Marvellous and DCent: Pepper Potts

I wonder if we ever see Pepper Potts again. Currently it is unlikely that there will be another Iron Man movie, consequently if Pepper Potts ever turns up again, it will be in a very marginal role. On the plus side, that makes it much easier to talk about her. It is very unlikely that there will be any major changes concerning her character in future installments. If you haven’t seen the Iron Man movies yet, proceed with caution, I will spoil some aspects of them in my discussion, including one major spoiler for the third one.

What I knew about Iron Man beforehand:

Well, I knew he was a millionaire flying around in a suits and fights the Mandarin, but that’s more or less. I saw some cartoons which featured him, but I knew nothing about his origin. Therefore I went into the movies with next to know background knowledge about the character.

What I think about the movies:

That they are all okay, and yes, that includes the first Iron Man movie. All three have elements I really like, but all three fail for me in more or less the same aspects: villain, character development and climax.

I needed some time to figure out what the problem with the first movie is, aside from being utterly predictable. Like I said, I knew nothing about the franchise, but the moment I saw Obadiah Stane I thought: “That’s the bad guy!” He didn’t even say a word.

Now, normally that wouldn’t be a problem, after all, bad guys are supposed to creep the audience out, so far so good. But I am also supposed to believe that Tony Stark trusts this guy. Just looking at the script, we are talking about a deep betrayal Tony suffers during the movie. But I don’t feel it because for a betrayal there has to be trust. The problem is not exactly that the audience knows that this is most likely the character who will most likely turn on the protagonist, the problem is that there is never a sense of trust between Tony and Obadiah in the first place, and I blame the acting for it. It is there in the script, but not in the performance, because there is nothing “fatherly” or “friendly” in the interaction to begin with.

There are also a lot of other elements which are wonky, which mostly boil down to mixed messages. For example it seems to start out as a critical look on the notion that the guy with the biggest weapon will win a war. But in the end, it shifts more to the guy with the biggest weapon will win, so better ensure that you are the one who holds it, because you can’t trust anyone else to do so. And I can’t get behind this idea.

At the same time, I wanted to punch Tony Stark when he just closed his weapon production from one day to another. Not that I disagree with the idea to do so, but he does have a responsibility towards his company and the people working for it. To be honest I really can’t disagree with the board of directors trying to get rid of him after this stunt. On the plus side, it does make kind of sense that Tony is just as irresponsible when he tries to do the right thing as he is in general. But it nevertheless rubs me the wrong way.

There is a constant discrepancy between what is said in the movie and what is actually shown. We are told that Tony had no friends before his stint, that his life was empty. But that’s not exactly true. Even if we discount Happy on the grounds that his role was expanded in later movies and Pepper on the grounds that she is working for Tony, there is still Rhodey and (if we are supposed to believe that there was ever a close relationship) Stane. Nothing in their behaviour changes after Tony comes back from the cave, it is Tony who changes – and let’s be honest here, it is not as if he is really nicer towards his friends, he only pays more attention to what his company actually does with his inventions.

The main problem I have with the first movie is that I don’t really see much of a davelopment in Tony. Pre-Afghanistan Tony would also be against selling weapons to terrorists. It is less that the character changes and more that he gets more information which leads him to reconsider his prior actions.

To me the movie is a bunch of missed opportunities. For example, I think the period in which Tony is captured could use more interaction between him and Raza. Due to the fact that it is mostly Yinsen who does the negotiating, the relationship between hero and villain is not as intensive as it could be. Likewise I don’t understand why Tony doesn’t investigate his company from the get go, parallel to building his suit. But what really falls short is the third act. After all this clever scheming, Obadiah just starts acting like a maniac? Why? It doesn’t make any sense whatsoever and lacks a proper built-up. All in all the first half of the movie is outstanding, but it really looses steam in the second half (which is a common problem with the origin stories Marvel did so far).

