Man of Steel, Man of Immigration


Last year during a set visit to the Plano, TX set of the new Superman movie Man of Steel, a reporter asked the film's director Zack Snyder whether the film would feature a young Clark Kent coming to terms with his powers while growing up in Kansas - a topic that was heavily tread on Smallville's ten season run.  Snyder responded, "You need a Superman that has built-in sort of values... I always remember everyone saying like, 'You're not going to show him growing up in Kansas, are you?' I'm like, 'Why make Superman?.... to understand him, you have to understand the Why of him.'"

The point he was making, inelegant though it be, demonstrates a key understanding of what makes Superman tick.  For decades, comic book writers were unabashed about the Why of Superman, the reason he is the way he is: he was raised in a loving household by two good-hearted, God-fearing, and hardworking American parents who accepted him despite his many differences and taught him the value of responsibility.  Clark Kent had the idealized American childhood, and that childhood made him grow up to become Superman.  It's something we could all aspire to, which is why he became a symbol of American exceptionalism - strength and dominance, tempered by benevolence and justice (sadly, it's also this fundamental goodness that makes Superman unpopular today.  He comes from a very 1950's mode of un-ironic thinking that makes people unable to identify with him).  His DNA may be Kryptonian, but he is a Kent, a Kansan, and an American in all other aspects of his being; his mid-western roots are the wellspring of his value system.  It's the ultimate nature vs. nurture question, with the writers hewing towards nurture at every opportunity.

But the Why of Superman also highlights an interesting dichotomy: Superman wears his homegrown American values on his blue spandex sleeve, but he is still an illegal alien.  Even though America is his adopted home, he is not a citizen and that makes him, politically speaking, someone to fear.  America has a long and storied history of xenophobia that is sadly still present today; treating aliens like second class citizens, regardless of whether they crossed into the U.S. from the Sonoran Desert or across the vast gulf of space.  The Immigration and Nationality Act, the law governing U.S. immigration policy, is designed to create a nearly impenetrable barrier to entry into the U.S.  Superman, the classic immigrant, would be no exception to our immigration policies.  And that means if Superman applies for U.S. citizenship through the usual channels, he's more likely to end up on a boat to Belize than taking the oath of citizenship.

So what are the usual channels that will fail the Last Son of Krypton in his efforts to become an American citizen?  Generally speaking, the only ways to become eligible for citizenship are through family-based or employment-based visas under INA Section 203(b).  I think we can rule out a family-based visa right off the bat.  For Superman to be eligible for one of those, he would have to be sponsored by a parent, sibling or spouse.  And to benefit from any one of those relationships, he would have to divulge his secret identity and his relationship to Jonathan and Martha Kent.  To do so would not only open them up to potential threats from the likes of Braniac, Bizarro, and General Zod, but also to potential criminal liability - they did, after all, harbor an illegal alien, a criminal offense punishable by upwards of 20 years in prison (I think it's safe to assume that Clark, being legally adopted by the Kents, possesses the appropriate documents - a passport and social security card - but cannot use those documents in his guise as Superman).

No if Superman wants to protect his alter ego and his family, his only other option is to get a job.  And his gig at the Daily Planet isn't going to cut it for the same reason that a family-based visa won't work for him. For an American employer to hire him, the employer would have to A) give others a chance to apply for the job by advertising the  opening to all qualified candidates and B) prove that he is the most qualified for the job, and C) that no American citizen was as willing, able, or qualified as him.   The employer would also have to prove that in hiring Superman, it was offering the "prevailing wage" and "prevailing working conditions."  In most cases, this is a difficult threshold to overcome, but not so for someone who can run faster than a locomotive and leap tall buildings in a single bound.  Frankly, I think most employers could report with a straight face that Superman is the best possible employee for whatever position he's hired for.

Those employment-based visas are limited, however.  The government allocates only a very small amount of them each year, although preference are given to "priority workers" who have

extraordinary abilit[ies] in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics which has been demonstrated by sustained national or international acclaim and whose achievements have been recognized in the field through extensive documentation. 

The last time I checked, there was no case-law describing how to categorize an immigrant who was powerful enough to push planets out of orbit and could take a vacation inside the sun, so I'm just going to wing it here and say that I think a credible argument could be made that Superman's abilities would fall into the "athletics" column.  Luckily for him, there's no question about Superman's feats drawing national and international acclaim.  Hell, any professional sports team could bring him on without a second guess.  And when you think about it, Superman's knowledge of Kryptonian technology could allow him to fall into the "sciences" column, making him a valuable commodity for defense contractors like Raytheon and Northrop Grumman, especially in light of the repeated extraterrestrial attacks his mere presence seems to draw towards Earth.

There's only one problem with this option.  Superman has no papers of any kind; no foreign passport, no identification card, no temporary visa.  He arrived as a newborn infant with no documentation and never passed through an authorized port of entry.  This makes him not only an illegal alien, but an undocumented one to boot, which means that no employer could hire him without opening their business to criminal liability.

