In this third foray of the man in the Iron Suit with a weak heart but a strong libido, female characters fare a bit better than they did in the first two Iron Man films. Pepper Potts (played by Gwyneth Paltrow, she is Iron Man/Tony Stark’s girlfriend and the CEO of his company, Stark Industries) actually gets to do some saving of her own and dons the Iron Suit for a bit. In fact, one review frames the movie as allowing for “Pepper’s superheroic debut.”
However, her character arc doesn’t ultimately move too far astray from various typical female tropes—fashion-savvy boss, clingy girlfriend and damsel in distress. In her white, tight power suit moments at Stark Industries (a multinational corporation that develops weapons and defense technology), Pepper fails to see Killian (played by Guy Pearce) for the villain he is, instead focusing on the fact he had the hots for her. And her killjoy girlfriend moments are even worse.
She and Tony have moved in together, and in an early scene she comes home to find her Christmas present in the driveway: an enormous stuffed bunny with enormous breasts to match (an apt metaphor for how females tend to be portrayed in the Iron Man series). Once inside, Iron Man sits with dinner and wine waiting, a seemingly romantic welcome home. But we soon learn that Tony is not in the suit—no, he is down in the basement tinkering with his growing bastion of iron men. Pepper is angry that all he cares about is his boy-toy basement filled with technological gadgetry. But rather than framing Tony as a cad, Pepper is positioned as a nagging girlfriend who fails to see the importance of his work. Yawn.
When Pepper finally lures him out of his man-cave by insisting he join her in the shower, a scene soon after has ominous undercurrents of domestic violence. Tony is dreaming/sleepwalking and she wakes to find him/one of his suits in a murderous pose above her, and shouts “Tony!” to wake him before he attacks. As in the earlier scene, he again is not in the suit. Livid, Pepper goes to sleep downstairs. Here, we are encouraged to feel sorry for the poor, tortured Tony Stark, as we are in so many scenes, and to see Pepper as the too-demanding, overly self-centered girlfriend.
The fact that we never know if Tony is actually inside the iron suit has worrying symbolic implications. Is he the man behind the mask/suit, or is the suit (which is a weapon) the “real” Tony? The blurring between human and superhero is, of course, a common theme of the genre, but in the scenes with Pepper in which the suit has no hero in it, it is not about what part of Tony is human and what is beyond human—it is more about pulling one over on his girlfriend so he can continue to play with his man-gadgetry, or about condoning the threat of violence because it wasn’t him, it was his iron suit.
It’s great to hear her frame the plot point not just as something that’s cool visually, but as a subversion and necessary refutation of the damsel in distress trope; an important framing of Pepper as Tony’s equal, not just Tony’s girlfriend.
I would counter that while the film may do this for a few frames here and there, it ultimately still holds up the male as savior and female as in-need-of-saving model—especially in the 2nd half of the film when Pepper is captured by Killian.
Killian plans to turn Pepper into one of his human bombs, and Tony is told, “We can save the president or Pepper.” Being male, Tony is of course able to maneuver to save both. Granted, Pepper does have some extended action scenes near the end, where she takes out Killian, but only after many scenes of her dangling near the precipice of death. And when she does take out Killian, Tony quips, “That was really violent,” then asks why she can’t dress like that more often (she is wearing skintight pants and a bra-like top, showing off her hardened six-pack abs). The audience laughed approvingly, orally supporting the noting that it’s so “out of character” for women to be strong/violent that it’s funny. And yes, why can’t women dress for the male gaze all the time?! Sigh.
After Tony and his team of iron suits save Pepper, she flips back into careworn girlfriend mode, suggesting that Tony once and for all gets rid of all his weaponized suits. He does, dubbing this “clean slate protocol.” As Tony and Pepper snuggle, the suits blow up like fireworks in the night sky behind them. Cue the Katie Perry music. (No, they didn’t use this song, but it seems fitting.)
And, as if Pepper expecting Tony to destroy his iron suits isn’t enough of a controlling, buzz-kill girlfriend moment for you, she also insists he get his heart “fixed”—the very heart problem that was/is the catalyst for his being a super-hero. In effect, she kills his “superness” and makes him an ordinary man again, and at the same time presumably kills the chance for more Iron Man sequels (though surely profit will be more of a motivator than Pepper’s desire to have a “normal” beau).
