Monday, September 9, 2013

Pepper Potts Gets Her Violence On (Iron Man 3)

Continuing in the trend of bringing you piping hot reviews from movies that came out six months ago, let’s talk about Iron Man 3. I’ll give you a second to rewind your brain and try to remember what exactly it was about again.

That’s just the thing, isn’t it? Because there have been a lot of superhero movies this summer. And I’ve seen nearly all of them. Actually, I might have seen all of them. (Man of Steel, The Wolverine, Kick-Ass 2…yes, yes I have). After a while, they’ve all started to blend into one big slurry of hero-arcs and catchphrases.

But let’s try, let’s really try, to remember this one. It may not be as immediately iconic as the first Iron Man was, or as immediately awful as the second, but it does have some virtues. First of all, it was the first one of this series to rely heavily on a script, which served it very well. Also, it had prominent female characters not relied on wholly for sex appeal, which was nice, albeit underdone. And finally, it gave us some really phenomenal character development for Pepper.

Oh, did you think I was going to say Tony? Well, he got some good stuff too, but I really want to talk about Ms. Virginia Potts here, because not only is she the more interesting person in that relationship, she’s also the one whose storyline was both compelling and problematic. Which is just grand, from where I’m sitting.

Pepper Potts is the rare female character who has actually been enhanced by her translation to film. It seems hard to believe, but Gwyneth Paltrow has done an amazing job playing this character, and the character herself has been the rare woman to come along and actually outshine her male romantic interest. And I absolutely love that.

Let’s look at the trajectory so far. In Iron Man, Potts was the stern but loving assistant. She picked up Tony’s dry-cleaning, paid his bills, and ran his life, all the while keeping him out of messes and putting up with his constant stream of one-night stands. But then he came back and admitted his love for her, and she thought about it, and eventually decided that she might be all right with dating him. Just a little.

Then, in Iron Man 2, she and Tony really did date. Oh, there were complications along the way, Natalie Rushman shaped complications, but still. They got through out. Also, he gave her his company, because as Tony rightfully recognized, Pepper was already doing the work of a CEO, and now she got to be one in her own right. Because she freaking deserved it.

Well done, Marvel Movie Universe. But there’s more.

In Avengers we really didn’t get to see much of Pepper, though we saw more of her than of most other MMU women, but we still knew that she was behind the scenes being epic. Her moments with Tony in the Stark Tower implied that not only was the company doing well, and she was excelling at her job, she was also enjoying their relationship, as it settled into something real, and lasting.

So finally we have Iron Man 3, and what that does for all of this character development. It does a lot, I have to say. But it also does very little. It’s complicated, and while I dislike the bad bits, I kind of like that there are bad bits in there. But we’ll get to that in a moment.

The plot of Iron Man 3 is anything but simple, and I don’t feel like going into super specific details here, so we’re going to be as brief as possible. A terrorist calling himself the Mandarin shows up and starts terrorizing America. Tony has massive PTSD issues as a result of his near-death in Avengers, and tries to deal without involving Pepper. Meanwhile, Pepper is courted by an up and coming tech firm that wants Stark’s investment.

This new tech firm, called Advanced Idea Mechanics (or AIM), seeks to enhance human brain chemistry in order to make people basically invincible. It’s pretty much the same plotline as the mad scientist in The Amazing Spiderman, only here, instead of turning people into weird lizards, it makes everyone kind of spontaneously combust.

Tony makes a threat against the Mandarin, as a result his house gets blown up. He goes into hiding. The Iron Man armor breaks and he has to figure out what to do without it. Lots of character growth happens. Meanwhile, Pepper is kidnapped by AIM, who are the real bad guys in all of this, and forcibly injected with Extremis, their combustion happy drug.

Tony shows up, there’s a showdown, lots of Iron Man suits, etc. And then Pepper comes in and kicks everyone’s asses, completely and totally finishing the fight. And she and Tony live happily ever after.

Yeah, I know, that was way simplified and it was still like four paragraphs.

At any rate. Pepper’s storyline is actually the most compelling part of the movie, for two simple reasons. Well, probably more like three. The third is that it’s pretty much the only part of the movie that’s easy to follow. But the first two are this: she is by far the most relatable character in the film and her character is taken in a down right shocking direction.

Let’s address those in order, shall we? So in terms of Pepper’s relatability, I don’t feel like I have to make that strong a case for it, but I’ll go ahead anyway. Pepper is a normal woman. Oh sure, she’s six feet tall and also wears heels, and by the way she’s the best CEO/girlfriend/person ever, but she’s still pretty normal. She’s just got a better normal than we do. She’s good at her job because she tries and she’s worked hard to get where she is. She’s a great girlfriend because she really listens and cares. She is deeply invested in her relationship with Tony, and she knows it takes work. She’s willing to do that work.

What makes her super duper relatable, though, is that Tony doesn’t always seem all that willing to do his share of the work. Early in the film, Pepper comes home to find a present from Tony suspended from the roof of their house. Now, she’s dating Tony Stark, so I’m pretty sure Pepper’s got a good handle on stuff like this, but it’s still a giant bunny. With breasts.

And then she comes inside, only to be seduced, not by Tony, but by an experimental set of armor he’s building, while he himself beta tests it down in the lab. They fight. Then they make up and go to bed.

But in bed, her significant other has a nightmare, and when she tries to wake him, she’s attacked by another set of armor. It tries to kill her, and only stops after a verbal command from said significant other. Pepper calmly picks up her pillow and goes to sleep in the guest bedroom.

