Monday, May 06, 2013

Pepper Potts: Heroine of Iron Man 3

Every once in a while, a trailer will convince somebody to watch a film they otherwise wouldn’t have seen. The premise sounded boring, but the trailer promises action. The name was lame, but it actually looks pretty cool when you see some clips. Or in this case, the Iron Man films were all mediocre films with some comedy, uninteresting action and an intentionally unlikable protagonist, that finally decided to put out an honest to god action flick.

I’m not what you’d call a big “action movie” person. I’ve never seen a James Bond movie, nor a Bruce Willis movie that wasn’t an M. Night Shyamalan drama. When I watch action films, it’s generally for the Sci-Fi aspects, like Terminator, or because they’re more martial art films than what’s generally considered to be action. There are even some action films that seem like they would be interesting to me, yet I can’t bring myself to get excited for them. Something about seeing yet another gunfight or explosion, yet another vehicle chase, does for my interest in a movie what brussels sprouts hitting the intestinal tract does for a romantic mood. If more action movie trailers looked like Iron Man 3, I’d call myself a fan.

Superhero movies have largely been considered their own genre. This is because at the heart of what is essentially a Sci-Fi/action genre, there’s so much drama that it’s often hard to invest oneself in these movies. A lot of emotions that are either set up to be resolved in the third or fourth sequel, or simply resolve over the action scenes, in which case, why not use some of that down time for the sake of the action scenes? Add that to the fact that they often follow the same formula, re-telling origin stories that lost their fresh and exciting flavor well before they developed the technology to put many of them onscreen. It’s often not until several installments that the film makers are confident enough in the ability of the audience to watch the film without being told decades-old stories with new visuals that they feel free to tell their own story.

While Iron Man 3 is largely about a familiar Iron Man villain, Iron Man 3 is anything but a rehash. Everything about this movie is fabricated especially for this movie’s universe; this is almost the way Christopher Nolan would adapt the character, though not quite. That’s likely to be the largest complaint from fans about this film, and I could easily write an entirely separate review of this film from the perspective of a comic fan, but as somebody whose favorite thing about Iron Man has always been the 1960s’ cartoon theme song, I could easily separate this from the quality of the film itself.

Central to this film is the role that Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) plays. First and foremost, she’s a female character in a comic book movie. I suppose that had to be said, and when you look at Carol Ferris, Mary Jane Watson, and Batman’s girls of the week, that sets a certain expectation. Pepper starts off the film by rejecting the intellectual (and implied physical) advances of a newly attractive man from her past. She then has an argument with her husband, and when he concedes fault, she tones it down to look at his point of view. She comes up with a plan to seek safer ground- not because she’s a coward, but because she’s traditionally been the most sensible person in the series- and Tony disagrees with her. Again, this isn’t because he’s entirely masculine and arrogant, but because he has genuine concerns about his ability to protect his non-superpowered wife in a different location.

Their entire relationship is based on this: Tony and Pepper recognize one another’s strengths and weaknesses. Pepper doesn’t allow Tony to get away with things because he’s her man or some other tripe, she doesn’t believe he has any ability to resist her demands. She just recognizes that he’s human, and has a tendency to make certain types of mistake, which she will forgive him, scold him or correct him for, depending on the situation. When he fails to prevent an attack from an unexpected angle, Tony is also quick to recognize the flaw in his plan and the value in hers, and makes no attempt to take credit for it.

Pepper is taken prisoner, yes, but so are both of our male leads, which gives us about 4 instances of male Damsels in Distress and 1 of Pepper. Iron Man is more successful at freeing himself than Pepper is, but he’s notably no more successful at freeing her. Or saving her. At all, in any way, despite really wanting to. “But Damsels in Distress dying to further the male hero’s story is nothing new” I hear you saying. And you’d be absolutely correct. But just because the male hero fails to save his wife doesn’t mean that she dies. And just because he fails to save himself doesn’t mean that he dies, either.

Pepper Potts is a true inspiration for me as a storyteller. She proves that a male character can be written with a standard by-the-numbers plot without the female character suffering for it. She goes through suffering, yes- the same amount of suffering as the superhero that she chose to spend her life with. But she doesn’t suffer as a character. Assuming that she did not become a female Human Torch in the comics, if you can’t get behind her in this film, you are simply not going to be pleased. It might have been nice to see some growth for this character, but for a secondary character who has found success in her career and love life and falls in the moral and logical right far more often than not, it would have been hard to include any that wouldn’t have distracted from the intended plot.

And the intended plot is nothing to sneer at. As I said, they took this franchise and released a serious action film of the sort that could make me look entirely differently at action films. A large part of this is that Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark spends a large portion of his time out of his Iron Man armor, doing things like thinking and having human emotions. He’s still the semi-lovable dick that we’ve been with through the past three films (the argument could be made that this is Iron Man 4, following The Avengers), but he’s grown as a person. There are references to Tony’s womanizing days from the first film, and it’s pretty clear that he doesn’t miss that lifestyle in the slightest.

When it does come time to pull out the CGI suits, this film pulls out all of the stops. There were concerns by some fans over whether this franchise would include Iron Man’s true strength: adaptability. Well, not only does Iron Man prove he’s adaptable out of his armor, but we see somewhere between twenty and forty suits of armor, including the fan favorite Hulkbuster armor. They’re clearly not as useful when he’s not at the helm, but they make the climax something awesome to behold.

Iron Man 3 may well be on its way to becoming my favorite superhero film of all time. It has all of the elements that many superhero films lack (many of those elements being the role Pepper Potts plays in both this film and the franchise) and all of the best elements of many such films. I did use the scenes with the child sidekick to refill my drink and empty my bladder, but even these scenes weren’t as bad as many shoe-horned in child sidekicks are, and in fact seemed like they were intended to be parodies of such scenes. One thing’s for certain: this is not the last time I’ll be watching this film.


Charles Gramlich said...

I liked the first two in this series and will watch the 3rd one. I heard that the actress who plays Pepper has said this is her last.

SQT said...

I haven't had a chance to see this yet, but we've promised to take our 9-year-old so I will soon. I'm encouraged by this review because most of what I've read so far has been somewhat critical of the movie. I have avoided reading too many reviews though- I'm going to see it no matter what, so I don't want to approach it with any preconceived notions.

William Silvia said...

You know, I was going to talk about the blatant Vios product placement, but I forgot to find a place for it.

Pabkins said...

Oh wow this is so indepth I had to stop halfway through since I haven't seen the movie yet. But really he doesn't save her? I love both these characters. Pepper is so awesome I'm glad you decided to write about her. I'll be back hopefully after I see the movie...with the new baby who knows when that will be! *sniffles*

Man in Black said...

I tried to avoid serious spoilers, the most in depth part is the discussion of Pepper, and that's more a list of tropes than anything else.