Supervillain Real Estate

Every supervillain or supervillain organization worth its salt needs a secret lair, and a location outside the jurisdiction of any government would be ideal. The legal benefits are numerous: no pesky employment laws or civil rights for henchmen, no local police, no taxes.  But in the age of air travel and GPS is there anywhere left for a supervillain to set up shop? Here we consider three possibilities: unclaimed land, the high seas, and outer space.

I. Unclaimed Land

You may be surprised to learn that there are a (very) few places left on Earth that are unclaimed by any sovereign nation.  Perhaps the most reasonable is Bir Tawil, a 770 square mile stretch of desert between the borders of Egypt and Sudan.  There isn’t a whole lot there, but at least it’s relatively close to more interesting places, and the neighbors are probably too concerned with their own problems to care about a supervillain moving in next door.

The other major possibility is Marie Byrd Land, which is part of Antarctica.  At over 620,000 square miles it’s comparable in size to Mongolia or Iran and would be the 19th largest country in the world if it were one.  While no countries lay claim to this land, the Antarctic Treaty of 1959 expressly prohibits “any measure of a military nature, such as the establishment of military bases and fortifications.”  Although a supervillain, as a private entity, would not be bound by the treaty, that language might provide the basis for joint military action to oust a supervillain operating out of Antarctica.  The treaty does state that “Antarctica…shall not become the scene or object of international discord,” but it is doubtful that such language would give the signatory nations much pause before launching the cruise missiles.

A third possibility is purchasing an island from a sovereign nation, but it may be difficult to convince the owner to give up all claim to the island.  Ordinarily private islands like Richard Branson’s Necker Island still remain the sovereign territory of a nation (in that case the British Virgin Islands).  But there are many impoverished island nations, and an enterprising supervillain may attempt to strike a Faustian bargain for sovereign territory.

Unfortunately, being stuck on land makes a supervillain an easy target, and unless the supervillain can gain international recognition and thus sovereign status, the base is likely to be attacked without legal repercussions.  The main benefits here would be isolation and a lack of direct government oversight, not a legal shield against reprisal.

All in all, it would seem that actually setting up a permanent outpost without obscuring it in some way is going to be pretty tough. Unless the lair is constructed far underground or is somehow protected, a single pass by a BUFF can pretty much send any supervillain’s lair back to the stone age inside of twenty-four hours.

II. The High Seas

If no land is available or if mobility is a concern, then a supervillain can consider the oceans.  The primary governing treaty is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.  This gives some freedoms, including the right to build artificial constructs, but it also prohibits claims of sovereign territory, so a supervillain probably could not create a new floating nation. Still, as long as he avoided making territorial claims, there doesn’t seem to be any legal reason that a sufficiently large floating construct couldn’t just sail around forever.

Now, you might think that charges of piracy would be the biggest problem here.  The Convention does require signatories to “cooperate to the fullest possible extent in the repression of piracy on the high seas or in any other place outside the jurisdiction of any State.”  But piracy is defined as

(a) any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft, and directed:

(i) on the high seas, against another ship or aircraft, or against persons or property on board such ship or aircraft;
(ii) against a ship, aircraft, persons or property in a place outside the jurisdiction of any State;

(b) any act of voluntary participation in the operation of a ship or of an aircraft with knowledge of facts making it a pirate ship or aircraft;
(c) any act of inciting or of intentionally facilitating an act described in subparagraph (a) or (b).

Strictly speaking this would not seem to encompass the operation of a floating supervillain base as long as the supervillain only attacked targets that were not on the high seas or otherwise outside the jurisdiction of any State.  But there are other problems for a seafaring supervillain, most particularly the lack of a national flag (presuming that a supervillain would not long be able to fly even a flag of convenience).  Article 110 provides that a warship may board a foreign ship on the high seas if “there is reasonable ground for suspecting that…the ship is without nationality.”  Worse than being hassled by passing warships, without the protection of a sovereign nation a supervillain would be fair game for outright destruction.  As with a land base, a supervillain would still be vulnerable so long as the base could be found and tied to the supervillain’s nefarious activities. Considering that just about anything on the surface of the ocean sticks out like a sore thumb, staying hidden is going to be pretty difficult.

