The biggest names in technology have a lot in common with comic book superheroes. They may not go around in capes and spandex (at least, in public), but they are larger-than-life figures with vast superpowers and fatal flaws. And like many superheroes, they often walk a fine line between good and evil, with or without the help of spring-loaded razor-edged claws, and for good or ill they can alter the course of human history.
At the risk of committing the ultimate sin — mixing characters from multiple comics universes — we present the best way to understand the strategies, motivations, and internal struggles of today’s top tech leaders, through their uncanny superhero alter egos.
Steve Ballmer is … the Incredible Hulk
One is an outsized beast who flies into an uncontrollable rage at the slightest provocation. The other is a comic book character with green skin. But both Ballmer and Dr. Bruce Banner (aka the Incredible Hulk) have more in common besides a desperate need for anger management counseling. Like the Hulk, Ballmer has managed to smash the puny weaklings who looked like they might succeed him in the big chair. And like Banner, he has issues with transformation — unable to convert Microsoft from a lumbering colossus into a being nimble enough to compete with his rivals. Whatever you do, don’t make him mad.
Eric Schmidt is … Professor X
Professor Charles Francis Xavier is a legendary telepath and headmaster of Xavier Academy, a Hogwarts for teenage X-Men. Schmidt famously once said, “We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.” As chairman of the Google X-Men, he’s guiding a flock of Googleplex mutants as they construct fleets of driverless cars, design privacy-eviscerating video glasses, fund interplanetary travel, and prepare humanity for the singularity when man and machine merge. Are Schmidt’s intentions good or evil? As with most comic book characters, you’ll have to wait until the next issue to find out.
Marissa Mayer is … Wonder Woman
If any company needed a superheroine to rescue it from the maelstrom of mediocrity, it was Yahoo. In her first year Mayer has breathed new life into Flickr; tossed the Lasso of Truth around Tumblr, Summly, and 15 other acquisitions; and hurled her razor-sharp tiara at Yahoo’s pajama-wearing slackers and BlackBerry-toting weenies. While no one’s predicting the imminent demise of Google just yet, employee satisfaction at Yahoo just hit a five-year high, and the company is no longer thought of as the prototypical Web 1.0 dinosaur. All she needs now is some black hair dye, a spandex suit, and a pair of bulletproof bracelets.
Tim Cook is … Robin, the Boy Wonder
After working side by side with the caped crusader for more than a decade, Tim Cook is fighting crime and Android in Gotham City all on his own. But whether he’s made the transition from sidekick to superhero is a puzzle worthy of the Riddler. While Apple’s fan base is as fiercely loyal as ever, its stock price has plummeted, longtime employees are beginning to look elsewhere, and the company is snared in a seeming endless legal stalemate with rival Samsung. More troubling: Wayne Enterprises’ vaunted R&D lab seems to have run out of life-changing gadgets. Holy unsubstantiated rumor, Batman — is that an iWatch we see or just the distant memory of One More Thing?
Larry Ellison is … Iron Man
Like Tony Stark, Larry Ellison is a man of large appetites — whether for acquiring smaller companies (86 and counting), wives (four and counting), or the America’s Cup (only one so far, but give him time). What Larry wants, Larry eventually gets, even if it requires spending billions of dollars and/or laying waste to major metropolitan areas. Why settle for being the planet’s fifth richest man when you could be No. 1? Only a heart-size cold fusion reactor could power an ego this large.
To Hollywood, Dotcom is a monster — a high-tech experiment gone hideously wrong. But to the music and movie swapping masses he’s the ultimate anti-establishment hero, unwilling to back down even in the face of impossible odds. The SWAT-style takedown of Dotcom and his Megaupload digital locker by legal authorities in January 2012 only made him more determined to do battle. The introduction of his Mega encrypted storage service a year later can mean only one thing: It’s clobberin’ time.
Jeff Bezos is … Dr. Manhattan
Don’t let the lack of blue skin fool you; like the Watchmen’s Dr. Jon Osterman (aka Manhattan), Bezos is an individual of unusual power, able to move freely between the past, present, and future of cloud commerce. Presumed dead after the dot-bomb implosion of the late 1990s, Bezos engineered a remarkable resurrection, transforming Amazon from an online bookseller to a powerhouse in the field of retail goods, entertainment, and computing. With the passing of the Dark Knight, Bezos is perhaps the only individual in the tech realm with the power to create markets with the introduction of a single device — provided he can avoid those tachyon particles. Watch out, journalism. You’re next on the telekinetic Dr. Manhattan’s to-save list.
Tim Berners Lee is … Spider-Man
If you’re looking for someone who can spin a web, who better than the guy who invented it? The creator of the World Wide Web is considered the ultimate tech superhero by many, but like his arachnid-human counterpart, Sir Tim prefers to avoid the limelight. After inventing the Web in 1989, Lee went on to found the World Wide Web Consortium, a standards body still in effect today, and the World Wide Web Foundation, dedicated to extending the Web’s reach to the two-thirds of the planet who remain unconnected. You know what they say: With great power comes great responsibility.
Mark Zuckerberg is … Scott Pilgrim
These hoodie-wearing 20-somethings have more in common than the superpower of extreme social awkwardness. To earn the love of Ramona Flowers, Pilgrim must defeat her seven evil ex-boyfriends. For his part, Zuckerberg must conquer the SEC, FTC, privacy cranks, and angry shareholders to achieve his plans for world domination. All he wants to do is play his guitar and mine the personal information of 1 billion people for his own personal gain — is that really so much to ask?
Julian Assange is … Storm
As one of the powerful and fashionable of the X-Men mutants, Storm can control the weather — summoning the wind and the rain simply by unfurling her designer leather cape. Assange has been known to cause a few storms of his own, summoning the media to his door with the release of more secret documents. Both have found themselves on the wrong side of the powers that be, and each is most effective when surrounded by other mutants and/or Wikipedians.
But mostly it’s the hair.