Warning: This article contains major spoilers for "Iron Man 3"
Is Pepper Potts the feminist superhero icon we've been waiting for? The current critical narrative is certainly pointing in that direction, but I'm not so sure.
“Pepper Potts runs the show at Stark Industries,” says the Hollywood Reporter's review of “Iron Man 3.” “[Gwyneth] Paltrow gets to play Pepper as a figure finally fed up with a boyfriend more mindful of armor than amour,” Film.com's own Will Goss quips. Hollywood.com even ran a piece stating “You Can't Hate Gwyneth Paltrow After Iron Man 3.” (I never got the memo that I was supposed to hate her in the first place, but then again I love everyone.) The thing is this: yes, Paltrow's portrayal of Pepper Potts is, apart from a great tongue twister, a step-up from the “insert love interest here” roles most women get offered in tentpole films, but it isn't that revolutionary. The character is, at its core, presented as just another toy to tinker with in Tony Stark's garage.
Pepper Potts began the Iron Man franchise as the live-in Mom to the genius bachelor war profiteer playboy Tony Stark. In addition to keeping Stark's calendar she was in charge of disposing of the previous night's bedroom conquest with as swift of a walk of shame as possible. While she didn't approve, she certainly enabled. It was implied, however, that Potts saw the inner strength, honor and courage within Stark that took him getting kidnapped and nearly killed to recognize in himself.
Potts is certainly Stark's equal (if not superior) in the Hepburn and Tracy-ish screwball repartee. But to Stark (and the point of view of the film, for “he is Iron Man,” as we're frequently reminded) she's not a partner, she's a maid.
Tony hands her the keys to Stark Industries with the attitude of “here, you do it,” when he decides to become a full time superhero. “I need you,” he frequently implores. Yes, Potts is more than capable, but the rascal Stark also uses it as an excuse to not have to worry about the details of his fortune (which underwrites his superhero-dom) and, not immaterially, get Pepper out of his hair.
It was known in fanboy circles for some time that Pepper would don an Iron Man suit in this film. It happens, but it is not quite the heroic moment you might think.
When The Mandarin and AIM attack Stark's cantilevered home over the sea there's glass and marble flying in every direction. The newest iteration of the Iron Man suit can be summoned from wherever the component parts are and – whap – attach themselves to a body and power on. Stark has them fly onto Pepper to save her from the ensuing destruction and then tells her to grab Rebecca Hall's character and get to safety. Potts is quick on the uptake and does fly in the suit for a few seconds, but it's done as a goof – a Goldie Hawn-like scramble. She saves herself and the unconscious damsel, but in a goony bird fashion, not a moment of kick-assery.
The second act of “Iron Man 3” leaves Pepper behind as Stark roots out the bad guys. (Don't worry, he sends her a voice mail.) He does need a companion, though, so the script provides him with a scrappy midwestern boy. He, too, is gifted at making with the zings, so it's kinda like having Pepper along, but not really. She only pops up again when a damsel in distress needs to get rescued.
After a great deal of lip service about how Tony's actions are only about protecting the one person he loves, Potts plummets to her death in a fiery heap of twisted metal. We in the audience know that everything will be all right, but Stark doesn't know this. The movie shouldn't know this, and yet Stark is real quick to just jump back into standard fighting mode against his foe.
Yeah, he's got to fight for vengeance and because if he doesn't he'll get killed, but does he have to make wisecracks, too? I guess Downey's Iron Man will always be Downey's Iron Man, but if there was ever a moment to go with pure rage, this would be it. I know the Marvel movies make a point of not being brooding and dark like their arch-nemesis DC, but this bit of staying in character shatters the in-movie realism.
In time Potts reveals herself to not only be fine, but better, with some superhuman powers to match that of her beau. Stark's reaction is mixed. He's impressed (and he likes that she's practically nude) but as soon as they are out of danger he vows to “get this fixed.” Never does he suggest that having a life partner with her own super powers might be rad.
I'm not dissing Paltrow. She's quite entertaining in the role. I'm not even dissing Shane Black or Marvel or the state of comic book movies today. I remain very much a fan of this all (and agree with my esteemed colleague Will Goss in his overall assessment of the film.) I just think we should reel in the rhetoric around Pepper a bit before we pronounce this film as anything other than a dopey adolescent male fantasy. Star typing the words Pepper Potts into your Google search box and it will autocomplete with “Pepper Potts Shorts.” That, unfortunately, tells you a great deal about how she is presented and perceived by large portions of the audience.