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Photo of Elon Musk by Joshua Lott / Getty Images | Ironman: Marvel Comics | Venom: Sony Pictures
Illustration by James Bareham/Polygon

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Elon Musk’s superhero influence chronicled his journey from a hero to villain

From Iron Man to Venom’s Carlton Drake

Elon Musk’s impact on superhero film culture is undeniable, but always changing.

The SpaceX and Tesla, Inc. entrepreneur influenced Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark in 2008’s Iron Man, the kick off to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and most recently, seems to have served as an inspiration for Riz Ahmed’s evil visionary in Venom, Carlton Drake. Critics have argued that Musk had an indirect influence on supervillains like Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and even Danny Rand in Marvel and Netflix’s Iron Fist series.

There’s a good reason: Musk, who broadcasts his technological ambition through a blustering, Silicon Valley personality, represents a shift in how superhero cinema grapples with science and innovation in 2018.

2008 was an integral moment in genre entertainment. The Dark Knight and Iron Man both premiered, forever changing the projection of superhero movies at Marvel Studios and Warner Bros., where DC Entertainment blossomed into a Hollywood entity. That same year, the United States entered one of its worst recessions in decades. Facebook and Twitter thrived as people around the world purchased more iPhone, BlackBerry and general smartphone devices than ever before. Silicon Valley had the same momentum as everything else seemed to be failing. Heroes became villainous (Kanye West’s infamous moment at the VMAs with Taylor Swift), and people who sound like Bond villains on paper became heroes.

As engineering and interconnected technology took center stage, Silicon Valley, and its CEOs, represented the country’s future — a silver lining for a generation of people coming up through one of the worst financial crises of their generation. People like Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, Steve Jobs, Jony Ive, Peter Thiel and, of course, Musk became household names.

Superhero movies picked up on the shift. Though Bruce Wayne had more in common with typical investor brokers and wealthy elite that many Americans came to despise during the recession, eventually leading to the Occupy Wall Street movement a few years later, Robert Downey Jr.’s version of Tony Stark was an innovator who put aside war toys, the obvious source of income, to change the world through better uses of technology. It’s no surprise that both Downey Jr. and director Jon Favreau met with Musk prior to filming to pick his brain about technology, the future and get a grasp of what Tony Stark should be like.

The connection between Stark and Musk was only solidified in 2010’s Iron Man 2, which included an actual cameo from Musk himself. There were quite a few parallels between Musk’s career in 2008 and Stark’s arc in Iron Man. Tony Stark had to overcome his greatest challenge to become the superhero he’s known as today. Both visionaries, once at the top of their game, hit rock bottom for a period.

Musk wasn’t just an enterprising leader in his field, someone with a legion of dedicated followers and fans, but he was relatable. Reportedly, he was having his worst year — SpaceX’s rocket failed, Tesla was on the verge of bankruptcy — and going through a personal divorce. Downey Jr.’s Stark, full of raw emotion as he tries to take back the company taken away from him, stay alive and survive a powerful betrayal, made it easy to empathize with a charming billionaire. The feeling didn’t stop at the end credits (or in the case of Marvel, the post-credit scene). Stark and Musk became the personable future.

But in the last decade, the mainstream perception of Musk, and the challenges faced by Stark’s character, have changed. Their arrogance isn’t as charming or inspirational; their seemingly reckless decisions aren’t as brave or brilliant; their treatment of those around them isn’t quaint. The tech genius visionary Tony Stark was based on became a core issue of Silicon Valley’s critics. Facebook wasn’t saving the world; it was ruining democracy. Twitter wasn’t creating more conversation; it was spreading harassment. Musk may have tried to better the world through futuristic invention and innovation, but his own personality problems, similar to Stark’s, kept getting in the way.

The more we learned about Elon Musk, the more he morphed from Tony Stark into villainous characters like Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor and Riz Ahmed’s Carlton Drake.

In Venom, Luthor and Drake are both painted as sinister people, exaggerated to create a more obvious black and white line between good and evil. That’s not what makes their characters interesting, or relatable to Musk. Underneath the obvious evil is the unanimous desire to build something better for people. Musk wants to colonize Mars, build eco-friendly cars and invest in transportation because he cares about the environment and the survival of the human race.

Luthor and Drake wanted to do similar things. Luthor, as described in a Vulture essay, wanted “to prevent Superman from becoming some kind of worldwide dictator.” Drake wanted to figure out a way to combine human bodies with symbiotes so they’d be prepared to live in space. Both were extremely wealthy, brilliant visionaries, largely respected in their fields and feared by outsiders.

The two superhero movie villains experienced Elon Musk Syndrome. Musk has alienated himself in recent months, calling a diver in Thailand a “pedo,” using Twitter as a place to insult others, calling out the SEC, smoking weed on Joe Rogan’s podcast and turning himself into Silicon Valley’s constant mockery. Musk is still a genius, but it’s hard to see past the villain he’s become to so many people. This, in addition to Silicon Valley transforming from the land of the gods into a battlefield, changed Musk from the superhero influence behind Iron Man in 2008 to one of the most controversial figures in the world in 2018.

Even though Musk has only made one appearance in a superhero movie between the Marvel Cinematic Universe kicking off in 2008 and now, his personality, stance and figure within the world has acted been an underlying influence for 10 years. Where Phase IV will take Tony may not be up to the screenwriters charged with crafting future Avengers stories. Instead it’s on Musk, who will inevitably warp comic-book geniuses in the years to come.


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