A lot of people claim that the problem of the second movie is the fact that is was more written to be a puzzle piece of a larger universe. I disagree. In fact, the involvement of S.H.I.E.L.D is the best part in it, and I wouldn’t mind if Tony’s “house arrest” would get a little bit more time. What doesn’t work is, again, the villains, and this is not a matter of the length of the screen time for them, but how they are portrayed. The time spend on them could be way better used than on a stupid running gag involving a parrot. They are also not really well thought out.

Take Whiplash. Supposedly smart enough to build what nobody but Tony Stark can. Which he then uses for an attack on him. And then goes in prison waiting for someone to spring him? Nothing about this makes really sense. Between him and Justin Hammer, Hammer is the better villain by far, because he actually has some sort of connection to Tony which is not totally far-fetched and convoluted. But Hammer is so pathetic that I can’t even believe that he would be able to lead a company. It is one thing to make him the poor mans Tony Stark, trying to copy his charm without success. It is another thing to make him an incompetent idiot who allows more or less everyone to walk all over him.

And again, none of those problems are there because of the extended universe aspect. They are the result of bad writing, which doesn’t really care for the motivation of the characters, and which barely allows Tony to interact with anyone but his computer. The part when he is under house arrest is the best exactly because there is interaction between him, Fury, Natasha and Coulson, while the rest of the movie is mostly either Vanko and Hammer playing off each other or Tony talking to Jarvis.

Which brings us to the last movie. Which might be the worst of the bunch on the grounds that in this one Tony is the one who acts like an idiot. In the first movie he already makes a couple of mistakes, but he is recovering from quite a ordeal. In the second movie he is dying, which explains a lot of his erratic behaviour. In the third movie, though, you would think that we finally get to see a more “grown up” Tony Stark, a genius who plans ahead. Instead he acts stupider than ever. He regresses instead of progresses.

Which is frustrating, because I actually like the ideas behind Iron Man 3 the most. I love that the Battle of New York had consequences for Tony’s psyche. The concept of a cover story for exploding people is great. The fake Mandarin doesn’t offend me at all, I see it as a clever commentary on the original Mandarin. Let’s be honest here, the Mandarin was originally born out of anti-Asian sentiments. It is a product of the “yellow plague” attitude and I really like how aware the movie is of the fact. It is, all in all, a clever commentary on how easily we create what a German would call “Feindbilder” (freely translated: enemy images). We like to give our fears faces so that we have something we can fight against. But what we actually fight is, at best, just a symptom, at worst our own demons.

But: A movie is not reality. It still needs a good villain. And if the fake Mandarin doesn’t qualify, Killian should. But him being a villain was telegraphed so heavily, he ends up being one of the most cliché and boring villains ever. I always thought that it would have been a great twist if after all the foreshadowing, he hadn’t been the villain after all. Why not making Tony’s one-night stand the villain? As long as he snubbing her is not used as motivation, but simply her being dedicated to science no matter the cost, she could have been a very interesting villain.

Also, while I appreciate Tony dealing with PTSD, it’s not handled particularly well. I am actually not sure why he suddenly gets better. But what really is the tipping point in this movie for me is the ending. It is difficult enough for me to buy into the concept that Iron Man just removes the arc reactor for good, because the thing is such an integral part of his character. But on top of this it is very much rushed. Tony spend a whole movie trying to find a solution for the arc reactor slowly poisoning him. And he could have simply removed it all the time? That doesn’t really fly that well. And it ties back to something which is often critizised about the MCU.

The fact that nobody of importance dies in the movies has become a running joke by now. It is often claimed that the lack of consequences in the MCU ruins the gravitas of the story. I tend to disagree. Because you don’t necessarily need to kill off a character to show consequences. Steve’s big sacrifice leads to him loosing everything he knew and having to adjust to a very different world. Bruce Banner will always be forced to life with the hulk. Natasha will never be able to make truly up for the red in her ledger. When aliens attack it has a profund impact on how humans see their world. And the arc reactor is Tony’s consequence. Removing it felt for the first time ever like cheating (same for getting rid of the extremis that easily and off-screen).

