The Decline of Pepper Potts… Iron Man 1-3

Louisa Leontiades Beastly & Beautiful, Film & TV, Film/TV-Superhero

Catching up on Marvel movies has left a bad taste in my mouth. Iron man 3 sucks (and it isn’t just the lack of AC/DC on the soundtrack). The final chapter in theĀ Iron Man Trilogy shows a seemingly intelligent and empowered woman reduced to a victim. Loving Tony Stark has left Pepper Potts in a codependent mess.

I’ve been watching Marvel movies overtime lately in an effort to come up to speed before catching Guardians of the Galaxy at the cinema (that’s a lot of one liners from Robert Downey Jr). In Iron Man 1, Pepper is loyal and professional. But she quite patently despises much of what Tony Stark does until he returns a changed man from Afghanistan and closes down the weapons manufacturing division of his firm. It is the act of a man who has grown through experience.

I saw young Americans killed by the very weapons I created to defend them and protect them. And I saw that I had become part of a system that is comfortable with zero-accountability.

And Pepper having been ‘in loco parentis’ until then, starts to feel much more attraction to Tony… the man with a newfound purpose.

We’re used to seeing a woman used as pure context for male brawn in Hollywood. We used to seeing them be rescued and then clean up the messes. We’re used to the women falling in love with the men, not because they’re emotionally healthy or in any way good for them but because they’ve managed to kick a bunch of terrorist ass. We are not used to seeing the female lead reject the man when he’s just saved the world from another raging giant metal narcissist.

No matter how proud she might be of the ‘man he’s become’ Pepper’s not about to get into a relationship with a man who treats her like shit (hurrah), even if she might still work for him.

8 months later Pepper in Iron Man 2, has deservedly become the CEO of Stark Industries. As Tony’s life spirals out of control with alcholism and a death wish, she runs the company with conscientious responsibility refusing Tony’s offer to drop everything and retreat to Venice when the going gets tough. A strike for feminism? Not really.

It’s been said by some that Potts’ evolution demonstrates Tony’s equal regard for her and her equal status within the marvel-universe [The Evolution of Pepper Potts]. Yet Tony remains the ‘hero’ and Pepper Potts remains the thorn in his side ‘spoiling his fun’.

Pointed commentary from the in-movie media belittles her as an unqualified pinhead, whilst her new job consists of ineffectually battling trade marks, putting out Tony’s fires and ‘taking the heat for it’. She might be CEO, but only inasmuch as she is still Tony Stark’s rescuer, with considerably less power than before because her title falsely represents her actual job. An assistant dressed up as a CEO, is still an assistant (but with a much heavier workload), substituting for Tony Stark whilst he gets on with the ‘real’ job of saving the world and fighting Vanko.

And so the movie finishes when the CEO of the most powerful company in the world is rescued from the sidewalk by the new, upgraded Tony Stark, and promptly resigns her position because she can’t handle the stress after one week. Tony says –

‘You deserve so much better’ [than this job]

…and rewards her for resigning with what she really deserves (a relationship with him).

And so we come to Iron Man 3 where according to Hollywood.com ‘she embraces every feminist ideal that we have held against her in the past: beauty, brains, talent, and success.’ Really?

Our first glimpse of the new Pepper back to being CEO, shows her flutteringly flummoxed by the charms of a dashing new character who will later on turn out to be Tony Stark’s new arch enemy Aldich Killian. It’s a subtle reduction of her intelligence and the harbinger of what’s to come. Because later she’s inevitably outwitted, captured and objectified by him as ‘a decent incentive’ to lure Iron Man to his potential doom thus fulfilling her ultimate purpose of damsel in distress.

But the nail in the feminist coffin comes in the finale. For Pepper Potts has been enhanced a la Captain America with super soldier serum Extremis. She’s finally validated as a powerful woman, not through her acumen, nor her well deserved promotion, but through strength and muscle, Hollywood style. Then after she rises from apparent death to blow the man who fooled her to smithereens and save Tony Stark’s ass, she turns around and says in perfect Stepford stereotype ~

‘Oh my god, that was really violent […] Am I going to be okay?’

To which he replies

‘…I think I can figure this out. I can get you better. That’s what I do, I fix stuff.’

Power is not what a woman wants or needs. She cannot control it. Because Pepper is not new and improved, she is broken. Luckily Iron Man is there to ‘fix’ her.