No Superheroes Today; But Some Musings On Gender

I don’t have a post about superheroes chatting it up in a cafe today. The majority of you probably don’t know what I’m talking about, but for the two who do, apologies. Instead, I’d like to link to someone’s breakdown of Iron Man 3 and how its portrayal of Pepper Potts might not be as progressive as in the prior films.

Here’s the link: Is Pepper Potts No Longer the “Damsel in Distress” in ‘Iron Man 3’?

Some points made in the article:

* When Pepper puts on the Iron Man suit, it’s not of her own volition.
* Archvillian Aldrich Killian kidnaps Pepper and ties her up, using her as bait to lure Tony and blackmail him.
*Tony and Killian make all the decisions for Pepper. She doesn’t make any for herself.

Obviously, I’ve condensed the points down to an obscene degree. You’ll want to read the article to get the full gist of what the author is saying. Personally, I think she’s on point with a lot of her criticisms, and it’s a little frustrating that the film kind of backslides from what has been set up before. You get the sense that Pepper is an equal to Tony in every way by The Avengers, but here she’s getting captured and rescued by him and not showcasing any of the agency she was previously given.

Except for a few little moments here and there, which the author points out. Even though Tony rescues her throughout most of the film, she’s the only one who can defeat the villain. And while that doesn’t disappear the tropes she’s mired in throughout the rest of the film, it’s encouraging to see and it tells me that we might be in a transition period of comic book films evolving from a boy’s club to something that both boys and girls can enjoy and be inspired by.


And then there’s good ol’ DC, who hasn’t been able to get any kind of Wonder Woman film or show off the ground. They keep trying, but nothing seems to come of it. Perhaps it’s not only the filmmakers who are to blame and that maybe we as an audience need to start demanding stronger female characters. There’s already a lot of us requesting this, but in the grand scheme of things that might not be enough.

  • Amalia Dillin

    I talked about this a little bit on facebook yesterday, too — but I think one of the problems is that there is this idea that giving a woman a weapon and an action sequence equals strong-female-character. But strong characters male OR female are really about AGENCY, which, like you mentioned, was kind of taken away from Pepper in this third installment, regardless of how much butt she kicked at the finish. Now, on the one hand, this isn’t Pepper Potts 3, so the story isn’t really about her journey or her growth or her agency (and none of the marvel movies ARE about a female heroe’s journey, because Black Widow is in every respect still super-secondary) but, if we compare her arc in Iron Man 3, to say, Rhodey’s, where instead of having to be rescued by Tony, Rhodey leaps from his suit and knocks people around and saves himself, and then on top of that, he saves the president, too, you can really see the difference in the treatments between secondary male characters and secondary female characters in a huge way.

    There is never a point in the movie where Rhodey is not taking charge of his own safety. Even Happy goes out and DOES things, trying to figure out what’s going on and unravel the mystery that is Killian, even if it lands him in the hospital. And really, after that event, did Tony Stark need any further motivation to go after the bad guys? A possible solution to trying to seduce Tony to the dark side could have just as easily been the promise of some miracle drug to save Happy’s life as kidnapping Pepper. Pepper might have been out searching for Tony during his disappearance, could have caught up with him in that small town and brought him supplies, or provided him with transportation and helped to repair the suit instead (you’re telling me that if she could find that message from Tony, she didn’t have a way to track him in the suit and home in on him too?). There are so many other choices besides “Damsel-in-distress” which could have been made to keep Pepper in the film in a meaningful way, but it seems like people just don’t think about them at all.

    And on a similar topic, my first response to the Thor 2 trailer was definitely “Aw MAN, they turned Jane, the rockin’ scientist into a damsel in distress? COME ON!” because there was so much potential for Jane giving a lesson in humility to the gods of Asgard by being the one to repair Bifrost or something along those lines, dazzling them with her brilliance and her abilities, and from the look of the trailer, they’ve just thrown it all away. So why did they bother to make her a scientist at all? Why have Heimdall make a point of telling Thor she’s searching for him, trying to find a way? Just, give me a break, guys.

