WARNING! This post contains massive spoilers on Iron Man 3, Captain America and slight spoilers on Downtown Abbey
Now, obviously I’m being hyperbolic with the title but yesterday someone posted this link to a Facebook group I’m in and I really couldn’t disagree more. The thing is that in a time when the number of female speaking characters are going down, Iron Man 3 did something completely amazing with the character of Pepper Potts that goes against that whole trend.
I can’t save you if I’m dead
I’ve seen a lot of comments about that scene when Tony’s having a nightmare and the suit attacks Pepper who’s trying to wake him up and most of them are pretty unkind toward Pepper. That for me is incomprehensible. Pepper has pretty obviously put up with a hell of a lot from Tony since New York what with him having PTSD and she’s obviously been very supportive. But when Tony himself becomes a threat to her safety she doesn’t make excuses for him but removes herself from a situation that has literally become a threat to her life. She can not help him if she’s dead. I can’t understand why so many people miss this. That’s not some random robot that’s attacking her in the night, that’s a representation of Tony, as good as if it was Tony himself who was attacking her. And she has the strength to take herself out of that situation while still remaining loyal, loving and supportive of him. A lot of people rag on battered women on how they should just leave that situation and not let their man hit them but that’s hard. Really hard. And most people, whether men or women, just don’t have the strength to do that.
Throw your life on the line
Let’s move on to Pepper wearing the Iron Man suit. Tony pretty much thrusts it upon her in a moment of crisis to protect her but then she literally throws herself between Tony and the danger he’s facing from the ceiling caving in. Now, you have to understand three things to see what a momentous occasion this is.
The first is that unlike Tony, she isn’t accustomed to wearing the suit. She doesn’t know its limitations or its weaknesses.
The second is that in that split-second she has to make that decision she doesn’t have the time to weigh the implications of the fact that she is wearing the suit. So not only does she have any experience of whether the suit can take being under the collapsing roof but given the situation and the limits of human reaction in a crisis situation, she reacts as if she didn’t have the suit.
For the third you need a little bit of movie canon, which Marvel has been weaving in nicely through this recent bout of movies. That is of course why Steve Rogers became Captain America. Steve was a scrawny kid from Queens who did poorer than any of his fellow candidates for the super soldier program. The Colonel in charge of the program wanted him gone from the word go. The only reason Steve was chosen over all the other candidates was because when the colonel dropped what the recruits thought was a live grenade, Steve threw himself on it to save everyone while all the other recruits took cover, even throwing others in the way to save themselves. The point was made very explicitly for Captain America but it also holds true for Pepper. And what Pepper did in a time of danger was throw herself in front of the danger to save someone else. It worked out all right for Steve because the grenade was a test and not actually live and it worked out for Pepper because she was wearing the Iron Man suit but the thing that makes both of them heroes is the fact that they reacted naturally, unable to gauge the reality of the situation.
Power me up
A lot of virtual ink has been spilled about how Killian kidnaps Pepper only to motivate Tony to create the cure and I just don’t think that’s it. I mean yes, Pepper’s very important to him and it does serve as a motivation and as a ticking bomb for Tony but I don’t think that’s the reason Killian takes Pepper specifically and not anyone else Tony considers special like Happy or Rhodes. I think Killian takes Pepper specifically to make himself a Frankenstein’s bride. From the first time the two meet on-screen it’s obvious that Killian thinks he can just sweep her off her feet. She resists, not because of Tony but because she thinks that what he’s doing is morally questionable at the very least.
And by the way, can we for a moment revel in the fact that the bad guy is the bad guy partly because he tries to make Pepper into a prize to be won? Have you EVER seen that in Hollywood movie? I can’t think of a single instance.
Unlike ms Castillo (the writer over at Bitch Magazine), I don’t think that Pepper lost her regenerative power at the end of the movie. The epilogue monologue distinctly says they “stabilized” her which I think means that unlike everyone else who underwent the Extremis treatment she won’t be at risk of blowing up while still retaining the regenerative powers given by the treatment. And I’m totally crossing my fingers to have them use it in one or more of the upcoming films.
The thing about the powers and the suit is that having the powers thrust upon Pepper come from a source other than Tony is that it enforces her independence of him. Consider War Machine. Pepper starts the Iron Man series as being Tony’s PA and therefore a direct underling. Rhodes starts and goes on throughout the series as being an agent of the Air Force and technically his own person. But the thing is that Pepper has been utterly independent of Tony from the beginning whereas Rhodes basically lives and breathes him. If the movie would’ve had Pepper saving the day in a suit then that would’ve made her more dependent on Tony which would’ve weakened her character. Iron Man is also basically an implement of violence which Pepper obviously abhors. That small, horrified “That was so violent!” after she goes on (a pretty understandable and well established to have a connection to the Extremis treatment) psychotic break and kills Killian I think pretty much says it all. The fact that her power is regenerative rather than directly violent hints to me that we might see more of it in the future.
The green-eyed monster
Can we go back to that scene in the office where we meet the changed Killian for the first time? It’s pretty heavily hinted at throughout the movie that Happy is in love with Pepper and when Killian walks in with his charm and good looks, Happy calls Tony in a huff basically going “Dude! He’s mackin’ on our girl, come stop it right now!” and Tony trusts her to handle whatever Killian can throw at her. Killian in that scene is charming to the extreme and Pepper is obviously effected. I mean who wouldn’t be; here you have a gorgeous, charming specimen of the gender you’re attracted to, showing you wondrous, beautiful things in an intimate seeming environment. How many movies would have played off that small moment of attraction as just another threat for the male lead to face? But that’s not what happens here. Pepper retains her wits about her despite the attraction and sees implications Killian would rather she didn’t and I’m betting most audience members missed (I know I did. What can I say? I’m a sucker for stars.) and ultimately turns him down because when it comes down to it, she doesn’t trust him to handle that kind of power.
Beat that Bechdel!
There’s something more about Iron Man 3 that I’ve seen mentioned other than in passing on Tumblr; Iron Man 3 is very possibly the first superhero movie EVER to pass the Bechdel test with flying colors. In case you don’t know about it, the Bechdel test is basically 1) two named female characters 2) talking with each other 3) about something other than a man. Sounds very simple and yet probably 90% of movies released in any given year don’t pass it. Think about that; women form over half of the human population, yet less than 30% of speaking characters on-screen and in most Hollywood produced films never meet each other and when they do, they spend their time talking about male characters as if everything in their whole world revolved just around men. Then we come to Iron Man 3 and we have Pepper and Maya sitting around in a hotel room with two different men in common in their lives and yet they talk about the joy of discovery in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Medicine) field and scientific ethics, not to mention doing both in a coherent and complex (well, for an action flick anyway) manner. That’s huge. That pretty literally never happens in a Hollywood movie, not even the minor ones.
Iron Man 3 is something that should by no means get the title of the most feminist movie of the year. For all that I love in the franchise and especially this reincarnation of it, it’s about a billionaire playboy and his life-size action doll. So what does it say about our current movie culture that I’m only half joking about that title?