I just saw the new Iron Man movie last night, and while it is overall one of the best superhero movies ever made, there is one element that stands out as unusual: Pepper Potts. (Spoilers follow.)
Virginia “Pepper” Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is Tony Stark’s personal assistant, whose responsibilities range from handling Stark’s everyday needs to shipping off the women Tony has one-night stands with so that he doesn’t have to deal with them. She is clearly very fond of Tony despite his many, many character flaws.
On Tony’s part, he clearly trusts Pepper more than anyone else, to the point of having her replace his life-sustaining generator (in a comically icky scene) when his robotic assistant proves unequal to the task. While she is concerned about Tony’s personality changes following his captivity, she continues to act as his assistant even after discovering his Iron Man project. Interestingly, while Tony does not tell her about the project, he doesn’t try to hide it from her, as she retains security access to his workshop.
There are two particular areas where Pepper really shines. The first is the expected romantic angle. There are certainly hints of attraction between her and Tony, culminating in Tony pushing her to dance with him at a benefit. While this clearly makes her uncomfortable (and she tells Tony as much), she also nearly kisses him shortly afterwords before thinking better of it. At the end of the film, Tony decides that a superhero like himself should have a worrying girlfriend, and not-very-subtly reminds her of the night of the dance. Pepper reminds him that he also unthinkingly left her behind afterwords, and that she has no intention of changing their boss-assistant relationship.
This is really unheard of in a superhero movie. Pepper turns Tony down, not because he is a superhero, but because she recognizes that because of his character flaws a relationship would be a really, really bad idea. Not to mention the whole “dating your boss” angle.
Pepper also takes an unusually active role in the action. The final act of the film is set up when Tony asks Pepper to hack into his office computer to find out what his treacherous underling Obadiah Stane has been up to, and Pepper refuses, declaring that she quits. She changes her mind when Tony persuades her that this is about doing the right thing and helping the people that they had previously put in harm’s way. Pepper successfully hacks into the office computer, discovering even more about Stane’s dirty dealings than Tony had suspected, but is interrupted by Stane. At this point, my expectation is that Stane will take her hostage and Tony will have to rescue her, as we have seen in so many other movies.
Not so. Pepper successfully bluffs her way out with the data, and by the time Stane realizes what she was doing she has already made it to the lobby where she runs into a government agent who has been trying to get an interview with Stark regarding his captivity. And what does she do? She goes with the agent and tells him everything, as well as calling Tony and filling him in, successfully putting Stane on the defensive instead of acting like the standard imperiled woman.
Because of Pepper’s actions, Stane is forced to don his prototype armor to escape arrest and go after Tony personally. When Tony’s proves unable to defeat Stane’s superior armor, he has Pepper overload the Stark lab’s generator to take Stane out. The usual role of the female supporting character in the climax is reversed – here, Tony distracts Stane until Pepper can finish him off with the desperate plan. And she does all of this without screaming, even when faced down by a lunatic in a ten-fuit war machine.
I never expected to see a superhero movie in which the female lead evades getting captured by her own wits, takes out the bad guy, and turns down the hero because of his personality. Amazing.