As the world contends with Elon Musk’s purchase and subsequent immolation of Twitter, it draws uncomfortable attention to his previous lionization in pop culture. Both Star Trek and the Marvel Cinematic Universe referenced the man as a groundbreaking genius: the former with multiple nods in Star Trek: Discovery, the latter with a cameo in Iron Man 2. While the situation is ongoing as of this writing, Musk’s reputation has likely suffered a fatal blow, leaving the two franchises with significant egg on their faces.
Yet of the two, Star Trek has taken far more heat than Marvel, which has been able to more or less sweep it under the rug. Some of that comes from quality: Discovery is Star Trek‘s current standard-bearer, while Iron Man 2 ranks among the runts of the MCU’s litter. But it goes deeper than that. Marvel serendipitously drew inspiration from Musk in a manner that worked in favor of its flawed central character, Tony Stark. Star Trek expects better things from its heroes, making a more limited reference much harder to hide.
Both Franchises Ascribe Far Too Much to Musk
Discovery and Iron Man 2 fell into the same trap that a large number of people did: believing that Musk was a wunderkind genius when he wasn’t. Discovery goofed with a one-off line in Season 1, Episode 4, “The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry,” as Captain Lorca lists him alongside the Wright Brothers and fictional scientist Zefram Cochrane as historical innovators. It’s compounded by several reveals in Season 2 indicating that Sylvia Tilly went to Elon Musk Junior High School. Iron Man 2 went further in giving Musk a cameo. Tony Stark greets him at a hotel in Monaco, where Musk claims he has “a good idea for an electric jet.” Tony promises to make it work.
The appearance capped a strange behind-the-scenes association between the financier and the first two Iron Man movies. According to a 2015 article in Bloomberg, Musk gave star Robert Downey, Jr. a guided tour of the SpaceX facilities during the filming of the original Iron Man and made an impression on the actor. “They became contemporaries,” Downey explains. “Elon was someone Tony probably hung out with and partied with, or more likely they went on some weird jungle trek together to drink concoctions with the shamans.” That led to a more formal presence in the resulting film — Tony has a Tesla among his fleet of cars — and eventually to the Iron Man 2 cameo.
Musk Is Tony’s Worst Self
Downey is far from the only person Musk has buffaloed over the years, but his admiration may have mixed with his actor’s instincts. Musk’s scientific genius may be bogus, but his colossal wealth and resulting narcissism aptly reflect a key side of Tony: the side he struggles to outrun for the entirety of the saga. That, in turn, gives Iron Man 2‘s subsequent developments added depth.
The movie eventually delivers Tony’s nadir as he blasts melons out of the air in front of a gawking crowd: a drunk, spoiled man-child with far too much power and no regard for the consequences. Rhodey steps in before his friend kills someone, and the resulting fight all but destroys the mansion. Watching Musk repeatedly trip over his shoelaces in the ongoing Twitter debacle, it’s easy to draw parallels to the moment. The financier likes to present himself as a real-life Stark. In truth, he’s the exact kind of failure Tony fears he’ll become: a public clown who squandered vast resources in the service of his own vanity.
Discovery has no such hiding place, though Lorca’s status as a native of the sinister Mirror universe provides some cover. While Tony Stark was always a flawed figure, Starfleet officers are held to the highest ethical standards. Trek‘s signature dedication to science makes the oversight stand out all the more, despite being far more passing than the MCU’s. Intentional or not, Downey’s time with Musk informed his character in strong ways. Star Trek‘s heroes walk a much higher path, making the reference much more of a cringe-fest. It’s not necessarily fair, but that doesn’t change the results. Star Trek may just have to live with them.