Home / Blog / That time the X-Men’s humanity was put on trial in a real court of law

That time the X-Men’s humanity was put on trial in a real court of law

Jonathan Hickman’s current Powers of X and House of X miniseriesis pulling no punches, catapulting the X-Men into a new age in just 12 issues. But the X-Men have never had it easy. True story: Once upon a time, the X-Men legally lost their humanity in the real world.

On January 3, 2003, an American court of law officially ruled that the X-Men weren’t humans. The decision was made by Judge Judith Barzilay, who presided over a case between the United States Court of International Trade and Toy Biz, Inc, a subsidiary of Marvel Comics. This infamous case has since become known as Toy Biz v United States, and the outcome’s effects lingered for several years.

The ruling upheld a motion, posed by Toy Biz, that the X-Men weren’t human — they were humanoid “mutants,” a category likened by the defendant to robots and monsters. They argued that X-Men action figures weren’t “dolls,” due to the fact that “to be properly classifiable as a ‘doll’ under the HTSUS (Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States), a toy figure must clearly represent a human being.” The US Court of International Trade had other ideas.

Why was this such an important distinction for Toy Biz and the court? Import taxes. As dolls, X-Men figures were tied to tariffs of up to 12%. But as “nonhuman” toys, this figure was almost halved, to 6.8%. Toy Biz also argued that several Spider-Man villains and the Fantastic Four represented “non-human creatures.” Over the course of the case, over 60 individual figures were examined. The plaintiff’s motion includes a clause stating:

Toy Biz contends that the action figures at issue are properly classifiable as “Toys representing animals or other non-human creatures (for example, robots and monsters) and parts and accessories thereof: Other,” under subheading 9503.49.00, HTSUS (1994), dutiable at 6.8% ad valorem.

Toy Biz’s motion acknowledged that the X-Men “manifest human characteristics at varying degrees,” but argued that most are more of a mixed bag of human and non-human aspects. For example, the document specifically calls out Wolverine (rude!) for having “long, sharplooking [sic] claws grafted onto his hands that come out from under his skin along with wolf-like hair and ears.”

Don’t body-shame Wolverine! He tries very hard!

Judge Barzilay’s official ruling, in which Toy Biz prevailed, states “the action figure playthings at issue here are not properly classifiable as ‘dolls’ under the HTSUS by virtue of various non-human characteristics they exhibit.”

Wanda Maximoff says the words tearfully, as a white light consumes the X-Men, in House of M #7, Marvel Comics (2007).
Brian Michael Bendis, Olivier Coipel/Marvel Comics

A court of law had just ruled the X-Men “nonhuman” — and on the behest of Marvel Comics itself. The characters have traditionally been labeled as mutants, but mutantkind and humankind aren’t supposed to be mutually exclusive, at least in the eyes of the X-Men. Obviously this was detrimental to fan reception, as readers had empathized with the struggles of their heroes only to see their humanity being stripped not by any in-text antagonist, but a subsidiary of the studio that created them, all for the sake of reducing the cost of import tax.

Shortly afterwards, Marvel issued a statement addressing concerns about whether or not reducing the X-Men from dolls to toys in the eyes of the law was at odds with their plight to prove their humanity. “Our heroes are living, breathing human beings — but humans who have extraordinary abilities,” it said. “A decision that the X-Men figures indeed do have ‘non-human’ characteristics further proves our characters have special, out-of-this world powers.”

If these heroes are “living, breathing human beings,” they’re representative of humans even if they have extraordinary abilities. As a result, they’re dolls — but dolls with a convenient tariff loophole. And, ultimately, that loophole was deemed exploitable by Toy Biz, Inc.

While Marvel stripped its mutants of their humanity, the US Customs Office sought to restore it, claiming that the “non-human characteristics” of the X-Men and other action figures “fall far short of transforming [these figures] into something other than the human beings which they represent.” I’m not sure they cared all that much for Wolverine or Nightcrawler, but they insisted on their humanity even when their parent company wouldn’t, all in the name of tariffs.

In recent years, dolls and toys have been subjected to the same tariff rate when being imported from other countries, so Marvel’s pseudo-victory was ultimately quite short-lived. However, 16 years ago, after decades of struggling to prove their humanity, a US court legally deprived the X-Men of it, and for several years afterwards they were fit to be toys, not dolls.

This is the story of the time the X-Men were deprived of their humanity — maybe with Hickman’s new miniseries and the inevitable approach of MCU Phase Four, they’ll earn it back once and for all. Maybe it’s time for the X-Men to stick it to the creators who betrayed them, and to prove to the world that mutants and humans are one and the same.

Cian Maher is a freelance writer who sometimes spends more time replaying games than playing new ones, which is obviously problematic, but also very fun. If he could talk about Pokémon and Overwatch forever, he probably would.

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