III. Outer Space

Outer space probably represents the best bet for a supervillain.  Although the supervillain and his or her base would not have much in the way of direct legal protections in space or on the Moon, he or she would be protected indirectly by the Outer Space Treaty. The OST bans placing “in orbit around the earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction, install[ing] such weapons on celestial bodies, or station[ing] such weapons in outer space in any other manner.” It further states that

The moon and other celestial bodies shall be used by all States Parties to the Treaty exclusively for peaceful purposes. The establishment of military bases, installations and fortifications, the testing of any type of weapons and the conduct of military manoeuvres on celestial bodies shall be forbidden. The use of military personnel for scientific research or for any other peaceful purposes shall not be prohibited. The use of any equipment or facility necessary for peaceful exploration of the moon and other celestial bodies shall also not be prohibited.

In the event of an actual supervillain taking up residence in outer space, these provisions would likely be ignored or repealed outright. However, the treaty has largely been respected in the past. The result is that space, especially outside of Earth orbit, is essentially unmilitarized (as far as we know). Beyond the technical difficulties of mounting an attack on a supervillain lair in space, the status quo means that the nations of Earth would be starting from scratch. This is a distinct advantage over a land or sea-based lair.

IV. Conclusion

A supervillain with effectively unlimited resources would be best served by a base located in space, probably on the dark side of the Moon. A supervillain with significant but not-unlimited resources might be better off buying a private island or a slice of Bir Tawil, then keeping a low enough profile to avoid attracting attention (and airstrikes).

40 responses to “Supervillain Real Estate

  1. What about undersea bases? Or airborne fortresses?

    • An airborne fortress, even if technologically feasible, would not present any different legal issues. Sovereign countries own their airspace, and the air above international waters is basically treated the same as the waters themselves. A fortress high enough in the air to be out of sovereign airspace would be in outer space.

      An undersea base would still be subject to the law of the sea. However, if one were technologically feasible then it would probably be the most sensible place to put a base on Earth, especially if it were outside of any major shipping lanes.

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  3. Does sovereignty underground work the same way as airspace? It seems a base in the Earth’s molten core could be a good solution for the supervillain with the proper powers and resources.

  4. What about all those “lands that time forgot”: usually with dinosaurs, and sabertooths still running around. Presumably as undiscovered land, they would either be up for grabs, or belong to any indigenous cavemen.

  5. What about cases like Dr. Doom, where the villain is the ruler of a country, or milder cases where the villain’s base is there with the cooperation of one of the superhero universe’s countries?

    • Then we’ve got ourselves a Kim Jong-Il situation, no? Here, the legal issues are a lot less complicated. Warfare between sovereign states is something that happens, and if the leader of a sovereign state publicly declared his ill intent and took significant hostile action, well, Congress still has the power to declare war. The only reason we haven’t bombed North Korea into oblivion (again?) is because we’re afraid that they might cause a lot of damage before we took them out completely. But if they were already causing lots of damage, the calculus might shift a lot towards just bombing the heck out of ’em.

      • True, but if a supervillain or group of them takes over the government of a small country (make it a small island nation, preferably with volcano, for tradition’s sake) and then restricts themselves to criminal actions against individual superheroes while building up defensive and retaliatory armaments up on their sovereign territory, they can make the cost-benefit analysis of taking them out for their depredations very difficult. In the extreme case (Case Doom) they can even get themselves diplomatic immunity that’s sustained over multiple incidents that in theory should make them persona non grata, and having Henry Kissinger sent out to negotiate a non-aggression pact.

      • This shows the difference between comic book worlds and the real world. Yes, Kim Jong Il is a real-life supervillian. But, in comic books, when you attack Dr. Doom’s lair and take out Dr. Doom, that’s the end of the story. In real life, you have to follow Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn doctrine of “You break it, you buy it”. One of the main reasons we don’t just invade North Korea and take out Kim Jong Il is not so much because we’re afraid of his military – their army is quite large on paper, but I don’t think they’d be any real match for the US military – as because of all the issues about what to do with the refugees and how to rebuild the country. Just look what happened when we took out another real-life supervillian, Saddam Hussein. Taking him out was easy – what came after is what turned out to be really hard.

        Even in the comic book world, where supervillians don’t control entire countries, there still is the question of what to do with all their minions. Just like we couldn’t possibly imprison every single Nazi after World War II, you have to figure out how to denazify or “de-Doom-ify” all the minions, i.e. imprisoning the upper echelon while rehabilitating the lower-level minions. In other words, what do you do with all of Dr. Doom’s janitors?

  6. And some more idea requests:

    More about clones: is a clone (again assuming the Superboy-type who doesn’t have the original’s memories) treated as a sibling or child of the original? They got their genetic material from the original; if you get your genetic material from someone they’re normally considered a parent. Common wisdom is that they are a sibling and I just don’t see how to justify that, except *maybe* in the copied memories case.

