April 6, 2014

SCHULMAN | Elon Musk and Tony Stark’s forgotten Origins

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According to Iron Man’s director Jon Favreau, real life billionaire Elon Musk inspired the movie’s protagonist Tony Stark … which is kind of crazy because Tony Stark is Iron Man … a superhero. Don’t get me wrong, there are striking similarities between the two. But, Musk wasn’t born until 1971, eight years after Tony Stark’s creation in 1963. Musk may have made a name for himself at an early age, but he certainly didn’t inspire a comic book character eight years before his birth. The similarities between Tony Stark and Elon Musk have more to do with our culture than their real and fictional achievements. As Americans, we love remembering successful entrepreneurs like Musk as legends like Iron Man, even if it means forgetting Iron Man was created eight years before Musk’s birth.

Since the Iron Man movies’ release, we’ve confused Tony Stark’s origins with Elon Musk’s origins. Tony Stark may not be your typical superhero, but he’s beyond human. When he was first written in 1963, the artificial heart he designed to save himself was as fantastic as Spiderman’s radioactive spider or the Hulk’s gamma radiation. The first artificial heart wasn’t invented until 1982, nearly 20 years later. Iron Man isn’t Elon Musk in red and gold armor … or any other real human being for that matter.

Marvel comics created Tony Stark and Iron Man to personify American capitalism as a superhero. That may be a pretentious claim about a comic book character, but claiming superheroes embody nationalism isn’t that farfetched. Ever hear of Captain America? Unless Marvel also publishes a comic about George Bush’s adventures fighting the British, Al Qaeda and the Nazis (which is unlikely because it doesn’t own the rights to George Bush’s likeness), Marvel couldn’t write something more overtly nationalist if they tried. Obviously Tony Stark is a businessman but more significantly, Iron Man’s early adversaries are all enemies of American capitalism. In Iron Man’s origin story, written at the outset of the Vietnam war, Vietnamese terrorists kidnap Tony Stark to extort weapons. His earliest foe Black Widow is literally a Russian communist spy sabotaging Tony Stark’s capitalist enterprise.

Iron Man’s popularity in the U.S. represents one of our nation’s best qualities. We value industry over autocracy or violence. Where other countries spin legends around warriors or royalty, our myths surround businessmen. After all, John D. Rockefeller and Bill Gates aren’t legendary because buildings are named after them at Cornell; they’re legendary for their entrepreneurial success. Elon Musk’s ties to Tony Stark stems from our desire to romanticize his achievements in the same way. However, when claim Elon Musk inspired Tony Stark’s creation, we overlook his Cold War nationalist roots. In general, we disregard our successful entrepreneurs’ origins to write mythos about them, forgetting that so much of our talent comes from other countries. For example, we forget billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk is originally from Pretoria, South Africa and didn’t earn U.S. citizenship until 2002 — after spending fifteen years in Canada because our outdated system makes immigration so difficult.

Saying we should update our immigration system is not a very controversial claim considering that immigrants built this country; but in the same way we dismiss Elon Musk’s origin story as an immigrant because we’d rather pretend he is Tony Stark, we dismiss our own origin story as nation of immigrants because we’d rather not deal with the political implications. Our politicians prioritize their fear of jeopardizing midterm elections over updating our outdated immigration system for increased efficiency. Postponing immigration reform has become a yearly event like Black Friday or the Fourth of July. Congress even started giving paid holiday for its inability to compromise on the issue (not to mention all other legislation). … I think they called it shutting down the government?  Nothing happened when the Obama administration proposed legislation in 2008; nothing happened when federal courts challenged Arizona’s controversial legislation in 2010 and nothing happened last month, when the Senate’s progress toward reform died miserably in the House.

We put immigration reform on the back burner because we’d rather spin legends around our successes than acknowledge how much we owe them to immigrants. We can pretend Tony Stark and Elon Musk are only the same in so far as his 3D computer interface for designing rockets (like the interface Tony Stark uses for designing his armor in the movies) overshadows the fact Musk started PayPal as a Canadian — not an American — because of our convoluted immigration system.