WandaVision and Honours Electives & Dissertations: Broadening Your Interests in Legal Issues
At the time of writing this blog post entry (apologies, it will be a long one if you read everything), it has been about 1 week since I spoke to 3rd year students about the transition from 3rd year to 4th year honours. As part of this, I gave a brief introduction to elective classes (how and when to pick them), and started to talk about the dissertation proposals as well.
Honours year, whilst a step up and a different way of teaching, is the year of an undergraduate degree where there is the greatest scope for opportunity, to develop the core skills and understanding that you have gained from years 1-3 in more depth. If you get it right, you can discover new interests that will shape what you want to do in the future. For example, my colleague, Rebecca Zahn, now teaches Labour Law. She started studying it due to a timetabling clash, and piqued her interest in the area. I teach financial law, and the thing which spun off into a PhD and building expertise in the area came from a written assignment on my LLM electives.
One of the challenges as honours coordinator is to try and convey this level of opportunity to students. There are (what I loosely/for want of a better way of saying this call) ‘sexy topics’ – the ones which are titles and headline grabbing. These are your criminal law, family law, human rights law, healthcare law classes – these are all good classes in their own right, so in no way am I criticising an interest in them.
However, there are a whole host of classes and subject areas which can get overlooked which are really interesting and significant. I can’t/won’t single out a current honours class here, but take as an example, my 3rd year elective class on banking law and finance. I am biased, because I find it interesting, but we cover a whole host of themes, ranging from access to financial services, to determining what is/isn’t acceptable conduct, to financial crime and the impact on an individual. If I were to mention the term ‘Ponzi schemes’, that is not (on title alone) seen as intriguing as money laundering (where the activities are associated with drug/sex/human/arms trafficking and trading). However, I actually think Ponzi schemes are more interesting, because they are more relatable. Fortunately, I don’t know any drug cartels, and so whilst I can talk about curbing the activities, I don’t really know what the actual impact of that is. However, people being defrauded by someone they trust is far more interesting. And you wouldn’t know this unless you looked at it, and only went on titles alone.
In years 1 and 2, students have a fixed curriculum, which has some advantages. It means, for example, we can track student progress and it is easier for us to provide a pastoral care system in a slightly easier manner, as compared to other schools. However, it can mean that content is presented in unique silos/distinct from one another and create a narrow view of legal issues. It is difficult to shift.
However, save for certain requirements for clinical LLB students/law and modern language students/BA students, the range of subjects increases, both through elective classes, and the individual dissertation project. The question is how can you try and branch out and get an interest in a range of wider issues?
Using a Law, Film and Popular Culture Approach
One of the things which I mentioned in the talk to 3rd year students, in addition to looking at current affairs and your own interests is to try and use film and TV programmes as a gateway through which to spin off into a wider interest. This may sound a little bit odd, but one of the classes I now teach on is the 3rd year elective, Law, Film and Popular Culture, along with my colleague Stuart Kelly.
For me, you use films in that class as a lens through which to assess aspects of the law and social issues. It’s not necessarily the legal accuracy you are after (we’re not watching like medics watching a hospital drama), but the themes that are raised. As an example, one of the films this year was Erin Brockovich, under the theme of ‘challenging the system of law’. You use the film to discuss access to justice, and the obstacles in bringing group actions against a major company (both funding and evidential), but also discuss alternative dispute resolution processes, such as mediation and arbitration.
That approach changes how you view and consume media, but in a positive way. Yet one of the limits of that class, though, is we can only really talk about films in its current guise. There is a whole host of cultural resources you could apply that to. It could be art (e.g. depictions of historical events), poetry (e.g. writing as someone who has suffered as a result of the actions of another) and music (e.g. punk/hip hop/grime culture as a reflection of social divides and discrimination). As an example, the TuPac song ‘Hit ‘em Up’ is an incredible song, but once you understand the East Coast/West Coast divide, and really get into what he is saying in the lyrics, and what it represents, it is savage (I say this knowing there are people far more qualified than me to talk about this).
WandaVision as a Gateway to Broadening Horizons
I’ve been particularly convinced that this is a useful methodology to use having watched the Disney+ TV series ‘WandaVision’. It is honestly superb, although you do need to be familiar with some of the Marvel films to jump in, I think. I am slightly obsessed (paid an amount for some Funko Pops which we’ll just say is ‘too much’ - the Vision one is still in transit). But over the 9 episode arc, I saw some fascinating themes, which I’d like to know more about over time.
And so I thought I’d try and list them. There will be some spoilers (I’ll try to keep them mild or signpost if a major one is coming up). It’s going to be list-like, which is never the most engaging, and presented in an unstructured way/no particular order. I’ll have missed some things, and by no means am I expert in any of these areas of the law, and will possibly get things wrong. But I’m hoping that in doing this, you can see how to branch out into areas prompted by something you may also have been watching, too.
