There’s a new X-Men movie out, and it’s actually pretty great. But you don’t come here for detailed discussions about the merits of the movie as a movie or about the fidelity or creativity of the adaptation. No, you come here to read about the legal implications of the various plot devices. So let’s get down to it. Given the plot, most of what we’ve got here is going to be international law, with an added civil rights / employment law bonus. As always, we’ve got spoilers.
I. Nazi Gold
In his quest to find the Nazi “doctor” that killed his mother, Erik Lensherr used an ingot of Nazi gold as a pretense to get an appointment with a high-ranking Swiss banker. This has a certain realism to it, as a vast amount of Nazi gold disappeared into European banks by 1945, and much of it probably remains there. The banker comments that possessing such gold is illegal. He’s right. In September 1946, the United Kingdom, United States, and France formed the Tripartite Commission for the Restitution of Monetary Gold with the mandate to identify those persons or institutions with claims that gold had been looted from them by the Nazis and the goal of restoring that gold to its rightful owners. The Tripartite Commission was created as part of the Paris Peace Treaties which brought about the end of the war. The Commission’s task took a long time, and it was only dissolved in 1998 with something like 65% of the claimed gold returned. Congress addressed the issue with the “Holocaust Victims Redress Act, Pub. Law No. 105-158 in 1998. The Act basically authorizes the US representative to the Commission to dispose of what assets remained in the Commission’s possession at that time.
Still, there’s one little wrinkle. Lensherr, being a Jew and victim of the concentration camps, could in theory have a valid claim to the gold in question, which would make the legality of his possession of the ingot less clear. But as this issue was dealt with on a really high level, it’s doubtful that law enforcement would care much one way or the other. The Commission was mostly concerned with the gold possessed by sovereign governments, not individuals.
II. Acts of War
First, there’s the operation to nail Shaw when he meets with the Russian general. This is a CIA-directed op, with CIA agents on the ground, leading a group of what amounts to mercenaries—other than Moira and the other agent, it isn’t clear that anyone else involved was a federal agent—in attempting to infiltrate a sensitive military compound to assassinate a high value target. Several major wars have been sparked because of the assassination of a high-ranking official, so this is kind of a big deal. Granted, in most cases where a war follows an assassination, the actual death is a pretense for armed conflict really motivated by more serious underlying tensions, but this kind of thing is dramatic enough to push things over the edge.
But the appearance of the X-Men on the scene at the climax of the Cuban Missile Crisis? That might not be, because the government had not authorized them to do anything. They were not acting under anyone’s orders (or at least anyone with the authority to give those kinds of orders), and it’s far from clear that the CIA even knew what they were up to. So Professor X causing the Russians to fire on their own ship could plausibly have been disavowed by Washington as rogue agents acting without authority. The fact that the Russians had already ordered the ship to turn around means that they’d probably be willing to grasp at any excuse not to go to war, so this explanation may well have been accepted, whether Professor X was acting under orders or not.
Magneto springing Emma Frost from the CIA holding center wouldn’t count either, as he wasn’t acting on the authority of any sovereign entity. At the time, it probably would have been classified as a criminal act, because the government’s rush to classify everything it doesn’t like as “terrorism” did not really get its start until the events of 2001. But it is plausible that, if apprehended, he could have initially been charged with espionage. Granted, Magneto does not seem to have any particular interest in working with any human government, and his little trip into the facility did not appear to include the acquisition of any information. Still, he damaged a bunch of property and may have killed some agents at a highly classified facility, so the feds would be understandably upset about that. They might not be able to make a charge of espionage stick in the absence of any connection to a foreign power though: the Espionage Act generally requires that one transmit or intend to transmit something to someone. Acquiring classified information and doing nothing with it isn’t espionage.
III. Employment Discrimination
At one point in the film, Moira’s CIA boss states in a meeting that “there’s no place for a woman in the CIA.” Today that kind of comment might well give rise to a discrimination claim, but what about in 1962? As it turns out, an employer—even a government employer—could probably have gotten away with it because the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (specifically Title VII) had not been enacted yet. Without those important Acts in place the courts were generally pretty tolerant of both de facto and de jure discrimination against women. For example, it wasn’t until 1971 that the Supreme Court first struck down a state law on the basis that it discriminated on the basis of sex. Reed v. Reed, 404 US 71 (1971). And fully equal participation in jury service was not mandated until Taylor v. Louisiana, 419 U.S. 522 (1975). So kudos to the writers for working in that accurate (if depressing) “sign of the times.”
X-Men: First Class isn’t exactly a courtroom drama, but the legal issues that are there were treated pretty well. We’re looking forward to the all-but-inevitable sequel. In the mean time, check it out. It’s a pretty good flick.