Iron Man 3, a film in the notoriously male-orientated superhero genre, whose iconic heroes tend to be white males, allows its supporting female characters to evolve from minor to meaningful in a important and positive way which gives hope towards seeing more gender equality on the big screen. Passing the Bechdel Test, a benchmark created by cartoonist Alison Bechdel to gauge gender bias in entertainment using the three criteria of: “Are there more than two women in the work? At any point, do they talk to each other? If so, do they talk about something other than a man?”, Iron Man 3 includes two “smart women” (Rebecca Hall) who are powerful and interesting. Iron Man 3 is set in a post-Avengers, post-New York day as a flashback in which Tony Stark, played by Robert Downey Jr., is telling the journey of Tony having “perfected a heart without actually dealing with the wound to begin with. So once you have all those things in play you go, ‘Okay, with all of those plates spinning at the same time, what is he supposed to do?’…[We] tried to be practical, in a post-Avengers world. What are his challenges now? What are some limitations that might be placed on him? And what sort of threat would have him, as usual, ignore those limitations?” (Robert Downey Jr).
Gwyneth Paltrow reprises her role as Pepper Potts, the CEO of Stark Industries, and “the most important thing” and girlfriend of Tony Stark’s life. “You see her as a powerful, articulate CEO and in an equal relationship with Tony where she wants her needs met as well as remaining a very supportive woman in his life. And, of course, she turns into a superhero, sort of,” says Paltrow on Pepper’s “great transformation”, adding that “She does get to do more than she’s ever done [in this film]”. Initially introduced as one of Tony’s one-night-stands from his pre-Pepper days, Maya Hansen, played be Rebecca Hall, is the second supporting female character. Hansen could have easily been relegated to little more than a Bond Girl or a cause of friction in Pepper and Tony’s relationship, but instead, her intellect and ability create the impetus for the entire film: a well-meaning biological advancement that Tony Stark could have helped to stabilise and implement, but which was weaponised through the use of military contracts and the villain of the film, Aldrich Killian’s, aims. As Robert Downey Jr puts it, “The relationship between Tony and a girl from the past that he just shared a night with is also really cool to motivate some changes and drama for him and Pepper. But it’s also nice because we always saw Tony as a playboy but we never thought that there was someone he actually maybe would have spent a little more time with.”
The women briefly acknowledge Maya’s history with Tony, and then move on to more pressing matters without a hint of stereotypical ‘cattiness’, which Hall claims was one of the reasons she took on the role of Hansen, saying “And when I saw that it wasn’t–that it was actually daring to write something grown-up and sophisticated where women are actually bigger than being defined by the people they’ve slept with–it was great.” This scene in the film highlights the potential of having women interacting on screen, as Hansen and Pepper converse about Hansen’s work on the Extremis technology, and the threat they’re facing from the Mandarin. Hansen, who is a remarkable scientist who figured out how to regenerate lost limbs, describes power’s potential to corrupt using the idealistic German scientist Werner Von Braun, who dreamed of space travel before building rockets for the Nazis.”Do you know what he said when the first V2 hit London?”, Hansen asks Pepper, “The rocket performed perfectly, it just landed on the wrong planet. See we all begin wide-eyed, pure science. And then the ego steps in, the obsession.” This is what has happened to Extremis, and is something that may have been prevented by Tony’s involvement in its development, demonstrating how his actions could have influenced the outcome of Extremis had he spent more time with Hansen.
Pepper’s development into a “superhero, sort of”, can be seen progressively throughout the three Iron Man films, as she climbs from being Tony Stark’s employee as P.A. to his friend to becoming C.E.O. and his equal. In Iron Man 3, Pepper is now in the position to protect Tony, although this is a point of contention, as seen by his answer of “I got you first!” to her “I got you”, which is a conscious demonstration of what Kevin Feige describes as “ play[ing]” with the clichéd damsel in distress. “We are bored by the damsel in distress. But, sometimes we need our hero to be desperate enough in fighting for something other than just his own life. So, there is fun to be had with “Is Pepper in danger or is Pepper the saviour?” over the course of this movie.” , he says. Consequently, Pepper’s story arc in this film means that she gets to be very independent, “warm and super-intelligent and playful”(Gwyneth Paltrow), saving Tony several times using both his armour and her new found Extremis-given abilities, challenging the damsel in distress convention. Iron Man 3 also shows Pepper’s devotion and love to Tony as she, in the aftermath of the Malibu mansion blowing up, believes Tony to be dead and grieves for him, as well as her position as potential leverage material when she is captured by Aldrich Killian. In this respect, it is evident that the directors are playing to the formula as a way of critiquing it. This section of the film, which predominantly features Pepper wearing a sports bra and tights, may seen to fall back onto the trope, but from Tony Stark’s tongue-in-cheek question of “Why don’t you dress like this at home? Hmm?” the audience is made to realise the mocking nature of Pepper’s attire, and the irony of the scene. Nevertheless, Pepper is the ultimate hero of Iron Man 3, as it is she who defeats the villain and ‘saves the day‘ in the outstanding climax of the film. Paltrow, on Pepper as a female heroine and love interest, says “It’s nice to be a women in such a popular film that so many people see that’s such a good role model…she’s really a lovely woman”, and I completely agree!
Director Shane Black makes clear that the empowerment of women in Iron Man 3 wasn’t an accident, but rather a deliberate attempt to address the stereotypes faced by female characters in film. “It was important, especially to take the curse off the damsel in distress thing,” Black said in an interview, “I have a hankering for empowered females trashing stuff.” Thus, while Iron Man 3 may not be perfect in showing gender equality, it nevertheless attempts to amend some of the long-standing tropes within the superhero genre, and succeeds in creating two strong female heroines. Even for no other reason than this, it is a movie worth watching.
What do you think?
Let’s call me Lily