WandaVision: Legal and Regulatory Areas Raised In the Series
Streaming Services: Even before getting to the plot of the TV series, there are questions about streaming services. We are firmly in ‘the streaming wars’, with subscription services available on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+, Apple TV, HBO Max, Peacock, Paramount Plus, Hulu, BritBox and YouTube Premium to name a few. That’s not taking into account sports networks and subscriptions, such as ESPN+ and the NFL Network, or content behind a paywall, such as Patreon. The obvious area to consider here is competition law, recognising that competition law and antitrust law have slightly different variations. There is also a point on mergers, with streaming services paying to subsume other networks onto their platforms (Star recently went onto Disney+, and the US streaming rights for the WWE Network were bought by NBC for its Peacock service). What are the rules and regulations to comply with here? There are intellectual property and licensing rights – who owns the content, and how it is distributed? There is also censorship and warnings, which also crosses over into self-censorship. For example, one film you absolutely know isn’t going to be on Disney+ is ‘Song of the South’. What happens if someone accesses content through a Virtual Private Network, so their laptop can appear to be in the US, when they are actually physically situated in Germany? There are privacy and access concerns there. So in terms of dissertations and electives, you’ve got competition law, media law, intellectual property, internet law and privacy as themes. You’ve also got Disney as a business for law of business associations.
Ethics: (mild spoiler for the series ending here, but will try and talk ambiguously) Throughout the series, the characters have different motivations, and make choices on how to act. The series finale features a pivotal decision for Wanda to make. It is so clearly tied in with ethical considerations, but I don’t want to do too many spoilers, so will leave there.
Treatment of those with mental health difficulties: A lot of the events are tied to grief, which I think is handled in a sensitive way in the show. I’m not necessarily sure that’s the case beyond the show, though. For example, if you are questioned as a suspect in a case, you need to understand the rights you have and the due process. There is difficulty in accessing healthcare and a whole host of other services. One of the things I omit from the tort law class is a discussion in the assault and battery materials about the Mental Health Act. You can apply that principle in a whole host of areas, far too numerous for me to list here.
Virtual and Augmented Reality: As a really minor spoiler (particularly if you’ve seen the trailers/anything about the show) the whole setup is that not everything is quite as it seems. People and objects are changed and presented differently from what they truly are. If you think beyond the series, there is fascinating technological development in virtual reality and augmented reality. However, there would be a whole host of legal issues surrounding this. As an example, a couple of years ago, I chaired a panel at a PhD conference, in which a student presented a paper about augmented reality in Pokémon Go, and how digital ‘property’ was being placed on land without landowners’ consent. It also meant people were trespassing/accessing land without permission in pursuit of the virtual creatures. Here, in terms of dissertations and electives, you’ve got internet law, technology, property law, and I would argue delict/tort/product liability/negligence as well (if something goes wrong, who is civilly liable?)
Personhood: One of the common themes is about whether Vision is human, or not. If you trace the films back through, he starts as computer software, and is made of metal. There’s a running gag in the show that he can’t eat food, but he needs to appear like he has. However, he displays characteristics and emotions which indicate he may be a person. In terms of elective classes, this is literally one of the themes of the Law, Persons and Property class. It would also cross over with consideration of ethics.
Artificial intelligence and self-learning: If you conclude Vision is not a person, then you might want to look at his standing from the position of artificial intelligence, and his programming/learning process. This year, for example, one of my supervisees is writing about autonomous vehicles. They are writing from a tort law perspective, but there are a whole host of considerations there. I’ve also recently acquired a smart watch, which purports to be tracking my health. Well it’s an algorithmic estimation – how is that calculated, and what is the liability if I relied on it 100% (i.e. it fails to detect an underlying health condition). Also, it is tracking my personal data and health information – how is this processed? What have I consented to, and what have I not consented to? On that point, there are data protection and privacy issues. There are also concerns on cybercrime and security as well, I think, in relation to hacking and potential abuse.
Burial rights: (this is a spoiler) One of the plot points for the events of the show is that we see a flashback sequence to Wanda wanting to recover Vision’s body after the events of Infinity War and End Game to bury him. There are questions about who own’s Vision’s remains, but this can be spun off into research about burial rights and dignity. For example, I’m not sure that Wanda is Vision’s recognised next of kin. So what is the current law on those who pass with no recognised next of kin? And should there be reform to this? This also crosses over with Law, Persons and Property, and I would guess there were themes of Roman Law in here, too (I stress guess).
‘The Blip’: This is a slightly difficult one to explain, and is spoilers from the previous Marvel movies, but hang in there. Thanos wipes out 50% of life in the universe in Infinity War. In Endgame they come back, and the period of time between the two events is known as ‘the blip’. It features in a character’s back story in the show. People suddenly come back – there would be a whole litany of legal problems there on dissolution of property/execution of a will, closing and freezing of bank accounts, and a loss of identity. There’s a 5-year time between disappearing and reappearing. What if someone had moved on and re-married? What would happen to the original arrangement? I can’t really pinpoint the specific route into this, but there would be problems, to put it mildly.
