 'naturally' achieved) and the figure itself has a large and stout body with a disproportionately small head and disproportionately large hands. As it is, the figure is designed to communicate the legendary and freakish nature of the character. Even though 'dolls' can be caricatures of human beings, the court is of the opinion that the freakishness of the figure’s appearance coupled with the fabled 'Spider-Man' storyline to which it belongs does not warrant a finding that the figure represents a human being."

In 2003, Singer and Singh convinced Judge Judith Barzilay that the Marvel characters aren't quite human enough to deserve the taxation of a doll, leading the court to declare, “They are more than (or different than) humans. These fabulous characters use their extraordinary and unnatural physical and psychic powers on the side of either good or evil. The figures’ shapes and features, as well as their costumes and accessories, are designed to communicate such powers."

For the entire Marvel Universe to be catalogued as "non-human" might ring false to some fans, but for X-Men fans in particular, it was downright insulting. Chuck Austen, who was writing Uncanny X-Men when the ruling came down in 2003, said his goal while writing the books was to show the team's humanity, and that mutants were simply "just another strand in the evolutionary chain." Obviously this ruling flies in the face of the themes Marvel spent decades crafting.

Marvel itself had to quell concerns from fans by releasing a statement that read, "Don't fret, Marvel fans, our heroes are living, breathing human beings—but humans who have extraordinary abilities ... A decision that the X-Men figures indeed do have 'nonhuman' characteristics further proves our characters have special, out-of-this world powers."

In the never-ending world of comics, the X-Men will likely always be fighting for their rights to be treated as humans. But in the real world, the decision has already been made.

Fans Think the Spider-Man: Far From Home Trailer Hints at Iron Man's Death

© 2018 - Marvel Studios
© 2018 - Marvel Studios

Marvel fans are seriously concerned for Iron Man. While Tony Stark is one of the few Avengers we know survived Thanos's snap at the end of Avengers: Infinity War, the new trailer for Spider-Man: Far From Home seems to imply that the sarcasm-prone superhero might not make it out of Avengers: Endgame alive.

The detail in question comes from the first Far From Home movie trailer, which features Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) carrying a large check from the Stark Relief Foundation.

The panic regarding Stark’s fate is over the signature on the check—which belongs to Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), the co-founder of the foundation. Fans became concerned when they saw that Stark hadn’t signed the check, with many jumping to the conclusion that Stark wasn’t able to sign the check himself because he had died at some point during the events of Avengers: Endgame. While it’s not confirmed whether Far From Home happens after Infinity War or Endgame, fans aren't willing to take any chances.

A few in-the-know viewers pointed out that a relief foundation is not the same as a memorial foundation, and that the organization was most likely set up for Stark industries, not for a deceased Tony Stark. As Potts was named the CEO of Stark Industries in Iron Man 2, it would make sense that she is the one signing the checks. These are valid points, but anxious MCU fans won't rest easy until they know that Stark is alive and well.

While Spider-Man: Far From Home doesn't arrive in theaters until July 5, 2019, Marvel fans will get the answers to at least some of their key questions when Avengers: Endgame hits theaters on April 26, 2019.

10 Fierce Facts About Jon Bernthal

Chuck Zlotnick, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Chuck Zlotnick, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Though the Marvel vigilante known as the Punisher has been portrayed by several actors including Dolph Lundgren and Thomas Jane, it’s Jon Bernthal who has left the biggest impression. The onetime The Walking Dead star has won over critics and audiences with his soulful performance as Frank Castle, a war veteran who grapples with his post-traumatic stress disorder by obliterating criminals.

For season 2 of The Punisher, an original Netflix series premiering on January 18, Castle is up against a fundamentalist group that embraces their right to bear arms; lurking in the margins is Jigsaw (Ben Barnes), a fellow soldier with a vendetta against Castle.

If the show has you curious for more information on the man behind the skull insignia, check out our round-up of facts about the Washington, D.C.-born actor, who has a reason for having such a pugnacious nose: He has broken it 14 times .

1. He nearly wound up in prison himself.

Jon Bernthal, whose father was a corporate lawyer (and now chair of the board of directors for the Humane Society), enjoyed a privileged upbringing in Washington, D.C. where he attended Sidwell Friends, the same private school that counts Chelsea Clinton and Sasha and Malia Obama among its alumni. But according to Bernthal, his preppy exterior masked a violent streak.

As a kid, Bernthal got into fights, sometimes with weapons. Much later, when he was in his 30s, a run-in with someone who was harassing Bernthal while the actor was out walking his dog led to a fight that nearly landed him in prison. In a 2017 interview with Esquire, Bernthal said he hit the man, who was following him home, and was brought in for questioning when the man hit his head on the pavement and was slow to regain consciousness.

“If that guy doesn’t wake up,” the cops told him, “you’re going away for life.”

Fortunately, the man recovered. Bernthal has limited the off-screen violence ever since.