So despite his extremely useful skill set, Superman can't avail himself of the usual channels since he lacks proper documentation.  That means the only other option available to the Man of Steel is to apply for asylum as a refugee under INA 208.  A refugee is defined as

any person who is outside any country of such person's nationality or, in the case of a person having no nationality,is outside any country in which such person last habitually resided, and who is unable or unwilling to return to, and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of, that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion...

It's safe to say that when Congress passed this bill, they hadn't contemplated its potential effect on aliens of extraterrestrial origin whose home planet had been destroyed by a nearby supernovae.  While Superman could argue in front of an immigration judge that he is "unable" to return to his place of origin since it no longer exists, it's not for any of the reasons outlined in the legal definition, making it difficult to know how a judge would look at his application for asylum (I suppose it could be argued that being the biological son of Jor-El, a renowned Kryptonian scientist who fell into disgrace due to his theories that Krypton was about to explode, could open Superman to some form of political persecution).  It's certainly plausible that Superman's particular status could be found to fall within the definition if he hires a savvy immigration attorney to make a compelling case, or the judge is able to make the facts fit the legal definition of "refugee."   But there's yet another hurdle even if this occurs; INA 208(2)(A) clearly states that asylum can be denied if the alien can be removed to a "safe third country"

in which the alien's life or freedom would not be threatened on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion, and where the alien would have access to a full and fair procedure for determining a claim to asylum or equivalent temporary protection...

Which basically means that the U.S. can deny Superman asylum if they determine that he can live safely in Canada.

Based on all of these factors, Superman is f**ked.  But that doesn't mean the story ends.  When an alien is denied citizenship for any reason, it falls to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement branch (otherwise known as ICE) to deport that alien back to his or her country of origin.  But how do you deport Superman?  Assuming he can be somehow captured and subdued, he can easily be back across the border within the hour.  And even if deportation were possible, where do you deport Superman to?  He's not "from" anywhere on Earth, and the technology doesn't exist to send him back to Krypton, which would essentially be a death sentence anyway since there's a massive empty void where the planet used to be.

So Superman is here to stay, but failing some extraordinary intervention on behalf of Congress or the President, the U.S. will functionally remain closed to him.  There is hope, however, that this will not always be so. Word on the street is that our immigration law could change this year to create a path to citizenship for aliens who are already present in the U.S. without documentation.  The bill appears to be gaining bipartisan support and has been flogged repeatedly in the news by Republican Senator Marco Rubio.  If it goes through, it could make citizenship attainable for the Man of Steel.  And I think that such a bill is the right thing to do.  Not only for the millions of immigrants who want nothing more than to live and work in this country, but also for a man who stands for truth, justice, and the American way.  He's spent his life fighting for America; it's time to make him one of us.

Thor's Dark World: Why Over-Delivering is a Breach of Contract


Thor: The Dark World, the sequel to Marvel's 2011 hit Thor is currently deep in post-production and is slated for release this winter.  If you've been following the production of the film like I have, then you've heard rumors that Marvel President Kevin Feige and the film's director Alan Taylor are in the midst of a major disagreement.   The nature of that disagreement remains a mystery, but one recent rumor claims that the fight is over - of all things - the running time of the film.  Taylor apparently wants the film to run for two and a half hours, while Feige wants the film to clock in at two hours even.  Evidently, the conflict has gotten so bad that editing has halted and a mediator has allegedly been brought in to resolve the situation.

Now this rumor may be complete BS (although the rumor mill has been swirling for weeks that Taylor was taken off the film, right before composer Carter Burwell's exit a few days ago), but I thought it was unique opportunity to highlight an interesting little wrinkle in contract law.  Namely, that over-delivering on a contract is technically a breach and can result in a lawsuit for damages.

Holy Hell?  You can actually be sued for giving the other party more than they originally bargained for?  Yes you can, and if these rumors are true, it's exactly what Feige appears to be accusing Taylor of - breach of contract by delivering more movie than was originally requested.  It feels counter-intuitive to say that getting MORE than you paid for is somehow a negative thing worth suing over, and to some extent that's right.  It's rarely considered a bad thing to get more than you asked and if you were to sue over it, a judge would probably dismiss the case and maybe even hit you with a Rule 11 sanction for bringing a frivolous lawsuit.  That's probably why Marvel is bringing in a mediator instead of suing Taylor outright.  Why waste the time and money to sue the guy when a judge would just dismiss the case because of its inherent ridiculousness?

But a breach is a breach, even if benefits the aggrieved party.  There's a reason why high-level contracts like these are so time-consuming and expensive to put together; the parties have very specific needs and demands. You can bet your bottom dollar that if a provision ends up in a contract, no matter how absurd it seems,  it's important to the parties that it gets carried out exactly as written.  Any deviation from the terms of the contract is considered a modification, which is not enforceable without the approval of both sides.

