At least two major superheroes, Batman and Ironman, are the alter egos of billionaire “industrialists,” Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark respectively. Both are the at least titular heads of their respective corporate empires, Wayne Enterprises and Stark Industries. Both are major defense contractors, i.e. arms merchants. Wayne Enterprises is generally described as a multi-industry conglomerate with significant revenues in a number of unrelated businesses, while Stark Industries is primarily in the arms business, but both appear to derive a significant portion of their revenues from selling weaponry of all sorts.
This raises two interesting issues. First, how exactly do these companies get the money for these sorts of secret projects? And second, do our various heroes break any laws when they leave the country or provide this equipment to others?
I. Arms Revenue
Weapons, particularly exotic and/or large and/or expensive ones, aren’t exactly for sale at Wal-Mart. Nor are they typically sold in much volume. Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, the division of Lockheed Martin responsible for the F-22 and F-35, sells somewhere in the neighborhood of a few hundred planes a year. Wal-Mart probably sells more items than that every second, even at 2:00AM.
That’s because Wal-Mart is selling to the consumer market, i.e. the hundreds of millions of customers their stores reach around the world. Lockheed Martin probably only has a handful of actual customers, because legal issues aside, only sovereign governments can afford to drop $150 million on a plane that seats one person, let alone a hundred of them.
In just about every comic book story, the conventional military does not seem to have access to the technologies used by Batman, Iron Man, etc., either explicitly or implicitly. I mean, there’s a reason the US government was pressing Tony Stark so hard in the beginning of Iron Man 2: the Pentagon wanted what Stark had, clearly implying that they did not, in fact, have it, i.e. Stark Industries wasn’t selling Iron Man technology to anyone. And they can’t be selling them to foreigners, because in addition to there being no indication of that in the stories it would be completely illegal without government authorization (see section II), and the federal government isn’t terribly likely to license the sale of weapons to foreign governments that it does not have itself.
Which raises the question: if the export of the really cool toys that our gadget-based superheroes like Batman and Ironman are using is restricted, how exactly is Stark Industries making any money? Wayne Enterprises is perhaps an easier case, as a company the size of Wal-Mart can probably misplace a billion dollars without too much difficulty, but a company that makes all of its money selling weapons has to sell weapons to someone. And if it isn’t to the government, the general public or to foreigners, where’s the budget come from?
The answer seems to be that these companies appear to be intended to replace existing defense companies, not exist in addition to them. It’s probably no mistake that the Stark Industries logo looks a lot like the Lockheed Martin logo. So Stark Industries presumably makes most of its money selling entirely mundane weapons to the government instead of, say, Lockheed Martin or Boeing. Wayne Enterprises makes a ton of money in its other business ventures, in addition to providing conventional arms to the government, so it is also probably intended to replace a number of other companies. This is a convenient and understandable substitution. Comic book authors probably don’t want to be bothered with the hassle of getting permission from actual companies to use their name and logos, and it’s doubtful that said companies would have given permission if asked. The replacement is made easier by the fact that most of the companies being replaced don’t have much in the way of public exposure. For example, before it became linked to the Bush presidency, most people had probably never even heard of Halliburton, an $18 billion a year company.
Even then, defense contractors live and die on Defense Department funding, and wild conspiracy theories aside, it’d be pretty hard for one of them to secretly develop a weapons platform that the government didn’t directly fund and therefore know about. Black budgets may not be known to the public or to Congress, but someone at the Pentagon or CIA sure knows about them. But replacing an existing company with a fictional one permits us to attribute the profits of entirely mundane weaponry like jets, tanks, and firearms, all of which are significant profit centers for their respective manufacturers, to our fictional companies and their R&D departments.
II. The United States Munition List
But there actually are legal issues here. Specifically, the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) 22 CFR parts 120-130, specifically the United States Munitions List, codified at 22 CFR part 121 (amendments). This is where the federal government lays out in great detail the restrictions placed on the export of weapons and related technologies. So, for example, it is illegal to export a gas turbine specifically designed for use in a ground vehicle. The regulation probably has in mind things like the M1 Abrams tank, but hey, isn’t the Batmobile (at least sometimes) powered by a gas turbine? And just about everything in one of Iron Man’s suits is going to find its way on the list somewhere, from the armor itself down to the micro-controllers in the servo motors: almost everything specifically designed for a military application, and even some things that aren’t, is on the export list. The ITAR even apply to civilian-developed software encryption, so they’d obviously apply to something as kick-ass as the arc reactor.
So what about S.H.I.E.L.D.? The general international law issues of S.H.I.E.L.D. will be the subject of a future post, but how does all this apply to what is sometimes portrayed as an organization under the control of the United Nations, clearly a “non-US person” under the terms of the USML? Again, if the Department of Defense doesn’t have access to S.H.I.E.L.D. gadgetry, it seems unlikely that State would authorize such a transaction. It gets better/worse. It is a violation under 22 CFR § 127.1(a)(1) to export any item on the USML without a license, and “export” is defined in 22 CFR § 120.17 as “Sending or taking a defense article out of the United States in any manner, except by mere travel outside of the United States by a person whose personal knowledge includes technical data.” So Iron Man’s little jaunt to Afghanistan in the first movie? That almost certainly constituted a violation of federal arms control laws. And even assuming that Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark invents their weaponry completely using their own funding and resources, the ITAR do not limit themselves to weapons developed with federal money: they apply to everything that fits into one of the categories on the USML.
Here we actually run into some difficulty trying to make the legal system in the real world sync up with the legal system in the comic book world. It is highly unlikely that the federal government would either 1) decide to scale back arms control laws when faced with gadget-based superheroes or 2) decide to give those superheroes a pass, especially if they wouldn’t share. So the question becomes: why doesn’t the US Attorney attempt to prosecute Tony Stark for this violation of federal law? More to the point, why is Congress messing around with hearings when they can simply send Stark to jail?
Well, probably because having Tony Stark do ten years (22 U.S.C. § 2778(c)) for arms control violations would be a pretty boring story.* And because fining Tony Stark the $1 million penalty there wouldn’t really make him think twice. Ultimately, this may just be one of those places where we have to pull out the mantra and remember that if we’re okay with a world where guys can shoot laser beams out of their eyes or turn into metal, we can probably handwave this too.
So really, we’re one for two. We can probably see how a company like Stark Industries or Wayne Enterprises could find the resources to develop weapons like the ones used by Batman and Iron Man, but actually using them, particularly in international contexts, seems to run up against a federal prerogative the government seems unlikely to abandon.
*Of course, this could be a great premise for Iron Man 3, where Stark is sent to prison, only to be released when the government realizes that it simply can’t get on without Robert Downey, Jr. Which is at least as plausible as some other things speculative fiction authors have tried to sell us.