Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Let’s Talk About Pepper Potts: Iron Man’s Albatross.

As Gwyneth Paltrow’s quaintly named Pepper Potts braces to appear in Iron Man 3, her fourth Marvel movie, I have to pose the question. Is anyone a genuine fan of this character? And what really motivates her repeat appearances? Is her character crucial to Tony Stark’s ongoing development? Is she stuck there purely for continuity? Or is it motivated by Gwyneth’s star power? Is Pepper Potts, in fact, the figurative dead albatross weighing heavily around Iron Man’s neck, like a skinny, quipping blonde tie, forever holding him back from the debaucherous James Bond lifestyle he seems otherwise destined to have?

Join me for what is bound to be a worthwhile and productive discussion... after the jump!

The real question is, what purpose does she serve? And, to her credit, there’s a strong dynamic between Pepper and Tony, especially in Iron Man. Stark is a manchild who needs to be managed and Paltrow does a good job of intervening when necessary but always maintaining her poise and dignity. She’s a good foil for Tony and as part of his staff she’s enjoyable to watch. However, as a romantic interest - as seen in the convoluted and mostly improvised Iron Man 2 - the dynamic shifts and, for me at least, everything begins to fall apart.

I feel that, from that point, she exists to make Stark more mature, responsible and accountable - i.e. give him a character arc - and if Iron Man 2 was the last film appearance of Iron Man ever then seeing him grow up a little might actually ride. But Iron Man’s adventures are ongoing and I don’t want to see a mature, responsible and accountable Stark - I want to see him a billionaire genius who is reckless, debaucherous and awesome.

Think of Bruce Wayne who fakes the role of a womanising idiot playboy but is really dark, gritty and emo when he fights crime. But the great thing about Iron Man is that he can be a womanising genius manchild playboy, and then act the exact same way when fighting crime. So why does Pepper Potts have to spoil all his fun.

“Does she spoil all his fun?” you ask, lips pursed and eyebrow raised. Well sure she does! This is the guy who would have banged the glorious Black Widow in Iron Man 2 if it wasn’t for his forced relationship with the older and more responsible staff member name after a seasoning receptacle. And don’t give me that, “But the Widow thing was shallow and meaningless compared to Pepper. Natasha was manipulating him,” because I’ve seen The Avengers and guess what, Black Widow was awesome. Now we’re all, “Ooh will Hawkeye and Black Widow get together?” but let’s not forget that she was ready to rock Tony for his birthday. (At least that’s the way I remember it - I’m not in a hurry to watch that film again).

And speaking of The Avengers, Pepper Potts serves no purpose in that film beyond a bit of fan service. In fact she helps turning Tony’s introduction into a weird laugh-track-less sitcom. Seriously, Stark Tower is like the set of Friends as the two of them try to out-quip each other. Would Tony seriously turn down Scarjo’s catsuit in favour of Gwen’s Jurassic Park shorts? COME ON, PEOPLE! I know it’s shallow, but Tony is shallow. Don’t you want to see him go on crazy globe-trotting adventures where he’s meeting exotic women (briefly) like Bond! Or Indiana Jones! He was having a great time before he was married with children.

Now look - I am by no means saying that these are values that anyone should have in the real world. In the real world you probably SHOULD be responsible and accountable, and certainly respectful, and if you were a dick like Tony then things would go south for you pretty fast. And it’s great that in the real world everybody is married with children BUT THAT’S EXACTLY WHY WE SHOULD HAVE OUR ESCAPIST FANTASY! Let Stark do all the things that we can’t, devoid of (most) of the real world consequences. That’s the guy I want to be entertained by when these movies roll around. Not “Quip Time with Mom and Dad”. Seriously, I don’t care if Tony solves all his heart problems and S.H.I.E.L.D. forces him to wear the iron suit so that he can’t get anybody else pregnant! Whatever it takes! Just open up his options.

And if this sounds like immature male fantasy (and it is, but so is Bond and Indiana Jones and Batman) then let's flip it for a moment because I doubt that the female power fantasy is being Pepper Potts. I trust that most women don't watch these films wishing that they were at home running the accounts while Tony Stark saves the world by shooting into space with a nuclear missile. Not that I'm necessarily convinced that Whedon creates any female roles in The Avengers that fulfil any type of escapist fantasy for women. Maria Hill is serious and a little superfluous and I'll leave you to be the judge on Black Widow. But I still can't help but feel that Pepper Potts particularly is a stranded character who isn't really aimed to appeal to anybody.

So it’ll be interesting to see which direction Pepper takes in the forthcoming film. I figure it will go one of two ways, it’ll be either, “Hey, I’m a big star and I’m not going to keep doing this albatross role forever, time to phase me out of the story completely” or “Hey, I’m a big star and tired of wearing Jurassic Park shorts and quipping. Time to give me something big and unexpected to do! Hey! ...Why can’t I maybe wear the suit?”

