In the Avengers timeline, the world is saved when Tony Stark — a narcissistic billionaire with a savior complex and an extremely fancy metal suit — tricks the villain Thanos and steals the powerful Infinity Stones from his grasp. The gems allow Stark to reverse a genocide that Thanos unleashed on the universe, but it comes at a cost, draining him of life while others emerge once more. It is the noblest end to a man often mocked for his swollen, needy ego. It is prophecy through redemption.
In our real timeline, there are many narcissistic billionaires with savior complexes and extremely fancy wool suits, but none of them appear interested in fighting the existential threat facing the globe today. They’ve all but disappeared (perhaps they’re in Wakanda), taking their considerable power and wealth with them, whether into luxury bunkers in desolate lands or a Manhattan penthouse or a bungalow compound in the hills of Bel-Air.
Where is Mark Zuckerberg? I mean, the guy was motivated enough to orchestrate a complex and unethical scheme to buy land off Native Hawaiian locals just so he could have a gargantuan estate on the island of Kauai instead of just a huge one. Is a pandemic not enough to trigger that infamous problem-solving zeal and the spending of his own cash, or are small-biz grants from Facebook about all we can expect?
Or Jeff Bezos, for that matter. He miraculously decided to dump $4 billion in Amazon stock right before the markets tanked from virus fears, and now he’s sitting on that cash and watching his corporation grow fatter than ever. He can’t think of a way to participate more directly in aid as entire nations panic under the pressure of sickness?
The big brains in Silicon Valley are meeting in crowded conference calls to figure out how to tackle coronavirus. But you’re telling me that the world’s proudest venture capitalists and visionaries like Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page still don’t know how to jump in the fray to innovate during a time when innovation is actually needed? And I get it — it’s hard to lose a lot of money, as Europe’s richest man, luxury goods mogul Bernard Arnault, did when stocks plunged. But don’t you think he can do something important for all those loyal customers in Germany, Italy and the U.K. with the $81.4 billion he has left?
Where is our Tony Stark? Where are our Avengers? Surely it can’t just be 25 celebs singing “Imagine” off-key to their phones. Mr. Rogers told us to “look for the helpers,” and all I can see is a conspicuous lack of the world’s power players when it comes to the frontlines of the fight against COVID-19. What’s the point of these fucking Forbes lists if it’s not to serve as a directory of people who can save the world with their wealth?
Frankly, it seems like a small miracle that spaceboi supreme Elon Musk has even bothered to talk about how to address coronavirus, even if his contributions so far have been the equivalent of an average Reddit bro who found a few charts and YouTube videos. Let us remind ourselves that this is a man who saw people stuck in a Thai cave and decided to, in a moment of overstimulated excitement, invent and then build a bunch of whimsical tiny submarines that nobody needed. Going further back in Musk’s life, this is a man who literally decided to spend $100 million of his money to form SpaceX because he thought the public oughta be more interested in going to Mars.
Clearly, ambition isn’t a limitation for Musk. So why the hell is he hemming and hawing about doing something right now, while simultaneously signaling that it’d be no big deal to flex his engineering muscle? Is COVID-19 just not, like, Mars-y enough? Even with people in his replies explaining how valuable ventilators are — like, I bet Italy could use a few more — Musk plays the part of omniscient genius, unconvinced by the panic of the masses.
Musk is the closest thing we have to a Tony Stark. He checks too many of the boxes. But the blasé of it all feels like we asked for Iron Man and got Alloy Boy instead. By now, we should really know better than to expect powerful figures in the world to be genuinely bold and brave. You can’t actually accumulate a billion dollars without succumbing to cowardice along the way, whether it’s the exploitation of workers or a national tax structure. It’s hard to imagine Musk or anyone else truly sacrificing in order to put out the world’s fires, metaphorically or otherwise. Humans, rich and poor alike, tend to be terrible at learning from history (or, um, sophisticated simulations that predict the impacts of a pandemic).
The difference is that the uber-rich just have so much more leverage, whether through their voice or their money. But the thing about leverage is that someone has to do the pulling. And that’s apparently not necessary when wealth means you’ll likely walk out a pandemic unscathed. Instead, it’s regular nurses and doctors and Postmates drivers and laid-off retail workers who have to figure it out.
Musk says that the biggest threat of COVID-19 is the panic, not the illness itself, and that allocating more medical resources to the flu will come at the expense of other kinds of treatment and care. This is, to put it lightly, a no-shit statement, but he doesn’t seem to realize there’s more he could do. Or maybe I’m just buying into the myth that our idiosyncratic billionaires are as competent as a comic book hero.
Either way, if Musk is our Stark, we’re fucked.