On Top of the World

Well behaved women rarely make history.

I guess that’s why it’s not called Iron Woman.

This post is spoilerific! You have been warned.

First, I want to say clearly that I enjoyed this movie quite a bit. I’m going to see it again tomorrow night — in costume! And also, the issues I had with the female characters are hardly unique to this film or genre. And also, also, there was a lot of good with the bad in regards to those female characters. But it is because I love Iron Man and Tony Stark and Pepper Potts and Natasha Romaoff and THE AVENGERS so very much that I feel I need to say this.

I want to focus on the women but I’ll say a quick few words about the men. RDJ can pretty much do no wrong when it comes to Tony Stark, he’s perfect. Don Cheadle is great, I wish he had more not-fighting stuff to do. Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell especially are hilarious as the villains. Happy (Jon Favreau) is cute, Howard Stark (John Slattery) is almost my favourite part of the movie, and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury can also pretty much do no wrong. Especially when it is a tip of the hat to Pulp Fiction. As far as characterization goes, it’s Tony’s story so of course he is the best developed character. Rhodey, Happy and Nick are least developed but that’s partially because we are meant to know who they are already. Ivan Venko and Justin Hammer are villains because of their relation to Tony so really their characterization is more his, but no one is an empty shell.

Now the women. One of my most favourite things about the first Iron Man is that in the final battle, once he knows she’s safe, Tony is not overly concerned with Pepper’s safety. He trust she’s smart enough to stay out of harm’s way and when he needs help he calls on her and in fact sends her INTO peril instead of shielding her from it. And she is integral to the victory. Beyond that, Pepper is a supporting character in absolutely the best way and though loopy and self-conscious, she is intelligent, capable and a force to be reckoned with when she needs to be.

In Iron Man 2, Pepper is all but relegated to “the love interest” — despite being promoted to CEO of Stark Industries. See, although we are led to believe that Pepper has really been running things all along, she is never shown to be succeeding at it. A cable news talking head tells us she is not capable and when Pepper looks at the TV with frustration I read her worrying it’s true as much as I also read her irritation that they don’t believe in her. Which means Gwyneth is a good actress and Pepper has depth (yay!) but is still troubling. When Tony is making a fool of himself at his birthday party Pepper is going to just leave until Rhodey threatens to have the army show up — then she tries to reign Tony in, and fails, leaving it to Rhodey’s first attempt at War Machine instead. Meanwhile, the rest of the time she is nagging Tony, making fun of any of his attempts to reach out to her, yelling at absolutely everyone, and basically being a shrew of Shakespearean stature. And then in the climax, Tony rescues her from peril, takes her to a rooftop where she has a tantrum and quits her job, and then they make out. The cute bit from the preview where she throws the Iron Man helmet off the roof after he asks her for a kiss is not actually in the film.

Now, she does get put in charge of running the company — it’s insinuated only because Tony thought he was dying and she tries to quit after the first week and the only ones who give her anywhere near the kind of respect they give Tony are the spy (so she’s not really showing respect, she’s tricking her) and Happy, begrudgingly, BUT — and that is important. And she actually is competent and takes her role as the head of SI and therefore the “Stark Expo” very seriously; she is only in peril in the first place because she refuses to leave until everyone is safe. And earlier at the racetrack in France she is commanding if, again, shrill. And I do think that Gwyneth gives her the right amount of weight and that with RDJ they build a relationship I can get behind. I’m not opposed to her being the love interest. I just wish she had the same spring in her step she did in the first movie, too.

Then there’s Natasha who is almost too good to be true, something Tony actually says to her: “You’re amazing … Is anything about you real?” She is not just Tony’s replacement Pepper Potts, but also both Pepper’s Pepper Potts, and Nick Fury’s Pepper Potts. And she is a SHIELD superagent, who can take down 12+ guards on her own. And in charge of doing psych files for potential Avengers (okaaaaaaay?). And a genius hacker. And she can speak at least 4 languages including Latin. And she models lingerie.

There is a lot to admire about Natasha and while Scarlett’s performance is not on par with Gwyneth’s, I liked her and I really, really, really want her to be in the Nick Fury movie. Really a lot. I love the idea that Black Widow is the first real Avenger in the modern era. That is super duper awesome and makes me like the idea of the Avengers movie more. But on top of the Pepper issues and then with the only other female character being Christine, the Vanity Fair reporter from the first film — well, it comes off like the movie thinks women are:

a) love interest/in peril (Pepper)
b) kickass/manipulative (Natasha)
c) slutty bitch who even other women hate (Christine)
d) absent mother (Maria Stark*)
e) Ironette cheerleader (Ironette cheerleaders)

*In the family film Tony watches, when BB Tony gets in the way Howard calls for Maria but a cameraman takes the kid away — therefore she is so absent she is not in the film.