Overall, I am kind of glad that there won’t be a fourth Iron Man movie for now. I don’t need another repeat of “Tony has emotional problems, builds some suits and encounters a bland villain from his past”. I rather see him interact with the other heroes.


What I think about Pepper Potts:

Pepper Potts is practically the “First Lady” of the MCU – because she literally was the first female character and partly because the MCU is built on the Iron Man movies. And her character is pretty much like the movies: there is a lot of good in her portrayal, but also a lot of stuff which annoys me. So let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first.

1. Her basic character could be established a little bit better

To explain that, let’s look at the first movie. Which has, not counting the ten rings, seven important characters: Tony, Yinsin, Rhodey, Pepper, Stane, Christine Eberhardt and Coulson. The latter two are one-off characters. Coulson is only there for the involvement of SHIELD, and Christine Eberhardt is only there as a plot device. But with all the others, I know exactly what their motivation is. Rhodey even gets a whole scene which has no other purpose than explaining why he likes being part of the military, contrasting his attitude with Tony’s. But Pepper? I honestly have no idea. I guess she likes Tony, but I have no idea why. At one point Tony asks her why she is balking when he starts trying to do better with his company when she was totally okay with what they did before. It is pretty clear that she is worried that he might die, but the initial question is never answered: Why is she working for a weapon producer? The third movie suggests that she isn’t really okay with what the company did during that time, but it is never explained why she is working there. Because of Tony? She certainly didn’t start out as his personal assistant. Or did she?

2. Most of the interaction Pepper has with other woman involves bitching

In the first movie, I am not exactly thrilled about the one scene she shares with Christine. It’s bad enough that the “professional reporter” immediately ends in bed with Tony. But at the very least they should allow the character some dignity afterwards. Instead they let her lash out to Pepper, which makes Christine look unsympathetic when the scene should be about showing what a tool Tony is. It’s a weird dynamic, and my last favourite scene in the whole trilogy, alongside with Pepper wanting to quit being CEO after one week (which thankfully didn’t stick).

In the second movie, Pepper and Natasha share many scenes, but they never really talk to each other past whispering in the background and Pepper screaming at Natasha for one reason or another. Pepper goes from warning Tony away from Natasha, to acting jealous, to accusing Natasha of being responsible for Tony’s behaviour, to hiring her as her assistant. Wait, what? Nothing in this makes sense. Personally I would have loved it when they had shown Pepper and Natasha conspiring with each other from the get go.

In the third movie Pepper finally gets some good woman to woman interaction…with a kind of villain, but it’s the best dialogue she gets in the whole trilogy with a woman (or anyone for that matter). Isn’t that sad?

3. Sometimes the writers try a little bit too hard to make her useful

Pepper is the love interest. And, as I pointed out in my review for Gwen, romance in superhero movies is rarely well written. Currently there is a trend to make love interests “useful” in some way or another. Don’t get me wrong: It is great when Pepper gives Tony the old arc reactor as a present which will eventually rescue his life, or when she pulls files for him and alerts Shield, or pushes a button in the right moment. But does she really have to be forcefully included in the climax? Isn’t it enough that she ensures that the Expo gets evacuated, does she have to be present when everything goes down? Is wearing the suit for a few seconds really making her more badass?

I honestly don’t need the love interest present during the climax, neither as damsel in distress nor to give her a token badass moment. As much as I praised Gwen Stacy, I hated the scene in the first movie in which she hits the lizard with a trophy. Neither do I need Pepper to do the defeating in Tony’s place. I am not outright against it, but I don’t think that it makes her a better character. What really makes a good love interest is not her badass factor, but how the relationship is portrayed, and what makes a good character is not the ability to fight either, but giving said character some sort of arc and a layered personality.