    • I’m going to address your points in order based on paragraphs.

      1) It may take awhile to grok that putting a weapon in hand does not equal agency. Someone pointed out that despite Pepper only being in The Avengers for a short while, she was every bit Stark’s equal and they were truly a team. Rhodey was nowhere to be seen. In this, he kind of takes what agency is left in the agency pool, leaving Potts her moment in the finale…who somehow still needed “fixing.” There’s definitely an “old way” versus “new way” at play in the film and it does make for some rather head-scratchy moments.

      2) As far as I know, she cried over Tony Stark for most of Act 2. But to your earlier point, this wasn’t Pepper Potts 3. But don’t you think the Potts of Avengers would have found Tony? How does a partner to the most technologically advanced hero in the Marvel Universe not know how to find someone? Oh right, it requires agency.

      3) I have an early guess that they’re going to put Jane “in the refrigerator,” like they did with Gwen Stacy in the Spider-Man comics. Incidentally, Jane’s friend had more agency and dimension in the first Thor film than Jane did herself. What the heck was up with that?

      • Amalia Dillin

        1) Definitely it will take time, and that equation of weapons with agency isn’t just a “guys don’t get it” thing, either. I just had a long discussion about this in relation to Merida in Brave and how taking the bow out of her hand and putting her in a fancier dress DOESN’T MEAN she doesn’t have agency anymore, or that she isn’t the same character. It’s okay for women to like girl things, and be feminine and that doesn’t make them lesser characters or take away their agency at all because it’s totally unrelated to the ISSUE of agency. I think that the concept of agency is just difficult for us to wrap our heads around, and I know that even being aware of it myself, I still struggle with it as a writer.

        2) Potts of Avengers would have totally found Tony. Potts of Iron Man 2 would have totally found Tony. I mean, did you see her taking care of business at the Stark Expo while Tony was fighting robots? She wasn’t just standing around having an emotional breakdown, she was taking charge and getting people out of harms way! But the movie doesn’t have to be Pepper Potts 3 in order to give her that small bit of agency where she actually does something, in the same way that it doesn’t take away from Tony that Rhodey saves the president, or that Happy goes hunting after Killian’s goons.

        3) Sigh. I don’t even know. I mean, Jane has spunk and all, but yeah, she was completely underutilized. I cannot tell you why. I wish I knew. Maybe because there was so much going on in that movie they just didn’t have time to flesh out the earth stuff, outside of Thor-as-fish-out-of-water. The humility he learns isn’t even from Jane, it’s from Loki coming back to lie about Odin and the situation in Asgard after he realizes he’s lost his right to Mjolnir in his pride. Just. Another reason why they should have brought Jane out swinging in this sequel, and why I’m so disappointed by what it looks like they’re doing instead.

        • 1) This. Even as a writer, agency is tough. Have I given enough agency to my characters or not enough? Is there an imbalance? In novels I imagine it’s rather tough to tell until you’re well within the revision stage or get notes from an editor that point out some of these problem areas. And what if that’s not really a concern of the person going over your work? A manuscript isn’t the northern plain, but rather a dense forrest.

          With screenwriting, despite the page count being significantly smaller there’s so much to keep track of and that’s before other writers get brought in to revise or a Director comes in and does his pass. The credits for Iron Man 3 have Drew Pearce and Shane Black credits. There’s a lot that can change between two Hollywood writers, especially when one of them is known for Lethal Weapon, which came about in an age where this kind of conversation was not happening.

          But yeah. I only envy the success of these guys, not the work of trying to cram in as much as possible and still try to get the characters right.

  • All good points so far, and I don’t really have anything significant to add except that it’s doubly frustrating that it wasn’t even Pepper Potts who came to the rescue at the end; it was Extremis Pepper Potts. That is, without the Extremis powers to aid her, she would have only been part of the body count and not the one to finish off Killian.

    Iron Man 3 is not without its flaws, and Pepper is chief among them, but I will say that it’s one of just two Avengers solo movies I thoroughly enjoyed (along with The Incredible Hulk, surprisingly enough).