Again, these are not issues unique to this film or genre and again again, I hope it is clear what good I see in all this. I do not like that Pepper tears down both Christine and Natalie (Natasha). I hate “women hating on women” plot points and since the scene where Natalie does anything wrong seems to have been cut from the movie (my only explanation for Pep’s rage) we are left thinking Pepper is wildly jealous of these women and — ew. But I do like that by the end Pepper and Natalie are working side by side in what might be termed a Board Room Girl’s Club and of everyone at the Stark Expo when things start blowing up they stay calm and they get things done. I’ll take the good with thr bad and I do realize that it is Tony‘s movie not Pepper‘s movie (or any of the others since it’s not like Rhodey gets a great character arc either). Also, this is all on one viewing and I know when I see it again tomorrow I will see new things.

So this got ridiculously long. I’m done (for) now!



  Jennifer wrote @

You hit on a LOT of the issues I had with the movie. I loved a lot about it (basically EVERYTHING with Tony), but I was very, very frustrated with Pepper’s characterization.

What I find MOST fascinating, and I’m not sure I’ve quite teased out all the implications yet, is the fact that the “talking head” you refer to is the actual, for real Bill O’Reilly. Being himself. And I have no idea what to make of that. They hired Bill O’Reilly to come on camera and say condescending things about a woman’s ability to run a company. They didn’t invent a fictional conservative pundit. So what are we supposed to make of it? O’Reilly signed up for it willingly, and willingly delivered the lines that he probably would have echoed if this movie were real life. So when O’Reilly fans see this movie, they don’t see him as the wrongheaded villain I automatically assume; they see him as someone they trust, someone who is RIGHT. So they’re likely to believe that, yes, Pepper (or, perhaps, any woman) is not capable of being a CEO. And guess what! At the end, Pepper agrees with them. She can’t handle the stress, she can’t handle the job, and she has a hissy fit and quits. Guess old Bill was right all along!

If it had been a fictional conservative pundit offering that observation, I would have seen the movie’s view on his words to be negative, but using the real person in that way makes me wonder if the movie wasn’t as progressive as I’d hoped.

  madmarvelgirl wrote @

Great thoughts, Anika. I basically fanwanked the Pepper conversation at the end to be that, when she says, “I can’t handle the stress,” she means, “I can’t handle you being a totally unreliable dickhead who won’t even tell me he’s dying.” And that she doesn’t really want to quit, she just wants to know that he cares about her. And the kiss is his way of showing that he does, and then some. And because of that, my gut reaction to the kiss was to clap, even while I’ve never been a fan of that ship.

But. The more I thought of it, the more I wondered, “If the subtext of that scene is ‘you were a jerk and didn’t tell me the truth through the whole movie’ why doesn’t she SAY that? That would be the conflict that the movie seems to have been building up to, and it would make the kiss emotionally satisfying instead of WTF? (I only disagree that she’s relegated to love interest for most of the movie because I don’t think she’s EVEN a love interest for most of the movie. Unless one is carrying over expectations from the previous film, the idea that he’s into her would come totally out of the blue).

  madmarvelgirl wrote @

Oh, and. . .a moment in the movie I particularly liked was Hammer laying into Pepper for being backhanded, saying “You really think like a CEO now.” In the movie as it is, though, there’s no BASIS for him saying that. He’s apparently just trying to throw suspicion from himself onto her. What I would have loved is for that moment to be earned — if we’d actually seen enough of Pepper’s CEO work to see that she has been faced with morally complicated choices and she didn’t necessarily make the right ones. It may be weird to say that i want the female characters to have more flaws, but it’s kind of like you said with Natasha — she’s good at EVERYTHING, that’s not especially interesting. As the movies exist, the only people allowed to have interesting flaws are villains, and Tony, and that’s its own weird kind of protagonist privilege. If Pepper or Natasha or Rhodey were to screw something up, it would just look like the movie was saying “they’re incompetent compared to Tony.” Whereas in a really successful ensemble story, everybody has successes and flaws.

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