And anyway when you think about it, over-delivering on a contract can actually be a negative thing in some situations.  Movie studio generally hate long films because they can't schedule as many showings - 5 to 6 showings per theater per day for a two hour film as opposed to 3 or 4 for a three hour film - meaning the film will make less money during its theatrical run (Although Avatar and The Lord of the Rings films bucked that trend). Marvel is not, after all, a charity.  They want to make as much money as they can, and they've contracted with their talent a certain way to achieve that goal.  If Taylor's contract does indeed specify that he is to deliver a two hour film, and he breaches that provision by delivering a movie that's 30 minutes too long, then it could actually be detrimental to Marvel.  Marvel will be required to spend extra time and extra money they hadn't planned on to edit the film down to the requested two hours.  Reasonable minds can argue whether it is financially or artistically prudent to predetermine a film's running time before a director has even been hired, but Marvel has determined what it wants, has contracted to get what it wants, and is perfectly within its right to enforce that.

The Avengers and Copyright Reform

In honor of the most shoppingest weekend of the year, I'd like to discuss how The Avengers got me thinking about copyright reform.

You see, following the mammoth success of The Avengers this past summer, Marvel Entertainment (owned by Disney) planned to release a six-film box set just in time for the holidays that contained Blu-rays of The AvengersIron ManIron Man 2The Incredible HulkThor, and Captain America. The films would arrive in a package that replicated the metal briefcase used in The Avengers to carry the film's MacGuffin, the "tesseract."  Here's what it looked like:

Unfortunately for Marvel, the release of the box set was put on hold when German luggage manufacturer Rimowa GmbH sued for trademark infringement and trademark dilution, alleging that the silver briefcase for the six-movie collection was too similar to one of its products, and that releasing the box set would hurt its brand.  The good news for consumers is that while it won't be ready for your holiday shopping needs, the set WILL be released in April with new packaging and special features.

When I read Rimowa's complaint, I rolled my eyes at their claim of trademark dilution claim (they may have a good case on the infringement claim... but I won't use this space to weigh the merits of that argument).  "Here we go again" I thought.  "Another instance of one giant company wielding their intellectual property as a weapon against another giant company so they can squeeze out a few more pennies."  Then my next thought was "at least it's Disney getting sued and not some poor struggling artist."

As you know, I'm a big supporter of intellectual property protection, especially as it pertains to individual artists and creators.  But when the copyright holder is a multinational corporation, my support for protection becomes less absolute.  I don't like bullies and I especially don't like it when giant corporations use their copyrights* to trample over innovation, even if that innovation means some copyrights get infringed.  And to my surprise, a Republican staffer named Derek Khanna agrees with me, writing a policy paper on copyright reform that recently caused a stir.  In the paper, Khanna argues chiefly that our current system of copyright law actually harms the free market, hurts the consumer, and stifles creativity and innovation.  Khanna further argues that the powers to protect intellectual property granted to Congress in the Constitution were designed not solely to benefit the creator.  Rather, they were created to benefit the public, and creator compensation was just a way to fulfill that need.  FYI, the actual text of the Constitution, Article 1, Section 8 reads that Congress shall have the power:

"To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries."

Khanna recommends several fixes, most of which I agree with.  Expanding Fair use protections (basically, allowing more people to use copyrighted material for certain purposes without paying for it), lowering statutory damages (current damages can see you paying upwards of $150K for each infringed work.  Khanna argues that it's un-American to charge someone millions of dollars for downloading a few dozen songs), punishing false copyright claims (I've talked about this issue before), and significantly lowering the length of copyright ownership from "life of author + 70 years" to 14 years, renewable every 14 years while the author is alive.  Khanna's paper proved so controversial that 24 hours after publishing it, his Republican bosses removed the paper and issued a letter stating that the paper hadn't been properly vetted.  Which makes sense after all; the major media companies (who are also the biggest copyright holders in the world) are big political donors.

In the case of Rimowa v. Marvel, the stakes aren't very high for the average consumer.  People will get the box set they want eventually and if they can't wait, they can go out and buy the films individually.  Disney is going to be just fine... maybe a few million bucks poorer, but that's about it. The underlying issue here is larger than whether I can go and buy a cardboard case filled with movies.  It even goes beyond how much power our current copyright law grants to companies that can use those copyrights to bully the small artist and innovator.  The issue really boils down to whether companies have the same rights as individuals.  Should a company get the same rights I get under the law?  While Khanna's paper rarely singles out corporations as the biggest profiteers and abusers under our current copyright law, it's difficult to imagine that he wasn't thinking about them directly while writing it.   In one passage, he says that "Current public policy should create a disincentive for companies to continue their copyright indefinitely..."  The whole point of the paper seems to be this: copyright too often is used as a weapon to harm individual creators.  Disincentivize that by making copyright ownership less profitable for the corporate owner.  I wholeheartedly agree.  Actually, I will agree with and support just about any reform that takes the power out of the hands of the corporate copyright owner and gives it back to the individual creator.  Art should belong to the artist.

And if the end result is that I can get my Avengers box set sooner than later, then that will be a welcome side effect.

* For the record, yes I do know the difference between copyright and trademark.  For the purpose of this post, however, I'm treating them as interchangeable because they protect different types of the same thing... intellectual property.