Family: – (spoiler) Things aren’t quite what they seem with the children in the show. Possibly a bit of a stretch here, but there’s legal problems in attempting to raise children who aren’t really yours. Equally, Wanda wants the family life, and there is a discussion about IVF, surrogacy and adoption, which crosses over with some of the themes in Law, Property and Persons as well.
Human Rights Considerations: Probably one of the over-arching themes here. Wanda is perceived in the series as a powerful, threatening presence. There’s also a line which a character says, which I find interesting: “good guys don’t torture people”. What level/use of force can be used against Wanda, given the nature of perceived threat? What processes need to be followed? There are also themes of false imprisonment and deprivation of liberty. There is an excellent film called ‘Eye in the Sky’ starring Helen Mirren and Aaron Paul from Breaking Bad which touches on this as well, with the central conflict being the amount of force which can be used in relation to the targets on the ground. In terms of electives, we have Human Rights in theory and Practice, but we also have Public International Law, too.
Terrorism – It can be argued (and is by some in the show) that Wanda is a terrorist. Building upon the human rights points above, what investigative powers do/should authorities have when investigating suspected terrorism (e.g. warrants and court approvals). What level of force should be used? This year, we have an elective class, entitled ‘Terrorism and the Law’, which would touch upon these themes.
International Law: Possibly a throwaway line here, but there is reference to the (fictional) ‘Sokovian Accords’, which would be an international treaty in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. How would that treaty be enforceable? We also see a flashback to armed conflict and missiles. What are the rules on engagement and use of force, such as missiles? Again, we have Public International Law as an elective for that.
Legal process/procedural process: Something tied to the human rights considerations above, I think, there are agencies portrayed in the series that would need to be regulated and go through a decision-making process. It is important – if those procedural rules aren’t followed, then there has been a violation of fundamental rights, jeopardising enforcement.
Accountability: (there is a spoiler here) There is a secret plan launched by Hayward. How is he held accountable for that? Are there also considerations of vicarious liability – is he acting within the scope of his employment, and is it fair to hold S.W.O.R.D accountable for that? There’s a point about the difference between a public and a private institution as well, so whilst it is easy to say “law of business associations”, there’s also, I think, a public law avenue here, too.
Property damage in extreme events: It is very easy to watch the crash, bang, wallop of superhero films and think “that’s a lot of paperwork”. You would think a lot of it would be insurance claims, and I’m not an expert on insurance/contracts, but there would be a dispute on whether to pay out where damage was caused by someone with god and witch-like powers. But I think you can actually pivot from that into thinking about weather and environmental concerns with contracts. What is the current position on extreme weather events and flooding? You can look at that from a whole host of different perspectives, but there’s an environmental law piece from that.
Displacement: (spoilers) In Wanda’s back story, we see/know that she is displaced and orphaned. Effectively at the end of the series, she is an outcast and displaced again. There are possibly migration rights here, but without saying there is a direct link/comparison, there are contemporary examples where groups of individuals are ostracised and forced to leave their homes. So what is their standing? What rights to they have? That would cross over with migration and human rights discussion again, I think. There’s possibly even housing law here, too.
Discrimination: This is more a theme in the X-Men films, I think, where there have been those who argue that the mutant vs non-mutant tension is comparable to the LGBTQ+ movement. But this is also at play in WandaVision too, including the portrayal of witches. I haven’t had the opportunity to speak to him on this, but I think my colleague, Jonathan Brown, would have quite a lengthy conversation with me in the pub about this – the mooting final problem question he set last year was on witches and casting hexes. There’s a legal history point here, I think.
Reconciliation: (Spoilers) For me, this is a theme which isn’t really resolved in the show. Wanda is displaced, but the citizens of Westview have still been harmed by her actions, intentionally or otherwise. How can that be resolved? Transitional justice would include discussion of the value of an apology and memorials, but there are also schools of thought of restorative justice, peace and reconciliation commissions and other forms of alternative dispute resolution. There are criminology themes – what is prison, how do we use prisons, and would that be appropriate for Wanda, particularly if you conclude that Wanda is suffering from mental health difficulties, brought on by grief.
Looking at my word count here, I can see I’m now over 3,000 words into this, and should probably bring this to a close, even if it is quite a clunky one. I am sure if/when I re-watch it, more will come to me. But what I hope you can take away from this is how you can generate ideas from what you see around you. Some of these may appeal to you, some may not. Some might surprise you – I genuinely am taken aback by how much I’m curious about burial rights, for example. It doesn’t have to be WandaVision that’s the TV show you use. But you will have built up critical analytical skills, and what I’ve done there is apply them in a particular context to start thinking about what interests me, and where I could go in my interests afterwards.
After all, I’m a financial lawyer who wrote for years about a proposed EU tax, who came to Strathclyde and teaches the English Law of Tort class (and likes the medical negligence-y parts), gets involved in law and film discussions and law, property and persons seminars, whilst also pushing for greater pastoral care as part of a growing interest in legal education scholarship. None of that came from years 1-3, really.