In ‘Oh, Really?’ the Biederman Blog’s editors — voracious consumers of all matters pop culture — cast a curious, skeptical, fun and smart end-of-the-week eye on popular productions, sharing their keen observations about legal matters these raise.
“The Incredibles” is a computer-animated film about a family of superheroes who are forced to hide their powers and adopt “normal” civilian identities due to the government’s “Superhero Relocation Program.” This program is motivated by a string of lawsuits against the superheroes, which puts extreme financial burden on the government and causes a political and public outcry. Ironically, one of the plaintiffs actually was rescued by Mr. Incredible, the dad in the family, from an attempted suicide. Rather than being thankful, the plaintiff argues that Mr. Incredible did not save his life, but ruined his death. To prevent further lawsuits, no matter how ridiculous they are, the government wants the superheroes’ “secret identity to become their only identity.”
This program has caused Mr. Incredible and his family to live in turmoil. He is forced to work as a miserable insurance specialist. One day, he throws his boss through a series of walls because he prevents him from rescuing an innocent. Like any “normal” employee who assaults a boss, Mr. Incredible is fired. His children with superpowers themselves, Violet and Dash, also struggle with “normal life.” Elastigirl, his mom, keeps Dash out of a race because of his incredible speed. Violet becomes shy, withdrawn and an outcast.
Despite the burdens it imposes on the movie’s protagonists, is the “Superhero Relocation Program” constitutional under the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause (EPC)?
Let’s analyze the issues:
State Action and Classification/Discrimination
The equal protection clause is triggered when 1) a state actor 2) intentionally discriminates. The first requirement is a slam dunk since the City of Metroville, a state actor, put into law the “Superhero Relocation Program.” The second requirement is also a no-brainer since the program discriminates against superheroes.
Standard of Review
If the government discriminates against a suspect class, such as members of a racial group, the government action then is subject to heightened scrutiny. Otherwise, it falls to a lower scrutiny, the so-called rational basis test. An example of a class that would be subjected to heightened scrutiny would be a “discrete and insular” minority that is historically discriminated against, possesses immutable and highly visible traits, and is politically powerless.
The government would argue that since superheroes are usually loved and supported by the people, they are not subject to past discrimination.
Immutable and highly visible trait
Unless the superheroes are like those in “X-Men,” where their unique powers and traits cannot easily be hidden and are not within their control, superoheroes usually can hide their identities well. Superman and SpiderMan, for instance, also masquerade as Clark Kent and Peter Parker, appearing to be average civilians. In the “Incredibles,” the superheroes also can conceal their identities as long as they refrain from showing off.
On the other hand, superpowers are usually immutable. For example, Mr. Incredible cannot close his car door without denting it with his fingers since he possesses incredible strength.
Generally, superheroes have political power since they are supported and loved by the people. Superheroes, such as Ironman and Superman, often get invited by government officials to make public speeches after they save the day. It is rare for the government and the people to hate superheroes and want to get rid of them unless their powers become threats, as happens with the “Incredible Hulk.” In this respect, superheroes are similar to politicians — they gain political power when loved, and lose it when their support dwindles. But politicians hardly are thought to be politically powerless. In similar fashion, superheroes most likely do not belong to a politically powerless group.
Rational basis test
Beloved though the superheroes may be, the imaginary but official act governing their lives most likely would be subjected to the rational basis test, requiring 1) a legitimate government interest and 2) a rational connection between the means and the end. Unfortunately, this test would make it easier for the government to force superheroes to hide their powers. But there’s always hope. Let’s see if the government can pass the test.
Legitimate government interest
Here, if the government argues that the purpose underlying the program is to prevent damages to the city and to the civilians, then a legitimate government interest probably exists. Here’s the big ‘But …” in the beginning of the film, the government indicates that the program is motivated by “tremendous public pressure” and “the crushing financial burden of an ever mounting series of lawsuits.” These probably are legally insufficient reasons to enact these rules, since their clear intent is just to save money; their only other apparent substantiation would be officials’ acquiescence to public animosity toward an unpopular group.
Further, this program may be motivated by outdated stereotypes of the superheroes. Stereotypes do not qualify, in legal terms, as a legitimate government interest. Here, the government assumes that the superheroes’ actions always will lead to lawsuits since they tend to cause damages to the cities and to the civilians when they’re undertaking heroic acts. Is this, however, a fair assumption? Well…sort of. When, after all, was the last time a superhero tried to save the day without explosions, buildings toppling, cars flipping, railroad tracks splitting in half, and throngs running and screaming?
This requirement is meaningless now since there isn’t a legitimate government interest.
Ruling: We find the “Superhero Relocation Program” unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause. Even if the program is constitutional, it is impractical and ineffective. The film’s final scene shows, anyhow, that the superheroes are needed to protect society from super villains after all, proving, perhaps, it’s wise to never mess with the super good folks because who knows when they’ll be needed to save the day.