A lot of big screen action hero girlfriends have died to free up our heroes and give them a moment of badass vengeance. But I’m not sure I’m even asking for that. I think, most of all - and as unlikely as it seems - I’d rather see Pepper simply return to the same dynamic that she had in the first Iron Man movie. Loyal but independant. Caring, but disapproving. The manager at the heart of Stark’s staff, alongside with the equally awful-named Happy Hogan, the computer voice, and the robot arm. I’d like to see a relationship that doesn’t end in death, but ends simply because it cannot work. Because she can’t change Tony. Can’t agree with all his choices. But can still be friends. It’ll never happen because I’m sure its far too dissatisfying for Paltrow, so I guess at best they’ll have to eventually kill her off and replace her with someone else. Someone cheaper I guess.

Maybe you love Pepper Potts! Defend her in the comments section and I'll come down there and fight you!


  1. I'm a big Pepper Potts fan! She's the one advantage Iron Man has over Batman - a woman who knows his entire story (sees the human behind the mask) and still sticks around! Not to mention that Tony would be an alcoholic bum sleeping in the gutter if Pepper wasn't there to quietly turn his crazy nonsense into a profitable company. Tony owes Pepper everything and he's lucky to have her...he treats her like crap, and I don't know why she puts up with it...

  2. I'm actually a huge Pepper Potts fan and I have been since Iron Man. Iron Man 2 is a pretty bad movie, unless you love laughing about Justin Hammer, which I do, but why should we single out Pepper? Sure they dropped the ball with her. Who didn't they drop the ball on in that movie? I'm not sure how you can have seen Avengers and think that Whedon didn't, in that movie, reproduce what Pepper and Tony had in Iron Man. I love that their relationship is both a business relationship and an intimate one. I think you could say the same of Tony's relationship with Rhodes. Tony needs both of them because they do respect him, but they won't let him destroy himself, and they don't hold his hand and put up with his shit. Tony doesn't really have what it takes to be a James Bond type - he's too much of an extremist, and he needs somebody to pull him back. Bond is disciplined, and remember, he's like Black Widow, a secret agent, and no matter how much he gives in he's still doing it all for Queen and Country and his pleasures come at a high price. But Tony isn't like that, and if he pursues anything out of self-interest he fucks himself over. So, arguing he should ditch the wife-type and just do what he likes is ignoring that if he did that he would never get ANYTHING done. The entire story arc Tony has in the MCU is just a neverending conga of being a self-obsessed playboy asshole until something happens to give him a reality check, or someone kicks his ass into it. In the first film it's a really traumatic experience, and Pepper; in the second film literally everyone, including Nick Fury and his SHIELD agents, has to fucking gang up on his dumb ass before he'll kick his shit in gear; in Avengers it's not until Agent Coulson appears to be dead that he's ready to do what it takes to bring down Loki.

    Also, I think you're doing a typical straight guy thing in your assumption that Tony could have gotten it on with Natasha, who shows absolutely nothing but contempt for him when she's not using him for SHIELD's purposes; globetrotting's not on the menu. And even though I'll concede Pepper's not a female power fantasy (not mine anyway, but I've read Vogue, and being a fashionable Paltrow-y CEO type seems to be a big one; you're forgetting how much power Potts really does have in the MCU) - if you think being the objectified babe rich men dispose of as quickly as they enjoy is a female power fantasy, you, too, need an ass-kicking. It's also kind of missing the point of Natasha's storyline in Iron Man 2 to look at her Natalie Rushman persona and think "yeah, that was real; that's what we need more of". When she puts on the catsuit and kicks a bunch of asses that's who she really is; when she sits at Nick Fury's right side and looks at Tony like he's a dog turd, that's who she really is. The way she uses typically male expectations of her to kick ass is a huge part of who Black Widow is, and Whedon made that a pretty big thing in Avengers. Tony couldn't tap that anywhere but his wildest dreams.

    1. (cont'd)
      And I think Tony craves some kind of rich white dude family life as much as he craves pleasure, and he seems to kind of waffle between those two impulses a lot. His own unresolved issues with the family life his father never gave him seem to drive him quite a lot, and his relationships with Potts and Rhodes both imply he does really value stability, he just can't go after it in a healthy or reliable way.

      Just not liking Potts is fair enough; I have to admit I grew up really liking Paltrow (Seven and Talented Mr. Ripley were major favorite films of mine in my adolescence, but I've never seen the Shakespeare movie she was most famous for. Idek) and I love Pepper, and didn't realize how polarizing she was as a character until like, this past year. But I do think the MCU has woven her into Tony's life pretty seamlessly and that demoting her or killing her off would be pretty ruinous and gross.

      Oh! And one last comment: I wholeheartedly endorse Pepper putting on the suit sometime and helping to save the day. That. Would. Rule.

    2. Thank you for a very well-considered response! I can't say that I really disagree with you (except maybe for the part about me needing an ass-kicking). As I said, I really enjoy the relationship in the first one, we agree the second is a disaster, and our biggest point of contention is her part in Avengers which I personally consider to be sitcom-esque fluff. That strikes me as the point where the relationship becomes a parody of itself. I think that if it continued on like that it would be a dead end.

      HOWEVER, since writing this article I've read some interviews with Shane Black about his approach to Pepper in Iron Man 3 and it really does sound like he's shaking things up and progressing it. So I certainly approach the next one with an open mind.

      And for the record, I have nothing against Gwyneth Paltrow as an actor. I like her too. I just feel like her character was beginning to hold Tony back. I don't like the mature, responsible Tony as much as the fun one.