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Redefining the American Superhero: The Martian

Ilana Masad
November 20, 2015

by Ilana Masad

6a00d8341bf7f753ef01bb0883d686970d-piMOST SUPERHEROES, like the ones featured in the spate of Marvel and DC films in the past ten or so years, are American. There are exceptions (Black Widow has Russian origins; Superman is from another planet), but for the most part, the words “superhero” and “American” go snugly hand in fist. But Mark Watney is a new kind of American superhero: He’s a botanist.

The Martian, based on the self-published, discovered-by-big-press, and now bestselling novel by Andy Weir, hit movie theaters a few weeks ago and caused an absolute fervor. Everyone and their mother wanted to see it, whether they were normally into sci-fi or not. The reaction was similar to reactions to the superhero blockbusters, like the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy, the various X-Men iterations, or The Avengers franchise. With those, it doesn’t matter whether you’ve read the comics — you can still jump right in. The same is true of the film adaptation of Weir’s book.

Some of the allure of The Martian comes from its featuring a whole lot of Matt Damon and a fair bit of Matt Damon muscle. Other than that, it’s a pretty straight-up astronaut-hero film that has a lot in common with Apollo 13. We reveled (and some of us still do) in that movie partly because it was based on a true story, and true stories have a way of captivating us, but also because it was a movie featuring high stakes, both physical and emotional, and we got to watch the characters reduce or raise those stakes one fixed or bungled problem at a time.

The Martian is essentially a rendition of the Apollo 13 story, except that it takes place in the future and on Mars. Put simply, the movie is about Mark Watney, an astronaut, who gets stranded on Mars when the rest of his crew make an emergency exit and leave him for dead (after a piece of heavy machinery collapses and hits him, blowing him off, wounded, into the wilderness of the Mars sands). Once Watney wakes up, he begins to figure out how to survive on Mars until the next mission arrives, how to communicate with earth, and how to fix every problem and overcome every obstacle he encounters.

ONE FASCINATING ASPECT of the film is that it appears to defy the norm in military movies or other astronaut films: Instead of celebrating teamwork, The Martian largely explores what Watney is able to do alone. Communication with Earth and NASA is helpful when he eventually gets it, and proves essential to his survival, but it’s his individuality, his personality, brains, and brawn that are celebrated. His charisma shines even when he’s on his own and not a crew member anymore, and is part of what captivates the attention of the world (both in the film and out of it).

There is a fair amount of disdain for government in the film, expressed through Watney’s attitude towards NASA. As Watney begins to plan how to survive, one small NASA graveyard shift worker figures out, by watching satellite imagery, that he’s still alive. While NASA’s admission that one of its crew members had died was bad enough, it is an expected cost in what is a kind of war zone: man vs. the solar system. Admitting that they were wrong about the death is far more embarrassing. Oops, he’s actually alive and we just sorta left him there is the message NASA has to convey to the public without losing the progress they’ve clearly made in public relations between today (NASA doesn’t do anything any more, boo!) to the future portrayed (NASA and Mars, yay!). Unfortunately for NASA, the media doesn’t seem to have changed much in the future, and their reaction is everything you would imagine, as relentless as the dust storm on Mars that blew Mark Watney into almost-oblivion. NASA’s sole mission, in the eye of the public, at this point is to figure out how to keep Watney alive and bring him home. The hero-worship that the lone wolf Watney receives is grandiose, and is similar to the worship of all American celebrities.

In The Martian, we’re exposed to the idea, which is common in celebrity culture, that all publicity is good publicity, and in that sense, the entire film is a big commercial for NASA and a request for it to be funded, relevant, and exciting like it used to be during the Apollo missions. However, our new American superhero doesn’t have much patience for NASA’s rules, regulations, and decisions. He is a space cowboy and a moral paragon. He is furious that NASA takes so long to tell his crew that he’s alive, for example, and he delights in frustrating the shallow publicity stunts that NASA asks from him. He uses curse-words freely when writing to NASA, even though he’s told that his messages are being shown live nationwide; he makes the photo requested of him ridiculous rather than inspiring. Watney’s crew, too, when they do find out he’s still alive, turns around and forces NASA into letting them rescue Watney or die trying. Their anti-authoritarian spirit is indeed more Tony Stark (Iron Man) than Captain America: They believe in taking risks, acting against the establishment while using establishments resources, making independent decisions rather than listening to and obeying commands.

What’s most compelling about The Martian is Mark Watney: his psychology, his ability to survive, completely alone, for as long as he does. This is a man who is able, through his videocam log, to disparage his fellow crew-members’ choice of music and other entertainment that they brought with them to Mars and had to abandon. He is also able to describe the loneliness and awe of being the first at so many things. He’s the first human being to be entirely alone on a planet, the first to step on every new piece of Mars sand as he begins his journey towards the site where the next mission is supposed to land. He is a person who’s able to live after his habitat explodes and half his food supply immediately crumbles in the lack of oxygen and humidity as the dry Martian air blows across the crops. This is a person whose crew is so dedicated to him that they risk their jobs, their reputations, their lives for him.

Watney is the paradigm of a superhero in his sense of humor, his naturally upbeat spirit, his will to survive, and his nearly impossible capacity to survive. In other words, he’s a fantasy — just as NASA of the future, and the worldwide audience fixated on the astronaut’s plight, and the U.S. Congress that is willing to give NASA more and more money in order to bring him home, are fantasies. Our real Congress can’t come to agreement about farm bills, let alone funding for space programs; I shudder to think how the media, with its minute-by-minute news cycle, would handle the case of a man whose messages to Earth take over fifteen minutes simply to arrive; and the American public is more concerned with Drake and Kim Kardashian than with veterans who return wounded, psychologically and physically, from war zones that might just as well be Mars.

Ilana Masad, a fiction writer, is a columnist for McSweeney’s and has contributed to The Rumpus, The Toast, and the Chicago Tribune literary supplement. Masad is an Israeli-American who spent most of her childhood in Israel, with twice-a-year visits to the U.S., and now lives in New York.