2. He studied acting in Russia.

Bernthal became interested in acting in high school and was later accepted into Harvard's master’s in dramatic arts program. Before that, he was encouraged by his acting teacher, Alma Becker, to try out for the Moscow Art Theatre School. Bernthal went to Russia and was accepted into the school’s program.

"I absolutely fell in love with Russian culture, Russian people,” he later said. "I felt as an actor, there’s a real respect for the arts there that I don’t necessarily think too many of my peers at the time in America had.” As a result, Bernthal can speak fluent Russian. He also sports a tattoo of Becker’s name on his right wrist.

3. He almost punched out Oliver Stone.

Jon Bernthal in The Punisher
Cara Howe, Netflix

Years of scraping by as an actor were followed by a few breaks for Bernthal, including a part in director Oliver Stone’s 2006 feature World Trade Center. The famously temperamental Stone allegedly told Bernthal that his takes were subpar and that he was “vain.” Bernthal, who had not yet sworn off fistfights, replied that, "You might be Oliver Stone, but I will beat your f***ing a** right here on this set. In front of everybody here, I will beat your a**."

Stone wandered off. Nicolas Cage, who was starring in the film, was struck by the fact that Bernthal would stand up to the mercurial director. “Wow, man,” Cage told him. “There was adversity and you threw more adversity at it.” Bernthal said he and Stone later patched things up and the two became friendly.

4. He was once replaced by Andy Samberg.

With his feature film career still developing, Bernthal was excited to get a role in 2009’s I Love You, Man, starring Paul Rudd and Jason Segel. Bernthal played Rudd’s brother, but the familial attitude did not extend to the set. Bernthal said he was largely ignored by the cast (no, he had not threatened to beat anyone up on this set). He began to sense he might not be around much longer. After one day of rehearsal, he was fired and replaced by Andy Samberg. Fortunately, The Walking Dead came along not long after. Bernthal played Shane, one of the survivors of a zombie-infested wasteland, for two seasons.

5. His dog enjoyed peeing on Ben Stiller’s trailer.

Following parts in little-seen films like 2002’s Mary/Mary and 2004’s Tony ‘n Tina’s Wedding, Bernthal got a glimpse of a major Hollywood production with 2009’s Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. Bernthal played Al Capone opposite Ben Stiller’s hapless night watchman. In 2017, Bernthal told The A.V. Club that his dog, Boss, had a habit of urinating all over the side of Stiller’s trailer on the set. “I always would try to get him to not do it, but he did it anyway,” the actor said.

6. He starred in a sitcom.

Bernthal’s brooding persona is not seemingly one that would lend itself to a sitcom, but he nonetheless wound up doing one. For The Class, a 2006-2007 CBS series, Bernthal appeared in an ensemble comedy about a group of classmates who rekindle their friendship 20 years after meeting in the third grade. (His co-stars included Lizzy Caplan and Jesse Tyler Ferguson.) It lasted just one season.

“I remember we took a private jet to Vegas and [director] Jimmy Burrows sat us down and said, ‘Look, I’m going to tell you guys the same thing I told the cast of Friends,’” he recalled in 2017. “'This is the last time you will ever go to a casino where you won’t get mobbed by fans. And he was right about Friends, but he was simply not right about us.”

7. He’s related to pro wrestler Kurt Angle.

Jon Bernthal in The Walking Dead
Gene Page, AMC

To Bernthal, Olympic gold medalist wrestler and WWE performer Kurt Angle is “Uncle Kurt.” Bernthal married Angle’s niece, Erin Angle, in 2010, making Bernthal Kurt’s nephew-in-law. Bernthal attended at least one WWE event to see Angle in the ring in 2017.

8. Tom Holland helped him land The Punisher.

Bernthal and actor Tom Holland were both appearing in the 2017 film Pilgrimage, a medieval action drama about clergymen transporting an ancient relic through Rome, when the two were both up for Marvel live-action roles as the Punisher and Spider-Man, respectively. Bernthal helped Holland by reading lines off-camera for an audition type; Holland acted onscreen in a similar video for Punisher producers.

9. He’s not that enamored with Marvel.

While many actors are dedicated fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Bernthal is not among them. “I got respect for those people,” he told Esquire. “But I don’t feel that way. I just don’t. It’s nothing against what they’re doing. That’s not what I watch.”

Still, landing The Punisher created a sense of responsibility for Bernthal—not only for comic fans, but for members of the military who often adorn their weaponry or gear with the character’s skull iconography. “He means a lot to people, not only the comic book fans, who this character really belongs to, but to members of law enforcement and the military,” Bernthal told Variety in 2017. “He means something to guys who’ve gone to fight and have died for this country with that Punisher skull on their body armor.”

10. He’s joining The Sopranos.

'Punisher' season 2 star Jon Bernthal is photographed during a public appearance
Dia Dipasupil, Getty Images

The same week season 2 of The Punisher debuted, it was announced that Bernthal would be appearing in The Many Saints of Newark, The Sopranos feature film prequel co-written and produced by David Chase. The movie will feature several of the series' characters as they navigate the ethnic tension and riots of 1960s Newark. Bernthal’s specific role has yet to be disclosed.

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