    What about clones that do have copied memories? What about other beings with copied memories? (I asked “The Law is a Ass” many years ago if the original Black Canary would be legally considered the same person as the new one–this was at the point where she was the original daughter with a copy of her mother’s memories. Ingersoll refused to answer.)

    Are space aliens considered people legally? I’ve seen a lot of claims that they’re not, but I don’t see how to justify that. I’ve seen claims that they couldn’t legally marry humans, which I don’t see how to justify either. I can’t imagine any court ruling that Superman isn’t a person. How do we deal with space aliens who mature at different rates? (Which is a similar question to rapid-maturing clones)–if the alien is mature at 10, can it sign contracts?

    • They’d be considered siblings in the same way that identical twins, i.e., naturally occurring clones, are considered siblings. Of course, the age difference would mitigate towards considering them children of the original instead, but most comic book clones get aged to the same apparent age as the original so one might think they were long-lost twins.

      • I see you replied to this inline, so here’s what I was thinking and may not have explained well enough:

        In the real world, we make children by, through a normally natural process, taking the DNA from one person and combining it with the DNA of another. This process is considered to produce offspring, not siblings.

        If you go to the lab and take the DNA of one person and combine it with the DNA of another (as in Superboy–DNA from Superman and Lex Luthor) and produce a child, or if you just take the DNA from one person and produce a child (as in 95% of comic book clone situations), why is this not also considered to produce offspring and not siblings?

        It’s true that identical twins are siblings, but they’re formed when an early embryo splits into two more or less equal parts. Cloning involves using a very small, unimportant, part of the first individual–not equal parts.

        I could make a better argument that transporter duplicates are siblings. While there is an original, it’s still true that the second individual was copied from the entirety of the first individual–not from a very small part of it.

    • Transporter duplicates, where the original and the copy are the same down to the atomic level, and there’s no inherent marker for which is which, are more difficult.

      As for aliens and mutants and such – while they may not be humans, if they’re talking, rational beings and not *too* outlandish, I can see some enemies trying to make the claim that they’re not people under the law, but doubt it would work as a tactic, especially once the first alien or mutant supervillain was tried and convicted, which would serve as pretty firm precedent that they were people.

  7. Note that the United States reserved a right to make a claim to Marie Byrd Land before adoption of the Antarctic Treaty and specifically reserved the right to make a territorial claim in Antarctica when it ratified that treaty. Further, the United States holds that crimes committed in Antarctica by or against US nationals are under its jurisdiction. To this end, the United States actually stations deputy US Marshals on the continent to enforce its laws.

    These American fingers in the Antarctic pie accordingly make Marie Byrd Land a very poor choice of location, under what amounts to the most disadvantageous intersection of the legal protections of a location on the high seas and a location under the sovereignty of the foremost national military power on Earth.

    • These are good points, however, I believe Russia also reserved a right to a claim to Marie Byrd Land, which would likely make a US claim a difficult proposition. The jurisdictional claim can be avoided by not actually committing any crimes in Antarctica by or against US nationals. I wonder, however, if that jurisdiction would apply to a conspiracy charge if two supervillains plotted a crime in their Antarctic base and then carried out the crime in the US? Or stored weapons in the base that were later used in attacks against Americans outside Antarctica? Tricky.

      But I agree that Antarctica isn’t a great location for the reasons you gave. As long as we’re talking about a supervillain, the Moon really is a much better location.

  8. This is actually part of the plot of the graphic novel series The Losers (not sure if it was in the recent movie). The main villain purchases an old oil rig on the correct hunch it will eventually rise up as part of a new island created by massive earthquakes in the middle of the persian gulf. He then claims sovereignty over the island, backed up by stolen nuclear weapons.

  9. Following up on the undersea point above: What about operating a submarine as a mobile undersea supervillain lair? The downside is that you’ve got limited space (although if you bought an old Typhoon-class boomer from the Russians and removed the ICBM tubes, you’d significantly increase available space… though a real supervillain might want to keep a few ICBMs for the occasional “let’s blackmail Lichtenstein” scenario, or what have you). However, a mobile lair would be harder to locate than a fixed base, and a submarine wouldn’t stick out like a surface ship would. Not sure that it changes the legal analysis any, but you could move your lair close to any operations you have planned while remaining undetected. Seems like a win/win to me. No that *I* would ever think of doing something like that…

  10. Captain Nemo may have some good information on the operation of a submarine as a mobile lair.

  11. On the possibility of purchasing an island:

    There is some precedent for the possibility of selling a “sovereign” island — the case of Sealand, an oil rig in the North Sea, which claims that it has de facto recognition from the United Kingdom due to a case ruling that it was outside British jurisdiction. Apparently, its sovereign rulers put it up for sale in 2007 — not sure if any supervillains were willing to drop 750 million euros on it.

