At the end of Avengers: Infinity War, Thanos snapped his fingers and eliminated half of all life throughout the universe. Five years later, after dealing with grief, disappointment, and a world turned upside-down, the Avengers traveled through time, recovered the Infinity Stones, and returned everyone who had disappeared. Last week, I explored some of the less obvious legal consequences of Thanos’ snap. This week, I’ll consider the legal implications of the snap that Bruce Banner used to bring everyone back.
Government IDs and Mismatched Age
One of the most interesting aspects of the return Snap is how it was perceived by the people who disappeared. While five years had passed on Earth and the rest of the galaxy, the people who disappeared felt like they went to sleep and woke up five years later. As a result, each person who vanished and then reappeared can be considered a “man out of time” like Captain America, Rip Van Winkle, or Futurama’s Philip J. Fry. One of the consequences of this time jump is that a person’s birth year would no longer serve as an adequate indicator of their age. Instead, we would need to know both their birth year and whether or not they disappeared during the Snap.
A person’s age determines a variety of legal rights and obligations including legal independence, entitlement to government benefits, the right to vote, the drinking age, and the right to run for elected office. The fact that birth year no longer correlates with age means that state and federal governments would have to identify everyone who disappeared and create new documentation that would reflect one’s status as “saved” or “vanished.” Similar time-based complications would also arise with respect to prison sentences, patent terms, and political term limits.
Back from the Dead
The Avengers did not plan to wait five years before saving everyone. As far as the world was concerned, Thanos’ snap was permanent and the people who disappeared were gone for good. This means that any property held by “the Vanished” would have been distributed to their survivors, who would then have had several years to sell, spend, or otherwise transfer the assets. Surprisingly, several states have laws that speak specifically to how property is to be handled when someone who was declared dead or missing returns. Most states impose a time limit on the right to reclaim property. In New York, the time limit is three years. In California, it’s five. In Minnesota and Georgia, it’s four. But the specifics hardly matter since the Vanished were gone too long to recover assets in any of those states.
The government would have to do something to help those who returned to reclaim their property. While it would be difficult or impossible to unwind all transactions made over the past five years, it would be irresponsible and unfair to relegate half of the population to instant poverty. It is hard to speculate on how the system would work, but I can imagine the government enacting some kind of system or specialized court that would allow the Vanished to reclaim title to their property by presenting evidence of their pre-Snap ownership. These cases would not be brought against any individual, but against the property itself — what lawyers refer to as an in rem action. Nevertheless, the person who obtained ownership of the property in the intervening five years would have an opportunity to explain how they came by it and why they should be able to retain possession.
Orphans and Displaced Children
Five years is a long time for anyone, but it is even longer for children. The children who vanished in the snap could return to find that their parents had died or moved away during the five year gap. Alternatively, a parent who disappeared in the Snap could return only to find that their child was adopted by another family or is in an unknown location. The government would have to develop some system to help parents and children find each other and to unwind any adoptions or custody changes that may have happened in the intervening years. Given the sheer volume of people who disappeared, this would be a logistical nightmare. To get a sense of how difficult this task could be, consider that federal officials have stated that it could take up to two years to reunite a few thousand immigrant children with their parents. That’s a scenario where the government coordinated the separation in the first place.
Similar problems would arise with respect to marriage and divorce. People who remarried after losing their spouse in the Snap would have a difficult decision to make when their former partner returns.
In Captain America: Civil War, the United Nations passed the Sokovia Accords, which prohibited superheroes from acting without the government’s permission. While the accords took a backseat in subsequent MCU films, the law was never repealed. That’s why Captain America, the Scarlet Witch, and Falcon were on the run in Infinity War, and why Hawkeye was nowhere to be found. The fact that the Accords were never repealed means that the Avengers’ actions in Endgame were almost certainly illegal. While nothing is guaranteed, it seems likely that the Avengers’ success would lead the governments of the world to agree that enforcing the Sakovia Accords would make it difficult, if not impossible, for superheroes to protect the planet from alien invasions. It’s hard to say whether that would lead to a complete repeal of the Accords or just substantial revisions, but it’s unlikely that they could continue unchanged.
It cannot be disputed that the Avengers did the world a favor when they undid Thanos’ Snap. But dealing with the sudden return of billions of people is not easy. It may be tempting to say that everything should just revert back to how it was before, reuniting the separated families and unwinding all the transactions and property disbursals. But even if that were possible, it would be a nonstarter. In the five years between Snaps, people started families, purchased and sold assets, and made real, meaningful decisions about how to live their lives. Those decisions are just as important as the ones made before the Snap, and are entitled to equal respect. While the government and legal system have an obligation to help the Vanished” get back on their feet, and should afford them some opportunity to recover their property, it would be wrong to undo or undermine the decisions people made in the interim five years.
In the MCU’s version of time travel, one cannot change the past but can try to build a better future. The law is the same way. We cannot use the law to reset the world or undo previous decisions — at least not at a large scale. What we can do is use the government and legal systems to ensure that people are treated fairly and to provide them with the support they need to recover from traumatic events — Snap-related or otherwise.