We started talking about Iron Man 3 on Monday with some questions sent to us by a lucky reader who caught a sneak preview. Now we’ll take a look at two more issues: property law and medical experimentation.
Without giving too much away, we can say that at one point in the movie, Stark gives out his home address on live TV. Shortly thereafter, the press and bad guys show up and things start to get a bit hairy. The movie seems to assume that this would not have happened if Stark hadn’t given out his address. That strikes us as. . . dodgy. Further, the movie takes some inspiration from the Iron Man: Extremis storyline, and though the details of Extremis seem to vary quite a bit from the source material, both involve experimental medical injections. So we’ll talk about those issues as well.
I. Property Recording
Again, things really start to go bad for Tony and Pepper after Tony reveals his home address on live TV. The movie strongly implies that before this happened, they were more-or-less safe.
Simply put, that’s not how that works.
First of all, in-universe, Tony Stark is one of the most newsworthy individuals in the country. Any journalist who can’t dig up the home address of a celebrity of that magnitude inside of an hour should turn in his press pass immediately for basic failure of Shoe Leather Journalism 101. This is as much a logistical observation as a legal one, because in real life, paparazzi routinely camp outside celebrity homes in the hope getting a few shots to sell, and there’s no reason to think the same wouldn’t be true in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. We’re talking something as simple as following the guy home. Once one person does it, the information is out there.
But second, even if the press were keeping that information to themselves—and they generally do—it turns out that property ownership is mostly a matter of public record. We say mostly because some counties (though not Los Angeles County, as far as we can tell) allow residents to make their property records private or at least semi-private. For example, in St. Louis County one can request to block lookup of one’s property by the owner’s name. And in any county one can make it harder to find where one lives by having a shell corporation own the property, as Steve Jobs did when he needed a home in Tennessee. But a surprising number of celebrities do not take any of these precautions, and there’s always more direct investigatory routes.
In any case, like many counties, Los Angeles County has put its property tax assessment information online. Anyone who wants to can look up the property card for every single property in the county without leaving their desk. Granted, LA’s interface is a bit less helpful than some other municipalities—some will even let you search by owner*—but figuring out the ownership situation of every property on a given street would be a matter of an afternoon’s research. You can zoom in on the map and request the title card for any plot you like. Don’t bother trying to find the actual house with that, though. The house in the movie is all CGI and film sets; exterior shots were filmed at the protected Point Dume area. The house was allegedly inspired by a real house in La Jolla, but that’s in San Diego County.
* LA allows searching by owner with an application (which requires giving a reason for needing such access, such as being a real estate agent) and the payment of a fee.
The reason this is the case is that most US jurisdictions still stick to recording as a way of keeping track of property ownership, and the property record is, as one might imagine, a matter of public record. It’s only recently that municipalities have started putting this information online, and it’s as much for their own convenience as for the public’s. But even a hundred years ago, one could get a street address and trundle on down to the record office and look at any property card one wished, no questions asked. You might be asked to pay a nominal fee to copy anything, but that’s about it. Even a jihadist in a cave in Afghanistan could have figured out where Stark lived as long as the cave had access to the net.
So no. If Tony was in danger at home, it had nothing to do with revealing his home address to the media. The media already knew it, and interested parties could have found it with a bit of trivial legwork, possibly not even having to leave their office.
II. Medical Experimentation
Then there’s the question of how in the hell the villains got where they are. Some mild spoilers here, but one of the main villains is Dr. Aldrich Killian, the head of Advanced Idea Mechanics, apparently some kind of privately-funded “think tank”. In the comics, A.I.M. is actually related to Hydra, but whatever. He’s working on Extremis, which is some kind of injectable serum which, on the plus side, can apparently cure almost any wound short of decapitation or the destruction of one’s heart, with the relatively mild negative of occasionally making you and everyone in a ten-foot radius slightly dead. So much for that.
The question here is how in the world this thing ever got to the point of human trials when the side effects showed up when it was used on a houseplant, much less an animal model. We talked about the drug approval process in detail in our post on Limitless, where an experimental intelligence-boosting drug was the main plot point. Suffice it to say that the FDA would be unlikely to even want to heard about something as wild as Extremis, making even privately-funded research highly illegal. Now there seems to be some military involvement, and as we discussed in the chapter on administrative law in our book, that would potentially change the analysis somewhat. Governments can and do engage in secret medical research, and given the rather suspiciously close relationship between the Pentagon and certain defense contractors, a black-ops military research program does seem somewhat plausible. And in the movie A.I.M. is described as being built on defense contracts, and it seems to have access to wounded veterans, and as discussed on Wednesday, the Vice President does appear to be involved somehow.
In short, the more A.I.M. is working with the military, the more it’s likely to be able to fly under the FDA’s radar. But as human experimentation is highly regulated in the civilian world, one doubts that even the Vice President’s involvement would be able to effectively shield such a program otherwise. The VP, after all, has no actual executive power, and regulatory agencies tend not to care very much what the VP thinks about anything.
In the military world, however, there is a lot of legal latitude for human experimentation that would otherwise be illegal. A major case is United States v. Stanley, in which the Supreme Court held that an Army master sergeant who was secretly administered LSD as part of Project MKUltra could not sue the government because his injuries were service-related. 483 U.S. 669 (1987). Whether the Extremis volunteers were doing something service-related is difficult to say. We’d have to do a frame-by-frame of the shots of military records to be sure, but it seemed like maybe they had been discharged after their injuries, but maybe not, or maybe they were reenlisted in order to take part in the “study.”
But regardless of any government liability, A.I.M. itself is a private think tank, and the government’s immunity under exceptions to the Federal Tort Claims Act and Bivens described in Stanley may not extend to A.I.M. (as a government contractor) or its employees. Furthermore, at a minimum, any doctors involved would almost certainly lose their licenses.
So here we’ve got two issues which the movie doesn’t seem to handle very well. There’s no reason to think that the location of Tony Stark’s residence would not be known to either the press or the villains, as he’s an important public figure, and property ownership is a matter of public record. And A.I.M.’s work with Extremis would seem to violate just about every FDA regulation out there and would probably result in liability for somebody, just maybe not the government itself.