Iron Man 3, the story of a man and his iron, came out last week (at least here in the U.S.) to super ticket sales and middling reviews. I largely agree with the reviews that criticize this movie for its lack of substance and poorly executed ending. I also think it’s mostly a Summer popcorn movie, filled with spectacle and flair while ignoring depth of story. That being said, I enjoyed it. Maybe not as much as I could have, but I still enjoyed it. I also noticed an aspect that thrilled me more than the high energy fight scenes: Iron Man 3, a movie about a comic book character, has one of the most realistic and progressive on screen relationships in recent memory.
The dynamic between Tony Stark (played by Robert Downing Jr.) and Pepper Potts (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) plays both a subtle but major role in the plot of the film, as Tony starts to finally settle in his role as monogamous long term partner and cast off his playboy history. What’s great about their interactions is that the writers, director and actors never allow themselves to settle for convention or tired gender tropes that can make for a groan inducing story filled with cliches for the sake of laziness. Pepper Potts, having risen from assistant to head of Stark Industries, is portrayed as smart, empathetic and motivated. Gwyneth Paltrow manages to navigate the minefield that Hollywood leaves for female characters in which they are asked to be either committed fully to the male protagonists well being (I’ll call it a “caretaker” role) or committed fully to ambitious, but empty, careerism that usually requires them to prove that they are “one of the boys” in the boardroom (I’ll call it the “G.I. Jane” role). Pepper is neither. Confident and serious, she is shown with such a refreshing lack of condescension that I almost forgot I was watching a movie that was, ostensibly, about a metal suit that punches terrorists.
Going back to the relationship, it was a delight to watch as more Hollywood minefields were dispensed with on an almost scene by scene basis. For example, when Tony Stark is visited by an ex-lover he knew during his more carefree days, (the fantastic Rebecca Hall) the story never stoops to making Pepper become the jealous or protective clingy girlfriend. Instead, she appears confident and comfortable in her and Tony’s relationship and therefore above being dragged into a middle school drama that scriptwriters must think all women are inherently capable of. Even in later scenes, when Gwyneth Paltrow and Rebecca Hall are alone, the conversation never turns to Tony, but instead of the objective at hand. It is almost as if women are capable of detaching themselves emotionally from personal problems while a larger problem needs to be solved!
Again and again, the movie unleashes fake outs (whether it’s intentional or not is unknown) where it looks as if the movie will betray its female characters, and it never does. It’s extremely satisfying to know that you are watching a movie where the character relationships have caught up with the 21st century special effects (if you want to see what it looks like when this isn’t the case, check out Transformers 3).
What’s important about this is not just that it’s happening in a movie that I would not expect it from but also how little it is overtly addressed. I’m a big advocate of not just raising awareness for social issues but also pushing to normalize stigmatized groups or actions. For example, about a year ago I was at a store, walking through the greeting card aisle when I saw the “engagement announcement” section, and within that section there were subsections for which type of pairing you would be buying the card for. Did a man and woman get engaged? Buy this card. Did a man and man get engaged? Buy this card. A woman and woman? There’s another one. What’s pleasing about this is that it does more to reinforce the idea of marriage equality to see it just sitting there on a store shelf than it is to hear lectures about the reasons why it is ethically sensible. It normalized gay marriage, made it mundane and commonplace, in a way that Glee or Obama couldn’t do. That’s what I think Iron Man 3 does for gender roles and relationships. It’s important because of how non-important it treats it. We live in a world of Pepper Potts, not Princess Peaches. Women should be, and in reality, often times are, equals in relationships and Iron Man had me identifying with their relationship in a way that I can’t with most movies, much less super hero movies (I can’t lift heavy things, like even boxes of cat litter). I also love the mutual respect that Tony Stark and Pepper Potts show for each other, which furthers the idea that men and women can benefit from interacting from places of equal footing.
None of this, of course, takes away or distracts from the entertainment or silliness of the plot, but it outlines a clear way that movies and television can avoid the traps of sexist female archetypes or two dimensional depictions of modern relationships. It turns out the secret was to make progressive, strong characters have bigger things to worry about than outmoded gender stereotypes; they have terrorists to punch in the face.