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As Seen On TV: Stark Industries / Lockheed

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Guess which one's job application wants to know your greatest hope for humankind?

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Unemployed and sick of applying for a real job? Well, you're in luck. Stark Industries is hiring! The advanced weapon and defense company is valued at around $20 billion and, in a world constantly on the verge of being destroyed by megalomaniacal villains, it's the kind of business that can only boom.

Plus, on what other job application are you asked: What is your greatest hope for humankind?

The application is, of course, fake. It's all a part of Paramount Pictures' marketing scheme for Iron Man 2, due out in 2010. Stark Industries, owned and operated by Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, has been central to the comic's narrative since its inception in 1963.

But as is the case with most Marvel (MVL) comics, art imitates life -- even when life means corporations.

From its line of advanced aircraft to its corporate logo, Stark Industries is more or less a spitting image of Lockheed Martin (LMT) -- the aerospace and defense behemoth that brings in over $40 billion annually from Department of Defense contracts.

More specifically, Stark Industries is a fairly obvious wink at Lockheed's Skunk Works division -- its top-secret department that's been responsible for building the military's most advanced aircrafts, like the U-2 and F-22.

In older editions of Iron Man, Stark, like Skunk Works, sold weapons that would help the government against a Cold War-esque communist threat. In today's films, the company has been updated to sell high-tech gadgets that help fend off terrorism. In both cases, the principle is the same: Stark Industries, just like Lockheed Martin, is at the epicenter of the grand Military-Industrial Complex.

But the similarities run even deeper: Tony Stark is at least partially based on the American Hollywood mogul and aerospace pioneer Howard Hughes, who personally worked with Lockheed in engineering military craft. It's probably no coincidence that Tony's father -- the original founder of the fictional corporation -- was named Howard.

Iron Man creator Stan Lee called Hughes "one of the most colorful men of our time. He was an inventor, an adventurer, a multi-billionaire, a ladies' man and finally a nutcase."

Hughes, who was portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in 2004's The Aviator, is often remembered as a larger-than-life eccentric whose vast wealth allowed him to participate directly in the exploding defense industry of the 1930s and 1940s.

Hughes personally helped engineer the Lockheed L-049 Constellation. In addition to famously flying a Lockheed plane around the world in record time, Hughes set up his own aircraft company in a rented corner in one of Lockheed's hangars. The company went through a series of changes before being sold to General Motors (GMGMQ) in 1985 for $5.2 billion. In 2000, GM sold the division to Boeing (BA), 24 years after Hughes had died.

Lockheed
Tony Stark is, of course, a lot like Hughes. He's the lone millionaire whose vast wealth and ingenuity allows him to engineer his own wings that carry him across the skies. He's the businessman turned pioneer, dangling one foot in the boardroom and another in the cockpit. And by bringing in over $585 million in theater sales, Stark is a Hollywood mogul in his own right.

With the next installment of Iron Man due out next May, fans are wondering what the future will hold for Stark Industries. Here's a guess: Expect an action-packed thrill ride in which Tony Stark begs his board of directors to retain him as chief executive while convincing his CFO to fudge the next earnings report to keep shareholders smiling, all the while saving the world. It's gonna be great!

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No positions in stocks mentioned.

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