Pepper Potts (Gwenyth Paltrow) and a conveniently sexy fire in Iron Man 3.
Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 has rolled into theaters and conquered box office receipts. After the alien attack on New York during The Avengers, Tony Stark is not doing well. While suffering from insomnia and anxiety attacks, an Asian-played-by-white-guy terrorist named the Mandarin has stepped up to inflict damage on American civilians.
But I don’t want to talk about Tony Stark. I want to talk Pepper Potts, the girlfriend who—of course—spends much of the film in Mandarin’s evil clutches, waiting to be rescued.
Despite my beef with Gwyneth Paltrow the person (GOOP, seriously?), Pepper Potts isn’t as half bad as most superhero movie female characters go. Sure, she’s no Storm or Black Widow, but as we see from the first film on, she’s an integral part of the Iron Man story.
In the beginning of the first Iron Man film, Pepper’s character falls into the trope of “sexy, faithful personal assistant.” She supports Tony and doesn’t really stand out, other than we can pick up hints that she genuinely cares for the egotistical Tony. But later in the first film, her character jumps into the drama, sneaking around, stealing important information, and helping save the day. This formula is essentially repeated in the second movie, with the added bonus that Tony, in a fit of fatalism, hands over his tech empire to Pepper to manage. That’s huge—a female CEO in the tech sector? Woop woop.
Then things get a little strange. While it’s cool to see an unmarried couple live together on the big screen, Iron Man 3 paints Pepper a little less sympathetically than the last two films. She reprises her role of CEO after promising to quit at the end of the second film, but she nags at Tony to stop fiddling with his titular project, the weaponized suit of armor of which he’s now built forty-some odd models. And then she’s taken hostage. Pepper becomes the damsel in distress, waiting for Iron Man to swoop in and save the day. I get it, it’s the Iron Man show, but with the couple split on opposite ends of the coast, we miss that chemistry and relationship between them. Not to mention that Pepper is kidnapped and tortured in order to “motivate” Tony to do something. Being reduced to a ransom object is a few flights down from the top of the corporate ladder, isn’t it?
I like it when ladies get a chance to do some ass-kicking in superhero movies, and Pepper is accidentally bestowed with some ass-kicking superhero talents while under the baddie’s control. But later, she’s cured of said superpowers because they could potentially kill her. There’s something disappointing about giving an otherwise human stand-in these powers, only to take them away as a phony plot device. Maybe I wouldn’t mind it as much if then Pepper could then join the Avengers or otherwise be on the level of Tony Stark. But perhaps it’s also the notion that the only superheroes out there are the ones that use violence to fight violence. She’s powerful in her own right (Lady CEO, remember?), but now we find her in awe of newfound superpowers and the ability to kill. Is it bad that she got a taste of the action, awful that she doesn’t get to continue beating down megalomaniacs, or disappointing that she had to fight at all to remark how good that “power” felt? I’m disappointed that Pepper really only feels powerful after killing a guy, especially after seeing her fret and worry through her very human insecurities in the first two movies.
And yes, I get that practically all superhero narratives are problematic, dominated by white males with Herculean bodies. But with characters like Pepper Potts and the large movie role Spiderman’s latest love interest, the aspiring scientist Gwen Stacy, it feels like the women of comics are finally given some room to become more than a trope. Even with larger roles for assistant characters like Potts, it’s high time that we get another female superhero movie. The upcoming films featuring lady crime fighters all fit them into films with male leads, like this summer’s sequel to Kick-Ass slated in August for fans of Hit-Girl and two follow-ups to X-Men: First Class. Please note that the last time a woman carried a superhero movie by herself was back in 2005’s Elektra. Although I fear Black Widow, Hit-Girl, and Batwoman are all doomed to be stuck without their own movie series, I’m hoping more directors will give opportunities to the characters and the actresses behind them to do more than just cry for help.