This is a strange one. While fictional characters in the Marvel Universe — the heroes at least — typically argue a position that says mutants and humans are not really different, and should be afforded the same rights, in the real world the company’s position is somewhat contrary.

In the non-fictional world, our world, Marvel is taking the position that mutants are not humans at all. But this isn’t an ideological or a moral stance. Instead, it is a financial one. Toys manufactured in other countries and imported into the US are subject to taxes, but those taxes are lower if the toys represent non-human characters. That has led to Marvel lawyers arguing that an action figure representing, say, Wolverine, is actually “representing animals or other non-human creatures (for example, robots and monsters).” This argument leads to a good conversation on the questions of humanity and acceptance that have long been part of the X-Men storyline.

The great Radiolab podcast has a show that begins with two international trade lawyers who noticed an interesting distinction in taxation for categories of products being imported into the US. ‘Dolls,’ which are toys that represent humans, are taxed at 12%. ‘Toys,’ meanwhile, are, well, toys, but ones that don’t represent humans. Those are taxed at 6.8%. You can probably see where this is headed.

These two trade lawyers, as it turns out, had a big client when they noticed these tax rates: Marvel. So the pair went to customs and argued that Marvel’s licensed products are toys, not dolls. To do that, they argued that the figures do not represent human beings.

This seemingly minor trade argument led to quite a few legal cases, and a big part of these cases involved Marvel’s lawyers arguing that the X-Men are not humans, and therefore licensed products representing the characters should be taxed at half the rate of dolls that represent human characters. Do you think they won? Of course they did — there wouldn’t be much of a story otherwise.

As is the case with most of Radiolab’s shows, the podcast is tremendously entertaining, and you should give it a listen. Bryan Singer, director of the first two X-Men films and producer of the third and this year’s First Class, even weighs in on the ‘us versus them’ aspect of the X-Men story. Stream the whole show below (it’s relatively short) to find out how this ends:

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