If you thought immigrants in the U.S. have it bad, imagine the plight of countless superhumans and mutants a generation ago, as they navigated the Kafka-esque world of Marvel’s draconian Registration Acts.
For fans and non-fans alike, the controversy over the Mutant Registration Act and Super-human Registration Acts is a complex case study in the balance between liberty and control for communities endowed with special powers.
According to the legislative annals of Marvel Database, the backstory stems from the perennial dilemma of civil liberties versus state power. The MRA arose apparently in response to a prophetic vision related by Kitty Pryde after she “travels back in time from a dystopian future to the present” and warns that the X-Men must act to preempt the future passage of a Mutant Control Act, which would unleash an anti-mutant crackdown:
When the Supreme Court found the law unconstitutional the government responded by reactivating their robot Sentinel program so that they might police the mutant race. The Sentinels interpreted their mandate in such a way that they decided to forcibly take over the government of the country and instituted a harsh regime where mutants were severely persecuted.
Ultimately, a seemingly less draconian compromise measure emerged in the form of the Mutant Registration system. However, the Big Brotherish policy remained controversial, as it would potentially compromise secret identities and raised similar constitutional and civil liberties tensions, with serious consequences for the noncompliant:
Government agent Val Cooper and the mutant terrorist Mystique formed Freedom Force a government sanctioned superhero team (mostly comprising former members of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants). Freedom Force sought to enforce the MRA by arresting unregistered mutants such as members of the X-Men, X-Factor and the New Mutants.
Even superheros were not immune to the tense national security climate. But the Super-human Registration Act met with more controversy over political feasibility as well as ethical implications:
In his testimony and in evidence he presented to Congress, Reed Richards argued that a Super-human registration Act was unnecessary as Super-humans had been largely effective and trustworthy in their actions and government regulation would only stifle their ability to protect the world. He argued that those individuals who were likely to act irresponsibly with their powers were also likely to be super-villains and thus would not be candidates for registration anyway.
Wikipedia has an extensive crowd-sourced historiography of the Mutant Registration Acts and similar legislation. Eco-comics has an overview of Metahuman Regulation. And The Onion has follow-up coverage of the Obama Administration’s response. Needless to say, you might notice an uncanny resemblance with the real-life analog in U.S. history: the 1940 Alien Registration Act and other “registration” policies after 9/11.
Is this life imitating art or vice versa? Keep in mind that the registration subplots emerged on the pages of Marvel comics in the mid-1980s–way before the post-9/11 Homeland Security hysteria, before the recent spikes in mass deportations and anti-immigrant legislation in the states. But comic narratives have historically reflected the political turbulence of the Cold War and the changing relationship between the individual and the state. According to Marvel database:
The issue has generally been portrayed in broad terms as being a debate between the rights of the individual (to freedom of action and expression etc.) on one side versus the rights of society at large (to safety from danger or harm) on the other. Does the super-powered individual (mutant or otherwise) have an absolute right to their abilities or does society have a right to constrain or at least monitor them and their expression of those abilities?
Debate on the topic of the registration of super-heroes or mutants as presented in Marvel Comics has generally tended to be slanted in favor of the anti-registration argument, due to the fact that the protagonists of the comics are the powered individuals — the people whose freedoms might be compromised by any such law.
As such the issue has most often been explored in a civil rights context, with the various Acts portrayed as persecutory measures seeking to legislate against a minority group whose minority status is basically innate – an obvious parallel with the struggle of many minority groups against prejudice.
Fans may continue to debate the allegorical significance of the Registration Act subplots. But the metaphor rings as true as ever today, especially under an increasingly restrictive and arbitrary immigration policy regime, in which the day-to-day terrors faced by undocumented immigrants and their communities seems at times stranger than fiction.