Iron Man 3: The Series Drones On

Pepper-Potts-Gwyneth-Paltrow-Iron-Man-3-PosterIn 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.

While Paltrow argues the film puts Pepper on equal ground with Tony, leading one critic to enthuse,

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.


  1. Jennie says:

    Ok this has to be one of the worst movie reviews I have ever read . Let me take this line by line : Ok yea the bunny was completely stupid , yes the whole damsel in distress story line is so tired . But where the script writers went bad , you went so much worse . Somehow being a “movie critic” you failed to see the underlying story line of Tony having PTSD from the battle in New York in the Avengers film . When she comes home she is not the ‘nagging girlfriend’ , she is struggling to understand his behavior because not even Tony in the beginning of the movie is sure what is going on with him . You managed to take a serious plot line of a couple struggling to deal with a serious mental disorder and turn it into ‘a man tinkering with his boy-toys’ and a ‘nagging girlfriend’ . And also in the scene where they are in bed Tony is clearly having an mental episode while he is sleeping which promps the iron man suit to react , in no way was this intended as a veiled “condoning the threat of violence” Tony in no way lashes out at Pepper . And in that scene she is not seen as ” too-demanding, overly self-centered girlfriend” she is 1.) scared and 2.) at a loss to deal with his issues . And the fact that Tony can save both the president and Pepper has ZERO to do with the fact that he has a dick in between his legs as you so eloquently put it : “Being male, Tony is of course able to maneuver to save both.” . And the line about “That was really violent,” was said by Pepper herself not Tony . And she says this because Pepper as we have seen is in no way a violent person , it has nothing to do with her having a vagina . And yes the line about her wearing workout clothes all the time was stupid and unnecessary . And her “going back into girlfriend mode” and him destroying all of the iron man suits was 1st of all his idea 2nd it wasn’t a sign of her being a “controlling, buzz-kill girlfriend” it was him trying to get over his PTSD issues , which was the reason he created all of them because he felt powerless and “Tony Stark: I have a lot of apologies to make… Nothing’s been the same since New York. You experience things, and then they’re over. I can’t sleep, and when I do I have nightmares. Honestly, there’s a hundred people who want to kill me. I hope I can protect the one thing I can’t live without…”( a result of his PTSD . And in the scene where he fixes his heart that was his idea not hers , she did not kill his “superness” , because it was never her idea . And finally it is Pepper who saves Tony from Killian at the end of the movie .
    – Love ,
    Someone who actually bothered to watch the fucking movie .

    • Rose Garcia says:

      I am not an Iron Man fan, and I certainly wouldn’t go out of my way to say the film is making an effort at addressing gender politics in any sort of complicated way. I thought it was a mediocre example of a genre that thrives mostly on mediocre films. On the other hand, I think Jennie’s made some valid points. Paltrow’s character doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but when she does, she isn’t cast as the nagging girlfriend or helpless damsel. I also think, for a movie that really wasn’t that good, that the primary plot is more than a little interesting for a summer blockbuster that will be watched by millions of FOX News-watching Americans. It takes the viewer’s complete faith that there is an evil, cryptic, foreign “other” (you’ve got scary Arabs & Asians all rolled into one here!) and then steals it way again: the enemy is the profiteer. The terror that is created is created intentionally right here in the United States by blue-eyed white folks, is self-sustaining, and, more, we (the ones sitting in front of screens) are the ones who sustain it by playing out the expected narratives over and over and over again. In a film that feels as if it has to have lots of explosions and spangly prostitutes laying around, that’s an unusual message.

      Also, I was struck that in the few minutes of “suit time” Paltrow has, she saves another woman. An ex-girlfriend of her lover no less. Now, while the other character ends up being the usual backbiter, I still liked that scene.

  2. Natalie Wilson says:

    I felt the movie took Tony’s struggles and turned them into something stereotypical — he retreats to his basement and into himself. When Pepper comes home to find the huge bunny and then to discover he is trying to trick her into thinking he is in the suit, she is angry, and rightfully so. But the way it is framed places him as the one doing what he needs to do to cope and her as getting in the way of that. This is how I read it. And she suggested the destruction of all the suits at the outset of the film. She and Tony then discuss this again at the end, and he dons it “project clean slate.” He says he fixes his heart for her, or something to that effect, and, if I recall correctly, also that he hopes he can “fix Pepper.” And, as per your claim that “the fact that Tony can save both the president and Pepper has ZERO to do with the fact that he has a dick in between his legs” – perhaps, but how often do we see a female character do something like this? Pepper got to wear the suit for a few seconds and that was it. Is there some reason she couldn’t have been given more “suit time”? Yes, it is the Iron Man franchise, but we have to look at it in relation to superhero movies in general. And, generally, they still have male heroes and female damsels who are more often than not also hyper-sexualized. Yes, she saves him from Killian, a scene that is much shorter than his extended saving of her and the president – and, as noted, is placed as “out of character” because she is not violent (which in the franchise, is a big part of being heroic). I did watch the movie – I just wasn’t wearing rose-colored-I-love-Iron-Man-glasses when I did so.

  3. I wrote about Pepper in ‘Iron Man 3’ and the perpetuation of the Damsel in Distress Trope, rather than the subversion of it despite her brief brushes with superhero powers, here: SPOILERS -> Just because she dons the suit for 2 minutes (not her choice), has the Extremis virus injected (not her choice) and has it removed (also not her choice), doesn’t make her empowered. Sadly, the film focuses on the male gaze and ultimately strips Pepper of her agency and voice.

