Part of what fueled my hunger for an X-Men movie as a kid was that it was pretty much the only X-Men related thing I didn’t have. There was the Generation X TV movie, to be sure, and I cherished it. But that wasn’t the same as an X-Men feature film, especially at a time when that brand could not have felt bigger. We had a hugely successful cartoon, multiple video games on every system that existed at the time, fruit snacks, Spaghettios and—of course—toys. X-Men was the toy empire of the ‘90s. It was as big as Star Wars, Transformers and G.I. Joe had been in the ‘80s. Admittedly, I was a huge toy kid. I had tons. Way too many, in retrospect. But even then, the X-Men were it. I wanted everything, every character I could recognize from the cartoon, every world or location from the comic.
I wanted it all and, to be honest, I had most of it. But the whole X-Men toy empire was not a sure thing to begin with, considering that Toy Biz was a relatively new company at the time that had never really had a hit series. X-Men put them on the map and it became the biggest action figure series on the market. But with that, apparently, came certain complications.
Before we get into that, it’s worth just mentioning a reminder as to what X-Men is all about. What sets it apart from other superhero stories? While kids picked it up for the claws and the lasers, it’s not about the cool powers. It’s about people trying to fight for their place in a world that hates and fears them. Since 1963, it’s been an ongoing and deeply human story about fighting intolerance and bigotry, as well as the sense of community that comes from finding people who have experienced the same thing you have.
Often, when the metaphor is at its most thinly veiled, these threats to mutant rights come from the government. We’ve got Senator Kelly’s racist campaign against mutants, we’ve got the Mutant Registration Act, we’ve got a future where mutants are in camps in Days of Future Past, we’ve got mutant hunting, government funded robots called Sentinels. 2003 took one of the most thematic X-Men stories ever, God Loves, Man Kills—which centered on a religious extremist organization determined to eradicate all mutants—and even gave that a military upgrade in the X-Men movie sequel, X2. One of the most powerful panels in X-Men history comes from God Loves, Man Kills, in which the bigot William Stryker points at Nightcrawler and roars, “You dare call that thing human?”
But, amazingly, that very same year a case began that eventually saw a United States court rule that the X-Men were not human and were best classified as monsters. Or, rather, the even less flattering legal terminology “nonhuman creatures.”
The court case was Toy Biz vs. United States. And just from hearing that, you can almost start to piece things together. The name screams of some kind of controversy that must have spread like wildfire. Maybe a mother had thought that a character like Beast or Ch’od was too weird and creepy for her kid to be playing with, and it spiraled from there. But that is definitely not the case. Not at all.
It turns out that there are different tariffs for dolls than there are for action figures (and anything else that falls under the other distinction of “toy”), and the things that distinguish those two types are weirdly specific. Anything human is considered to be a doll, and thus the tariffs are more expensive. Anything that is not human is considered to be a toy, and thus the tariffs are higher. There are plenty of action figure series that exclusively cover human characters, and therefore probably had to pay the higher tariff. But for the X-Men (as well as Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and other related characters), Toy Biz felt that that was something of an injustice. One that they intended to fight.
And yes, that’s exactly what they did. There was no toy controversy here, Toy Biz wasn’t being taken to task over its X-Men line. Toy Biz went to court fighting to argue that the X-Men were not human, this was their case. And they absolutely won.
It’s even more absurd when you consider the fact that Marvel owned Toy Biz at the time. In fact, this was only a few short years before Toy Biz would be completely rebranded as Marvel Toys. Granted, that didn’t last very long before it effectively crumbled, but still. This wasn’t just Toy Biz, the company behind so much of the X-Men’s success through the ‘90s, arguing that the X-Men should not be classified as human. This was Marvel.
When people say that the X-Men sometimes get the short end of the stick at Marvel, that there have been less books, less tie-ins since the onset of the MCU, you can sometimes argue it as great creators have still been working on those books and some fantastic stories have been written during that time. But nothing really says that Marvel, as a general corporate entity, might not get the X-Men than this. Than the decision to negate decades of poignant storytelling to save some money.
And if you’re wondering, yes, X-Men fans absolutely took notice of the time and did remind Marvel what, you know, the comics were about. So Marvel later released a statement buckling down on their decision to classify the X-Men as inhuman. They mentioned that while the X-Men were “living breathing humans” that they still “have ‘nonhuman’ characteristics further [proving] our characters have special, out-of-this-world powers.” Which is basically a way of saying “No, totally, sure, yes, they’re human. But, c’mon, they’re not like really human, right? Let’s be real.”
The court case actually went on for years and was “meticulously studied” which I can only assume means that people were assigned to read a ton of X-Men comics and watch the cartoons, and considering that these were probably international trade lawyers that hated that process, I can’t help but admittedly taking some small shred of glee in that prospect.
Even better? By the time the court ruling finally came through to declare the X-Men inhuman, it was only a year or two before the trade distinctions between “dolls” and “toys” were done away with completely.
I’m sure they got their money and that’s what mattered. But even still, by the end of the case, they basically went from arguing that the X-Men were not human for the sake of tariff costs to arguing that the X-Men were not human for essentially the sake of the argument. Once those tariff distinctions disappeared, all they’d really wound up doing—for the public, especially—was making a very awkward stance abundantly clear. Granted, that simply comes down to timing that they couldn’t have planned for. And I know this was just after a time when Marvel and Toy Biz, despite their apparently massive success, were on the verge of bankruptcy. I get, on some level, exactly why they were doing what they were doing.
But that doesn’t change the fact, for me, that what they were doing was so ridiculous, that this toy brand got singled out for this reason. Like fate hand picked the X-Men to be the ones to be at the forefront of the “are these weird toy characters human?” debate when it could have been anything else. It just happened to be the worst series possible to make that claim, when fighting for your right to be called human is the entire backbone of the brand. Now that those tariffs have disintegrated, it leaves one to wonder if Marvel still has the same stance on the humanity or lack thereof of their mutant characters, but part of me still feels like it would be best not to ask.
In the end, maybe it’s the most on-brand thing that’s ever happened to the X-Men, in a weirdly meta way. They’ve struggled to fight for over fifty years against a world that has attempted time and again to rob them of their humanity, that dismisses them and has never understood them in general, and it just so happens that on some level that extends to the world that created them as well.