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Iron Man 3: Pepper Potts Goes Kapow!

Pepper Potts, in a bra surrounded by fire

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. 

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Comments

7 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Great analysis

But i have one nitpick, in regards to the idea Potts was being a nagging girlfriend(This is the second time i've seen someone say this). It seemed to be Tonys obsession with building more robots was supposed to be seen as a negative thing getting in his relationship with Potts. I mean, first Tony decides to welcome her home with one of his robots instead of talking to her face to face, finds out he had his bodyguard watch over her at work, and then one of the robots attacks her. I think she had a right to be pissed,and at o point did i feel like she was nagging Stark for no reason. Honestly i feel like her gender is But i have one nitpick, in regards to the idea Potts was being a nagging girlfriend(This is the second time i've seen someone say this). It seemed to be Tonys obsession with building more robots was supposed to be seen as a negative thing getting in his relationship with Potts. I mean, first Tony decides to welcome her home with one of his robots instead of talking to her face to face, finds out he had his bodyguard watch over her at work, and then one of the robots attacks her. I think she had a right to be pissed,and at o point did i feel like she was nagging Stark for no reason. Honestly i feel like her gender is the main reason she has gotten this "nagging" stigma attached to her. I've never see a male character called nagging for having legitimate complains with their spouse.

And i totally agree its time for a good superheroine film.

SPOILER ALERT! Thanks a lot,

SPOILER ALERT! Thanks a lot, jerks!

Maybe I missed something at

Maybe I missed something at the very end of the film, but I felt that his comment about fixing her was in regard to the possibility of blowing up. When he says that he almost had 'it' fixed when he was too drunk to remember, the 'it' was the blowing up problem. I came away from the film feeling that he was going to fix the possibility of blowing up, and leave her with the regenerative powers/properties.

I also agree with the first comment, I didn't find her to be nagging. She was bringing up something that was a problem in their relationship. As a military spouse with a husband who suffers from PTSD I don't agree with the way her character handled Tony's PTSD, especially with how she just seems irritated after the nightmare scene. There is only so much one can do with someone who refuses to see their problem and get help, but the writers should not have had her walk out just as he was seeing in no uncertain terms how he was affecting their relationship and her safety.

Power to Pepper

I'm not a huge fan of the series, but I went with my husband because he loves it and I love watching him get enthralled :) Pepper's character stood up for herself and the things she needed out of the relationship. I didn't find the character to be nagging at all. I was pleased to see she had resumed her CEO role, but was a bit disappointed in how charmed she was when Bad Guy (don't remember his name) showed up at her office. I felt that would have been more powerfully played if they kept her platonic instead of swooning over seeing him again. As another commenter mentioned, I wasn't thrilled with the PTSD scene. I felt like Pepper's character would have been more understanding concerning the nightmare, but then again, she was attacked by a robot. I would have made Tony sleep somewhere else :)

Power to Pepper

I'm not a huge fan of the series, but I went with my husband because he loves it and I love watching him get enthralled :) Pepper's character stood up for herself and the things she needed out of the relationship. I didn't find the character to be nagging at all. I was pleased to see she had resumed her CEO role, but was a bit disappointed in how charmed she was when Bad Guy (don't remember his name) showed up at her office. I felt that would have been more powerfully played if they kept her platonic instead of swooning over seeing him again. As another commenter mentioned, I wasn't thrilled with the PTSD scene. I felt like Pepper's character would have been more understanding concerning the nightmare, but then again, she was attacked by a robot. I would have made Tony sleep somewhere else :)

Is Pepper Potts still a "damsel in distress?" Yes, yes she is

I wrote about Pepper in ‘Iron Man 3′ and the perpetuation of the Damsel in Distress Trope at Bitch Flicks: http://www.btchflcks.com/2013/05/is-pepper-potts-no-longer-the-damsel-in.... SPOILERS -> Despite her brief brushes with superhero powers, 'Iron Man 3' is not a subversion of stereotypical gender tropes. Just because she dons the suit for 2 minutes (not her choice), has the Extremis virus injected (not her choice) and has it removed (also not her choice), all of these things do not make her empowered. Sadly, the film focuses on the male gaze and ultimately strips Pepper of her agency and voice.

Seeing ghosts

I have a different interpretation of Pepper in this film. (I'll be careful but watch for spoilers)

"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 think it's worth noting that this decision comes from 'That Guy' who does it, a guy who leeringly cosies up to her and outright admits that he didn't kidnap/infect her just to motivate Tony (more on that in a moment) but as "a trophy". This isn't elaborated on but I considered what it might be a trophy *of*.

That Guy went asking at SI's door not just once, but twice. Once for Tony, once for Pepper and both turned him down flat - Pepper more politely. Having the CEO of SI working for *him* (on account of the addictive property of their new infection) could be as simple as his ego triumphing over a competitor.