I read a few blogs after the movie came out that condemned Pepper for that little moment. Because Tony was obviously hurting, clearly going through some deep PTSD stuff, and what does Pepper do? She walks away.

Really, that was the moment that made me love her.

We’ve seen female characters who are good. We’ve seen women who will sacrifice and slave and sweat and make their lives hell to care for their men. Pepper has been one of those women not a few times herself. So really think about how wonderful it is to look at a movie screen and see something else. To see a woman who really loves her man take a breath and decide that at this moment, she’s not fighting the good fight. She’s not being brave or noble or courageous. She’s going the frick to bed.

I hate to say it, but that part was probably my favorite bit of the movie. Now, there are other moments with Pepper that I loved. I didn’t care as much about the parts where she was a perfect CEO/girlfriend/person, because those are boring. I liked the bits where she wasn’t. Where she was visibly annoyed with Tony. Where she just wanted him to get over it. Where she was slightly seduced by that smooth guy from AIM. Where Pepper got to be human.

Now, to finish out the movie, Pepper later ends up in the Iron Man suit, and actually saves Tony while their house is being destroyed. After, she has to deal with not knowing if he’s alive or dead, and then she gets kidnapped. AIM forcibly injects her with the Extremis concoction, and Pepper undergoes some pretty excruciating pseudo-science, only to be rescued by Tony and then moments later fall to her seeming death.

If the movie had actually ended there, I probably would have thrown my popcorn at the screen. Because come on. A female character dying in a superhero movie in order to give the male character a more developed and poignant backstory? Puh-lease.

Fortunately for my popcorn, that wasn’t the end. Pepper rose from the ashes, so to speak, filled with the fire that causes some people to combust, she managed to fight off all the remaining attackers, save Tony, and end all the violence pretty much on her own.

That’s right. Pepper Potts arose from the dead in the third act of a superhero action flick in order to steal the climax from the titular hero. Tony does very little fighting in the end of that movie. Most of it’s Pepper. And then when it’s over, she sort of slumps over, and utters the absolutely fabulous line, “Wow. That was really violent.”

This is the second part. Because this scene, the climax of the film, is both amazing and awful from a character standpoint, and I love every square inch of that for exactly that reason.

Let’s start with the awful. Pepper as a character is not about violence or brute strength, or really any kind of physical interaction. She’s smart, really smart, and classy, and generally more on the “I’ll rule you but I won’t touch you” kind of things. Making her into a scantily clad action heroine in the last minutes of the movie rather negated all of her previous character development in favor of showing us some rock hard abs and a lot of punching.

It also sends the message that a female character isn’t strong unless she can punch a man through a steel shipping container and look hot while doing it. Which I find objectionable.

But. Here’s the part that makes me really happy.

Pepper saved the day. Not Tony, not Rhodey, not even SHIELD, swooping in at the last second. Pepper is the one who actually ended it all. She was the one most directly affected by the evil actions of AIM, and for once the woman who was the victim was the one who dispensed justice. No one acted on her behalf. No one rescued Pepper. She did it all her damn self.

Tell me that isn’t making you super happy to think about. Because I know I am doing a happy dance right here at my desk just remembering.

Virginia “Pepper” Potts is a CEO and a girlfriend and kind of the most awesome person ever, but up until that moment, she still needed someone to fight her battles for her sometimes. And that was the instant when she didn’t anymore. She was hurt, and no one had to take care of it for her.

It gets better though. Because like I said above, the whole violent, physical thing isn’t very Pepper. She’s not the superhero type. She doesn’t want to be, and that’s okay. What I love here is that after the violence is over, they let her be human again. They let her be a little disturbed by what she just did. They let her stay Pepper.

I don’t know what the future holds for our very favorite ginger CEO, but I know that I trust Marvel right now. They’ve done right by her, in a way that isn’t common at all. So whatever comes, I’m just happy with where we’ve been.


  1. Pepper:"Who's a steaming hot mess, now?"
    Tony:"Actually, it's still kind of a toss up."

    I agree with what you said about her reaction to Tony's PTSD/night terror/being attacked by a suit. It's easy to tell people what they *should do* fact is, she was scared and mad and tired. People don't have text book perfect reactions, it made her believable. She showed that she could be sympathetic and empathetic 100x over, this was the one time she wasn't.

    1. I may or may not have the world's biggest girlcrush on Pepper. Because she's human and relatable and yet still so freaking awesome. She's actually genuinely aspirational. Sigh.

  2. I *do* find her sympathetic in that scene. It's not as if she was swearing off trying to help Tony deal with his demons - she'd just learned that those demons could prove to be an actual danger to her.

  3. Something else I liked was that it could so very easily have fallen into the trap of Maya still lusting after Tony all these years later, and seeing Pepper as a romantic rival. And Tony thinks she does, delivering the good girl bad girl speech right on cue.

    But when we see her reactions to Pepper's suffering from the Extermis, we don't see any glee at a rival, we see guilt. Granted, it's guilt that comes to a head with a threat to Tony, but it's sparked by Pepper.

    1. I really liked their portrayal of Maya, and while I'm really annoyed that they killed her off (because that would have been an awesome recurring morally ambiguous character) I actually kind of liked that they established the stakes well in that scene. Also agree that it was so nice to see her not being a romantic interest. Just a really great scientist. Yay!