  12. How about going to the other end of the spectrum? Instead of trying to protect yourself through remoteness, set up in the heart of some major city and use the huge population density as a shield against massive ordinance. You then just dig in to harden what you’ve got so that more targeted munitions can’t do you in. Human shields may not be a pretty solution but I don’t think your average supervillain would be put off by that.

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  14. This blog ROCKS! Need to use it for teaching at Columbia

  15. Supervillains with time travel can set up their base in the deep past or far future, depending on the exact rules. A lair on the site of Washington DC, in the year 500 BC, is outside the sovereign territory of any state, and completely beyond their reach. If they’re based in 1920’s New York, but committing crimes in 2010’s New York, even if the current government could borrow a time machine and go get them, the legal complications would be immense.

  16. The moon has a Near side and a Far side. It doesn’t have a Dark side. Neither does the Earth. The sun shines on all sides of both at some point during the local day.

  17. If a supervillain sets his headquarters in a hollowed-out dormant volcano on a tropical atoll, is the surrounding lagoon considered to be a curtilage?

  18. You guys should really do an entry on Superman or flying characters and flight regulations/FAA stuff. I imagine there would have to be some rules governing flight of objects like superheros.

    • They could be considered in the same class as ultralights, for which you don’t necessarily have to have a license, since after all they’re definitely self-launched. On the other hand, there are airspeed and altitude restrictions that many superhumans exceed on a regular basis, and still a need to file flight plans if passing through controlled airspace, prohibition on flying too low (or at all) over inhabited areas, etc.

  19. But flying superheroes have a pretty good chance of invoking necessity. Breaking the FAA flight regs may well be the only way the flight capable superhero has of getting to where they are needed in time to do anything about whatever is going on.

    Of course, Superman at least seems to do plenty of lying just for the sheer joy of it, so maybe not.

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  21. I’m curious about the disposition of these lairs in the event of a successful RICO prosecution. I’d assume that most attempted supervillain crimes would meet the requirements for prosecuting either one or a group of supervillains’ criminal syndicates as corrupt organizations. Given the broad powers to seize (and in some cases, operate) businesses and facilities under the RICO act couldn’t the US simply seize a moon base after its development by a supervillain, thus circumventing the prohibition against establishing or constructing such a militarized base?

  22. Just read your article on NYTimes… love the concept!! Congrats!

  23. There is of course, the case of people so powerful that leaving them alone is the best option. I seem to remember that when the Molecule Man claimed a small town in the midwest, the US governments only option was to surrender and negotiate.
    There has been similar situations with Magneto, where interfering with the base of operations can escalate to a clash where the hostile power ends up losing.

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  25. In the old G.I. Joe comic book, Cobra had an interesting solution to this problem. They tricked the Joes into using a small nuke on a fault line in the Gulf of Mexico, which ended up creating a small volcanic island that Cobra immediately occupied in force. The Joes tried to kick them off, but before they succeeded, Cobra successfully claimed the island and won sovereignty with an army of diplomats and lawyers at the U.N. and embassies all over the world. The Joes, inches from victory, were forced to leave and Cobra got an island close to the U.S. coast where they had carte blanche.

    • That instance, written by Larry Hama, proved the value of Amway-style fundraising all too well for Cobra Command’s purposes. How else to afford all the lawyers and diplomats?

  26. As to the Outer Space Treaty…given all those invasions of “New Earth” in the DCU – to name one set of published examples – I have to wonder if the treaty hasn’t been amended to allow for a “co-operative planetary defence” exemption to the clause(s) barring militarization of orbital space around Earth, Luna and other parts of Sol system where DCU stories have established human-crewed expeditions visiting.

    The “co-operative” requires, as you might expect, that anyone putting military assets into space from Earth notify the rest of the planet that the equipment is going up and “planetary defence” would require that it will be available to the UN Security Council at need.


  27. Just a couple events that has happened with regards to bases. In the post-Crisis DC universe, Superman’s Fortress of Solitude was located in Antactica. Magneto had taken over Madiscascar to make it a homeland for mutants (that might have changed by today’s writing).

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