Another possibility is the trophy of 'finally getting the girl' - Pepper remarked to Happy that That Guy used to ask her out all the time. It could be as simple as one guy who was turned down repeatedly, finally getting what he wanted. Petty, cheap, 'insubstantial' victory. This alone isn't necessarily a 'man over woman' issue but just an ugly element of human nature. The pursuit of a prize made more desirable by failure, culminating in a 'win' the way stealing prize money technically means you got the prize. In a few decades (hopefully) this type of victory will still be seen with different gendered protagonists. I maintain that Pepper's gender is irrelevant.

Back on the topic of motivating Tony, we do have to carefully weigh the history of 'damsel in distress' with this particular example of its usage. Tony Stark is pretty infamous for caring deeply about very little. If you swap out Pepper for Rhodey or Happy, can you see him reacting the same way? I can. Because these are the people he cares about the most - again, gender is irrelevant. Whereas Rhodey might, *maybe* cause Tony to hesitate because the man is in the army and therefore considered to be 'signed up for' possible death-by-terrorist, we saw how grieved and enraged Tony was by Happy being put in the hospital by accident or design. If Pepper had been in the hospital, the house still attacked and Happy one of those being blasted through the air? I'd wager Tony's first instinct would have been to wrap his portly friend in the armour, not the semi-stranger brunette.

This is all based on reasoned conjecture, of course, but I do feel very strongly about it. That said! It's entirely possible That Guy assumed Pepper was prime motivation meat because she was 'Tony's girl' (although it seems very reasonable to me that the only woman who Tony Stark has ever been in a long-term involved relationship with - and cared enough about apparently to *give* his company to - would be a more obvious target than Tony Stark's long-term driver/bodyguard). That is to say, *maybe* That Guy's choices were influenced by gender, *maybe* the writers/producers chose who got kidnapped and who got hospitalised based on gender but that doesn't remove the reality that the choices that *were* made make a lot of sense on multiple levels.

"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,"

This is another point on which my reception differed. She didn't seem in awe of her power to me, but alarmed - and not even by her power but by her own violence when faced with a violent situation. She had just fallen to was what undoubtedly a very painful could-have-been-death, someone she loved was at risk of being killed and then her own life was threatened - she reacted with animal instinct that anyone and everyone has. Kill or be killed. The fluid grace and quick thinking was the most impressive part about her reaction, but we see - as Tony tries to talk to her - that she is riding the edge of adrenaline, panting, looking for the next threat and takes a few seconds to come down from it.

And then what does she say? 'Oh my god, that was really violent.' The most positive or 'feeling powerful' suggestion we might see is when she tells Tony 'I can see why you love the armour so much now' (or words to that effect) which absolutely did not seem about 'Yeah beeyutches, I can open a can of WHOOPASS, YEAH this feels good' but rather 'Holy hannah, when people try to kill you it's good to be able to fight back'. It was a moment of clarity for her, of understanding Tony in a way she simply hadn't before. Whether she kept the powers or not, all it really meant was that she'd be a bit more understanding of the anxiety at the root of Tony's obsession with rebuilding the armour over and over and over.

"Is it bad that she got a taste of the action, awful that she doesn’t get to continue beating down megalomaniacs"

Is it bad that she might not want to? This is the woman who was horrified and almost quit on the spot when her boss's suit came back with bullet holes. This is the woman who quit at the end of IM2 because her 'body literally couldn't handle the stress'. This doesn't make her weak, it just makes her not an amazon warrior. Sometimes it's reflex to see a woman who isn't eating gunpowder and crapping bullets (pardon my language) and assume it's because she's being portrayed as a 'weak female' because we've had to be on guard for that sort of thing.

BUT, sometimes a person is just a person regardless of their gender. Pepper's strength lies in the cooperate world, not on the physical battlefield, and that's 100% okay so long as it's because that's what she *chooses* and not what is being chosen for her.

(And yes, again, there's always the notion of 'but she doesn't want to because she's been written that way'. Unfortunately, there's not much we can do with that argument.)

As to future Marvel movies... Ironically, what I would kill to see would be a movie about Black Widow's story... with a focus on the emotional. We *know* she's tough, she's had a couple of movies to prove it. There were a couple of moments in Avengers where she has brief moments of fear but rallied quickly, often without allowing any sign of her fear to be exposed to others - that emotional control and repression is what I'm most interested in. This is the woman who was raised and trained as a child assassin, who infiltrated and betrayed people left and right until finally falling in with SHIELD - that's a story I'd love to see and I don't think we will because I think the producers don't think their audience is 'ready' for it. And, better to not do it than to do it badly, right?

The most offensive moment to me in terms of strong/weak female depiction in Marvel movies? IM2, when Black Widow sauntered into the diner and sat in the booth. Ignoring the camera starting at her butt (hip?), she sat down with closed off body language - arms crossed on the table, gaze set on Tony - and Fury was hanging all over her. Ergh, creeped me out. :P