  4. I actually think this was a great review by Natalie Wilson and will make a point to link to it tonight at my own website. That said, I’m glad Jennie’s opinion was allowed to be expressed. I know many websites only pretend to enjoy an exchange while refusing to post comments with a different take or criticism.
    I’m glad Jeannie enjoyed the film, in this economy who can afford to waste money? But I agree with Natalie’s review and would actually take it one step further by noting how embarrassing it is that Paltrow, who has an Academy Award for Best Actress, plays this role. I believe the line goes something like “this is the type of role Natalie Wood was turning down when she hit 18.”

  5. jose cardenas says:

    I’m not sure it’s a full assault on women. My wife and I watched it and enjoyed it. What we took away from the film was Stark’s inability to cope with his PTSD. My wife and I even mentioned to each other how I had trouble sleeping and I would tinker with my computers and gadgets when my PTSD was bad. The whole remote controlled iron man suit isn’t a metaphor for drones its a skill he used in the comics. I mean it’s Iron Man, a comic based on a inventory who makes weapons for a living. I’m going to complain about Le Miserable for having too much singing.

  6. I wholeheartedly agree with Jennie and her rebuttal to the review. I think this person went in with a chip on their shoulder and it blocked their view of the movie.

  7. (alert! comment posted by straight white man, may contain stupidity!)

    There were some interpretations in this review that made me raise my eyebrows, in the sense that the way you interpreted some things was not at all how I interpreted those same things. To wit:

    “But rather than framing Tony as a cad, Pepper is positioned as a nagging girlfriend who fails to see the importance of his work.” I didn’t get that vibe at all. I was more under the impression that the film was asking us to side with Pepper against Tony–even he himself admits that his behavior was inappropriate and apologizes multiple times, which is not a frequent habit of his.

    “(re: the empty suit in bed) 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.” I understood this completely differently from you. Again, I thought the movie was trying to illustrate that Tony’s mental problems were driving away even those people who normally care most about him. I don’t think Pepper’s reaction was designed to make her unsympathetic; I think it was meant to make her more human. If I were attacked in my bed by an empty suit of super powered armor, I’d freak out too.

    “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.” First, I don’t think the heart procedure “killed his superness”, because the heart problem isn’t necessary to wear the suits (otherwise, how would Col. Rhodes wear one?). Second, I don’t recall it being her suggestion. Third, the final lines of the movie suggest that he is very happy about his new and healthy state of affairs.

    “it’s a pro-military-industrial complex movie.” You lost me here. How is this a pro-MIC film? How are any of the Iron Man movies pro-MIC? Haven’t the villains of all three films been members of the military industrial complex trying to start a war that they can profit from? Doesn’t the heroic Pepper reject Killian because his project is “too weaponizable”? Isn’t our heroes’ Stark Industries depicted as having abandoned military research (as of the first film) to focus on energy development? You mention later that the transformation of War Machine into Iron Patriot is a sign of the film’s jingoism, but don’t all of the characters roundly mock the change? These films seem about as anti-MIC as you can get without outright attacking the US military.

    I agree with your overall point, which I understand to be that this movie is not particularly feminist-friendly (the disabled war vets as evil henchmen and sex slaves in the mansion bugged me too, and the “trophy” thing was just gross), but I had some quibbles that I felt like expressing. I guess my biggest overall problem with this review is that it assumes that the writers expect the audience to approve of all of Tony’s actions. I don’t think they do. He’s always been an antiheroic figure, and besides, it bugs me in general when people assume they understand intent.

    Sorry if this reads like mansplaining. (I guess it technically is, since I’m a man and I’m explaining my interpretation in cases when it doesn’t line up with yours). I don’t think that my interpretation is necessarily correct or better than yours; I just wanted to provide an alternate point of view from which the film appears less problematic. Hopefully my comment is helpful to you, if only as an illustration to others of how not to do it. Thanks for your article and good luck with your future writing.


  8. I think Logan explained everything really well 🙂

    I understand where the reviewer is coming from on a lot of these points, but I also feel many of them were a little inaccurate from my perspective. I do agree though that Pepper was never empowered throughout the movie. Sure at the end she beat up the bad guy, but for most of the movie she relied on Tony to save her. I also do agree that it seemed like she pressured him to get rid of the suits, although I understand how others might not have interpreted that the same way I did.

    Also, I think the movie overall was in fact very anti-weapon. Killian specifically “created” a terrorist to secure future violence and funding for himself. I felt that this very strongly called into question the acceptability of what is currently going on in the world and the manipulation that takes place regarding war and terrorism.

    Also, while Tony’s sometimes obnoxious comments can be perceived as very anti-feminist, that’s also who his character is. And it isn’t something that’s glorified in the movies or in the comic books. Him shooting his mouth off inappropriately is a constant problem for him.

    And as someone who has been in a relationship with a person that does violent things in his sleep, I totally did not see that the way the reviewer did. I agree that Pepper seemed frightened and angry, more at the situation than at Tony, but she was just lashing out because she didn’t know what to do. Tony seemed equally unhappy about things because he was hurting and frightening somebody he cared about.

    Overall, I thought it was a pretty decent movie. I’m still a huge fan of the Iron Man franchise.

  9. The movie was a little bit of a let down and I agree with some of the reviewers points but hey it’s all in good fun right? 😉

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