This time around Tony isn’t as much of a womanizing cad as in the other films, though there are the requisite nods to beauty pageants and women as sex objects/slaves. Regarding the representation of sexual slavery, it, too, is played for comic effect. Mandarin (played by Ben Kingsley and racially coded as an admixture of Islamic, Chinese, Pakistani—an image that screams he ain’t white and he ain’t American) has various sex slaves in his “terrorist” abode. They are heavily drunk/drugged and, of course, skimpily clad. Yes, it’s just so funny when the incoherent near naked woman lolling on the couch doesn’t get that a gun pointed at her is a threat. Ha ha.
As it turns out, Mandarin is not a “true terrorist”—no, he is an actor playing a terrorist. While the film could have offered some astute commentary here on the idea that the notion of “terrorist” is a socially constructed concept used to otherize certain parts of the globe and certain belief systems, it does so only for laughs. Though the quote “The second you give evil a face, you hand the people a target” points to a self-awareness about propaganda and media manipulation, as does the reference to the fact that “There have been nine bombings … the public only know about three,” overall the film doesn’t critique the way terrorism is waved like a red flag in order to undergrid our ever-growing weapons arsenal and ever-expanding war machine. Of course not. This is a superhero movie. More to the point, as with many recent action movies, it’s a pro-military-industrial complex movie.
The film does nod to U.S. problems—for example, the country is likened to fortune cookies, as “hollow and full of lies,” while oil spills, bombings, wounded veterans and the war on terror are all bandied about as if to say, “We get it, the USA has some serious issues.” Ultimately, however, this third take is as gung-ho as the first one (which was partially funded, as are so many films of this ilk, by the Pentagon). While the first Iron Man was more overt in its lip service to U.S. militarism, this third one carries on the tradition with its scenes in Air Force One, its transformation of Don Cheadle’s character name into a red, white, and blue “Iron Patriot,” and its general awe over things that go boom.
A new device is the use of dismembered war vets in the narrative. Killian, the film’s arch villain, “grows” back vets’ limbs in project “Extremis.” The catch is that by doing so his “patients” become human bombs, able to breathe fire and/or detonate. The missing limbs silently signify the bombs detonated by the “enemies of freedom”—those that would harm our soldiers and leave them without legs or arms—and the soldiers’ dog tags are used at various points in the film to play on audience heartstrings. Never, though, is the audience asked to question war itself —or the use of weapons that dismember, of which the U.S. is a primary manufacturer and disseminator. No, instead we are asked to focus our ire against a lone villain: the egotistical tyrant Killian.
As in the other two Iron Man films, and as in the Marvel universe in general, the U.S. military, as an Alternet piece puts it, is given a “get out of jail free card.” The recently deceased Roger Ebert described Tony Stark as “the embodiment of the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned against in 1961—a financial superhero for whom war is good business, and whose business interests guarantee there will always be a market for war.” While this refers to the Tony Stark of the first film, I would argue he hasn’t changed all that much, despite the fact Pepper Potts indicates that Stark Industries would not be interested in the type of weapons Killian is hawking.
On the surface level, Stark and Co. have become less war-happy, but that is just a gloss—perhaps to appease a public that is certainly even more war weary now than it was in 2008 when the first film was released. Underneath the “we don’t deal in weapons anymore” is a film that LOVES weapons and the multiplication of them. If the iron suits are not weapons, what are they? And, more to the point, are these new-fangled suits that don’t need a human inside them not also a perfect metaphor for drones? Hence, not only are the iron suits a way for Tony to trick his overbearing girlfriend, they also allow for whiz-bang destruction with no pesky humans that might get a case of morality and refuse to take action when “necessary.”
The fact that the film trades in tired sexism and action-packed explosions is to be expected I suppose, though one wonders how the film might have differed had Joss Whedon directed it. One new addition is a Tony’s relationship with a young boy. I think the message is supposed to be that Tony is growing up; he is no longer the man who has “plowed his way through more bimbos” than most (Roger Ebert again, with a poor choice of words) but has a steady live-in girlfriend and a stand-in child. When said child tells him his dad abandoned him six years ago, Tony quips “that happens … dad’s leave … no need to be a pussy about it.” Another line, that, gasp, got all sorts of laughs.
If only the film had more pussy—and by that I don’t mean bikini clad sex-slaves and I don’t mean more weak characters—no, I mean it in the way “balls” is usually used: If it only it were brave enough to actually do something new with the genre and the franchise rather than droning on with the same old shtick.