Which brings me to the good aspects of Pepper’s character. She actually does have some kind of arc. She starts out as Tony’s PA and eventually becomes the CEO of Stark Industries. Or the official one. I think the movie makes is pretty clear that she had a lot of power behind the scenes from the get go (which is actually quite accurate. It is easy to dismiss the PA, but the PA of a powerful man holds quite a bit of power herself because she controls the schedule of her boss). I like that the movie mentions how much nonsense she has to face, that she is basically accused of sleeping her way up before she is actually in a relationship with Tony.

The main reason why Pepper really doesn’t need additional bad-ass moments is because she is already bad-ass in her professional life. Which is why I am glad that she didn’t stay superpowered (well…I assume she didn’t, the movie was not that clear about it, but since she doesn’t even like to fight, it sounded like “finding a solutions” means getting rid of extremis for good), even though I would have liked it even better if they hadn’t superpowered her in the first place.

It’s also great that they wait at least one movie before they hook her up with Tony. I just wish that the built-up to the moment in the second movie were a little bit better written, and I wish that the relationship in the third movie were portrayed more the way it is shown in The Avengers. I mean, what is the point of being with someone if you don’t tackle the problems in your respective lives together? Nowadays relationships are always portrayed as problematic, I guess because the writers believe that this is more realistic. It isn’t. While it is true that there are always bumbs in the relationship, you need the happy periods as much as the difficult times. I think the third movie would have been way stronger if it had shown Pepper and Tony trying to tackle the PTSD together. That Pepper isn’t even aware of how bad Tony’s problems truly are begs the question if he really trusts her. After what happened in Iron Man 2, he should have learned to share his problems with his life partner. Since he doesn’t do it, the relationship looks kind of disfunctional, and I don’t think that this was the intention of the writers.

Really thinking about it, when it comes to the portrayal of Pepper and her relationship with Tony, The Avengers does it the best, followed by Iron Man, and Iron Man 3 does the worst job, despite passing the Bechdel test comfortably. Mostly because the other movies don’t put her in nothing but a bra or create some weird obsessed former suitor who also has a beef with Tony for her (and lampshading the fact that she is only a trophy doesn’t make it better). That’s more or less the worst writing a female character can get, and it speaks for the strengths of her portrayal beforehand that Pepper emerges out of it mostly intact.

 Quote: “I was having 12% of a moment.”

The Iron Man movies are pretty much a must-watch for the MCU. Iron Man is a good, if not outstanding movie (though there are people who consider it the best of the MCU movies), while the sequels are decent. I would put them on one level with the Thor movie, though for different reasons. While the Thor movies are both kind of a mess, but a mess with a lot of good scenes to make up for the stuf which doesn’t work, the Iron Man sequels both have really, really good story ideas, but the execution is lacking. They are nevertheless worth at the very least one watch.

6 thoughts on “Marvellous and DCent: Pepper Potts

  1. I just want to say, I admire your dedication and hard work towards analyzing film and dissecting certain elements of a movie to prove a point. It truly is something I look up to and makes me want to work harder in what I do. I really enjoyed your Pepper Potts article. Keep it up because you really have a talent in writing and analyzing film.

  2. Great review and I do agree with most of what you say. I saw many of the same strengths and weaknesses. I think they ride on Robert Downey Jr’s great charisma.

  3. Almost completely agree with your analisys of these three films and Pepper´s fit. But I think you got it wrong about Tony Stark/Iron Man, he is pretty well depicted. He never changes, he never learns, he only kind of reacts (As can be seen when he shut down half his company on a whim), but always the same way, the wrong way, and it usually gets worse each time. He thinks that he´s always right, and won´t really listen to anything you can say. Oh, he´ll answer, something clever or funny or both, but just to make sure he leaves thriumphant. I kind of see him as a twisted Captain America, so I enjoy everytime he and Steve meet, talk and clash.

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