When the movie “The Avengers” was released in May 2012, Wired.com’s Danger Room blog reported that the U.S. military had opted not to cooperate with the film’s production because it found the subject matter too unrealistic – not because of the plot involving a half-dozen superheroes fending off a trans-dimensional alien invasion, but because Pentagon liaisons could not determine how the paramilitary organization S.H.I.E.L.D. fit in the chain of command. If it seems ridiculous that such a pragmatic concern would be the deciding factor in Pentagon advisers giving up their willing suspension of disbelief, well, it really is. (Steve Saideman did a great job dissecting this at the time.) But it is often the pragmatic issues in superhero comic books that have the most interesting implications.
The intersection of international politics and superheroes is infrequent, but reliably raises difficult questions for observers of international relations. Superheroes are almost always vigilantes, acting without any sort of government authority – they are non-state actors. (There are notable exceptions to this. Wonder Woman is the ruler of the Mediterranean isle of Themyscira. In the Marvel universe, exceptions include the “Fifty State Initiative,” a nation-wide effort by the U.S. government to sponsor domestic superhero teams, and a recent X-Men storyline in which, after decades of government persecution, a band of mutants secede and establish the independent nation of Utopia on an island in San Francisco Bay – no one ever said comics were subtle.) A number of recent plotlines have addressed the issue of nationality, particularly the fact that, though individuals with no formal ties to the government, characters like Superman or Batman cannot go abroad without being perceived as de facto American ambassadors. This was addressed in a brief (and non-canonical) vignette in Action Comics #900, in which Superman tells the U.S. National Security Advisor that he plans to renounce his American citizenship after the U.S. government chastises his show of solidarity with Iranian Green Movement protesters. “‘Truth, justice, and the American way’ – it’s not enough anymore,” he explains. “The world’s too small. Too connected.” In the 1970s, Captain America briefly followed through on this premise. After the Watergate scandal, and in what is truly a high-water mark for political disillusionment in comics, Captain America witnesses the suicide of a disgraced government official, prompting him to rename himself Nomad, “the man without a country.”
One of the most grounded approaches to this subject has come from one of the most grounded superheroes: Batman. The premise of Batman Incorporated, the climax of Grant Morrison’s run on the Batman title, is simple. Bruce Wayne publicly announces that he is Batman’s financier and establishes an organization to fund batmen and batwomen around the world. His motives are two-fold: to counteract a clandestine global terror network called “Leviathan,” but also to engage and empower local vigilantes fighting regional crime around the globe. The goal is “to fight ideas with better ideas,” he explains. “The idea of crime with the idea of Batman. From today on, Batman will be everywhere it’s dark, no place to hide.” (Yes, the sentence structure here drives me crazy.) The potential implications of this would be more complex and would affect every tier of international relations.
Let’s suppose for a moment that you are the embattled field marshal of a military junta in the generic central African country of Mtamba, trying to maintain what territory you control against rival warlords, armies of child soldiers, the machinations of a family of deposed royals, and corruption within and without your “government,” if you feel generous enough to call it that. Billionaire entrepreneur Bruce Wayne visits your country, and you help facilitate this visit because your country is a great investment opportunity – a polite way of saying, “really needs some capital.” Instead, he sets up a bat-franchise in your backyard. The situation is worse than you realize – you suspect that, behind the mask, this new superhero backed by foreign funds is actually a member of the former royal family. (In a spin-off title, this character is rewritten as Batwing, a former child soldier and the only clean cop in his police department in a fictionalized capitol of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The fictional city is named Tinasha instead of Kinshasha – again, not ones for subtlety.) How many seconds would it take for you to issue an arrest warrant – if you care for such formalities – for Bruce Wayne, in the event he ever returns to your country? Would you impose a tariff on imports of Wayne Enterprises goods to disincentivize Wayne’s business in your country? How quickly would you call the President of the United States to complain about the American-financed terrorist threatening your government?
Impoverished African countries have limited leverage with the U.S. government. The field marshal might huff and puff, but it is unlikely that an administration would do much on his behalf. But take for instance the scene from The Dark Knight (2008; spoilers ahead) in which Batman travels to Hong Kong to abduct the financial manager of Gotham City’s mob bosses. The banker is essential to a criminal investigation that could implicate Batman’s nemesis, the Joker, but as Gotham District Attorney Harvey Dent explains to Batman, “We need Lau back, but the Chinese won’t extradite a national under any circumstances.”
So Batman goes to Hong Kong and forcibly extradites Lau, as only Batman can (with fighting, base jumping and a midair rendezvous with a plane, of course). In the world of Batman, Inc. incidents like this are even more likely to occur with a bat-franchise operating in Hong Kong and Moscow. (There’s not enough written about the “Batman of Moscow” to draw any conclusions about his relationship with the Russian government – he makes a three page appearance in Batman and Robin #1 before being unceremoniously killed off by a vigilante.)
