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Elon Musk, supervillain

The Korean film 'Space Sweepers' is just the latest project to feature an antagonist not unlike Tesla founder Elon Musk

Richard Armitage as the Elon Musk-like villain in 'Space Sweepers'
Richard Armitage as the Elon Musk-like villain in 'Space Sweepers'

Not to put too fine a point on it: Jo Sung-hee’s Space Sweepers (released on Netflix last month), the first-ever Korean space blockbuster, isThe Wizard of Oz featuring Elon Musk as supervillain. And although the film drops a few hints in the first act itself, the Musk-as-Big-Bad characterization goes into overdrive in the second half, where the antagonist James Sullivan (Richard Armitage from Hannibal, baritone working overtime), CEO of the gargantuan UTS Corporation, unveils his big plan for humanity circa 2092.

Since Earth is nigh unlivable because of the polluted air and water (never mind the fact that UTS is a prime contributor, dumping radioactive space debris on Earth), Sullivan says, the answer is Mars. Appearing as a colossal holographic projection before all “UTS citizens” (who live on an orbiting planet controlled by the corporation), Sullivan, in the over-the-top style favored by Musk in real life, calls Mars “the answer to our quest for eternal happiness and prosperity”. Never mind the fact that over 95 per cent of the population cannot afford UTS citizenship (the company has thus far only populated its new orbiting home with the super-rich).

Musk has, of course, expressed some decidedly colorful view on what a future Mars colony would look like. In January last year, the Tesla CEO was criticized across the political spectrum after he said that workers could pay for their Mars flights by “working off the loans”. “Needs to be so that anybody who wants to can go, with loans available for those who don’t have the money”, Musk tweeted, in the most transparent advocacy for indentured labour seen in recent times. Putting the colonial back in colony, that’s the richest man in the world for you!

The plot of Space Sweepers feels like a critique of neo-colonialist wet dreams like Musk’s. The titular space junk retrievers lead a working-class alliance against the space-obsessed billionaire CEO who hates journalists and cultivates a God-like aura around him. Oh, and a transgender android named Bubs plays a crucial role in the CEO’s downfall; trans rights activists have frequently blasted Musk after he ridiculed trans talking points, including people specifying preferred pronouns in their social media handles.

There used to be a time, not long ago actually, when Musk was a Hollywood darling. His persona was one of the starting points for Robert Downey Jr’s portrayal of billionaire superhero Iron Man/Tony Stark in Iron Man (2008), the film that set the Marvel juggernaut in motion. You can see bits of Musk’s combative personality in Tony Stark’s brashness, his arrogance, his incorrigible showmanship. Downey Jr and director Jon Favreau even gave Musk a walk-on part in Iron Man 2 (2010); he advises Stark briefly over a “space jet”. In the years after that cameo, Musk played himself in a string of appearances — Machete Kills (2013), The Simpsons (2015), The Big Bang Theory (2015), South Park (2017) and finally, Rick and Morty (2019), where he voiced an alternate reality version of himself with tusks (called, inevitably, Elon Tusk).

As Elon Tusk in Rick and Morty, Musk even seemed to be poking fun at himself, finally. When Tusk asks Rick why his services are required (Earth already has the regular Elon Musk), it leads to the following exchange.

Rick: This is a team operation and regular Elon can be a little bit controlling.

Elon Tusk: Growing up with tusks did pose certain social challenges. It’s possible that overcoming them raised my self-esteem and incentivized collaboration.

Rick: Yeah, or you’re less sure of yourself because you have monster teeth.

Elon Tusk: An equally valid theory.

The pop cultural tide, however, seems to have turned firmly against Musk. The Tom Hardy superhero movie Venom (2017) was the first prominent blow dealt. The villain in this movie, Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), is a tech billionaire looking spaceward in a bid to find humanity a new home, no matter what the cost. He is a tyrant at work. He treats his employees as replaceable bodies more than anything else (Musk has been widely criticized for union-busting and other anti-worker policies at Tesla). During an interview, Ahmed had explained his character’s motivations this way: “I honestly think my character has good intentions. We’ve ruined this planet; we’ve brought it to the brink of ecological collapse; it’s gonna get to a point where humanity can’t survive here so we're going to have to find another home.”

While not being apologia, Ahmed’s statement tells us how things stood circa 2018 — despite the villainous character(s) inspired by him, Musk was still seen as a "misunderstood genius" type, a well-intentioned savant whose heel turn is explained away with a ‘power corrupts’ homily. Look at Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor in Batman vs Superman, another role which was compared to Musk’s public persona.

Now, however, the characterization is villainous in a fairly straightforward way, with no caveats in sight. CBS premiered its new thriller series The Equalizer, starring Queen Latifah as Robyn McCall, a vigilante ex-CIA officer, in January with an episode that featured the most thinly veiled Musk-villain yet. Reese Pruitt (Michael Rady) is a tech CEO whose revolutionary driving software will signal the end of manually driven cars. We soon learn that Pruitt employed assassins (and a truly sinister "deep fake" video) to help cover up the deaths caused by malfunctioning self-driving cars. He’s also the kind of pasty-faced antagonist who says things like “control is an illusion”. In the climax, McCall traps him in his own car by having an ally hack Pruitt’s prized software—transparent wish fulfillment, you could argue, but I can confirm it works a heart-warming moment.

And why shouldn’t it? Generally speaking, the pandemic has made billionaires like Musk richer and hurt just about everybody else. According to a report by the Swiss bank UBS, the world’s billionaires grew their fortunes by 27.5% between April and July 2020, a time of dwindling incomes and mass-layoffs across the planet. In Iron Man, Tony Stark says, "Is it better to be feared or respected? I say, is it too much to ask for both?" The respect commanded by Tony Stark helped Musk, surely, in some small way. Now he must contend with the fear evoked by depictions like Space Sweepers, Venom and The Equalizer.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.

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