China has considerably more influence in Washington than the field marshal of Mtamba. Lau would stand trial in Gotham City after Batman’s extrajudicial rendition (the legality of trying persons who were captured illegally has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court), but there would be considerable effects for China-U.S. relations. China prizes its sovereignty and the irregular rendition of a Chinese citizen would provoke a diplomatic crisis. China would almost certainly request that the United States extradite Batman for trial in China. This was the response of an Italian prosecutor, who brought charges against a group of Americans believed to be working with the CIA in the 2003 abduction of a radical Egyptian cleric with political asylum in Milan (the United States refused to comply with the request and the Americans were tried in absentia). China would also prove less cooperative with joint efforts. For example, after the United States seized and transported to the United States a Mexican national suspected of killing an American DEA agent, Mexico halted its cooperation with the DEA and threatened to arrest any American law enforcement officials operating without the explicit consent of the Mexican government. Sovereignty has already emerged as a point of contention with China this year, when Chinese activist Chen Guangchen took shelter in the U.S. embassy in Beijing in late April. The incident precipitated an international crisis over whether he would be returned to China or be granted asylum in the United States. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Kurt Campbell and State Department Legal Adviser Harold Koh were dispatched to broker a compromise and defuse tensions. Though a very different circumstance, Batman pulling Lau out a window to stand trial in Gotham would prompt a diplomatic crisis of at least similar scale and create lingering tensions.
Most multilateral organizations would be unconcerned by the international proliferation of batmen and batwomen. Multilateral organizations tend to focus on issues of trade, which would be mostly unaffected, and security. The establishment of bat-franchises does constitute a transnational threat to some countries; in his own title (and a separate continuity from Batman, Inc.), Batwing, though based in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, chases his archnemesis across Africa to the Great Pyramids in Egypt. However, convincing a multilateral treaty organization to take action against a transnational security threat is difficult. NATO certainly wouldn’t step in to shut down a bat-franchise, first and foremost because of the diplomatic cat herding always necessary to will NATO to action, and second because of its membership. The United States is and always will be the most important country in NATO, and it would not be eager to court the international embarrassment of a joint military operation against an American enterprise. France also hosts a bat-franchise, an Algerian immigrant and parkour-master with the nom de guerre Nightrunner, that operates with the knowledge and support of the French government, so French officials would be similarly opposed. Many other European countries would simply not have their interests affected enough to justify the expense.
Regional human rights courts might be more successful. For example, the European Court of Human Rights (an organization of the Council of Europe) could present legal challenges to bat-associates like Nightrunner and British-based characters Knight and The Hood. The ECHR hears cases about violations of the European Convention on Human Rights, with charges brought by individuals against governments or between governments. If The Hood detains a person in a way that involves torture, unlawful killing or the violation of other fundamental rights, and the British government does not prosecute The Hood, charges can be brought against him at the ECHR. If any Council of Europe country is involved in an extrajudicial rendition, this too can be challenged at the ECHR as a violation of individuals’ rights to liberty and security. The most high-profile instance of this was when Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdish Worker’s Party, an organization responsible for terror attacks against Turkey, accused the Turkish government of illegally abducting him from Kenya to face trial in Turkey (the case was ultimately dismissed on account of the Kenyan government’s complicity in Öcalan’s enforced departure from Kenya). If Batman had abducted the Gotham mob banker, Lau, from Frankfurt instead of Hong Kong, he too could be indicted by the ECHR. Whether Batman would be likely to care is another matter – the ECHR’s decisions have at times proven difficult to enforce, with Russia frequently taking umbrage with the court’s decisions.
Concerned governments might try to work through other regional organizations. The Mtamban junta, if it is in good standing with the African Union, could argue its case to the AU assembly or press charges through the AU’s equivalent of the ECHR, the African Court of Justice. If Arab governments were concerned enough by the incident at Giza or a pair of incidents involving Batman in the Persian Gulf, they could present the issue at the Arab League (though no bat-franchise discussed in the comics has been established in the Middle East). Both of these organizations, though, are known for their infighting and stagnated politics. The AU has deployed peacekeepers in extreme cases, but barring a massacre or a civil war that can somehow be tied back to Batman, it is unlikely that the AU would intervene. The Arab League has a history of non-intervention – indeed, its approval of (but not necessarily participation in) the NATO intervention in Libya and sponsorship of a observer mission to Syria, while not particularly effective, have demonstrated an unprecedented willingness to critique the internal affairs of member states. However, it is unlikely the League could achieve even a toothless resolution or observer mission for what is only a peripheral threat to the Arab states.
Smaller, less formal international partnerships would fare no better in forging agreement on a course of action. Various groupings of developing nations – often including Brazil, India, South Africa, China and sometimes Russia – have leveraged their economic and political strength to increase their influence. However, this cooperation has generally been on matters of trade, finance and climate change, and it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which this would change while Batman, Inc. directly affects China only (though Brazil could be concerned about its border with Argentina, the base of operations for bat-affiliate El Gaucho. Then again, the Brazilian government seems to be on exceptionally good terms with Batman).
NEXT TIME: Batman at the United Nations, and domestic responses! Same bat-time, same bat-channel!