How Iron Man’s Girlfriend Became The Badass Pepper Potts
By Alex Cranz
Pepper Potts started life as only “kind of” bad ass. She was a temp who noticed some accounting error that Tony Stark failed to notice and he was so impressed by her ability to not get completely bored by accounting errors (I am too Tony) that he hired her as his assistant.
She then spent the next forty years enabling his drinking, being rescued, being boring, and making out–not with dreamy Tony who is impressed by her decent mental prowess–but with his chauffeur, Happy Hogan.
And to be fair to Hogan fanboys (no really, they exist) he was a cool dude, I guess. He was kind. He wasn’t completely awful like Tony Stark. He loved Pepper and only Pepper. Then he died and became the rare dude refrigeratored to make the hero feel angst.
And Pepper sort of floated around after that. Until Matt Fraction was given the chance to use the character first in 2007′s The Order and then in 2008′s Invincible Iron Man. The latter was a “soft reboot” of Iron Man created to coincide with the release of the film. It was meant to be a jumping on place for new fans of Iron Man and the characters found in the book seemed to closely mirror their film counterparts.
Particularly Pepper Potts. While she’d always been sassy, flirty and savvy she was still a supporting character in every definition of the role. She wasn’t a Lois Lane. She didn’t ground the hero and give him something worth fighting for. She was the assistant. She made sure he looked good and then disappeared into the background while he went on adventures.
But Fraction changed that all that. Back when he’d written the character in The Order he’d realized he had a social responsibility to make engaging female characters. And as he told Newsarama in an interview:
…my wife was pregnant and we didn’t know if we were having a boy or a girl, and I started to think what it would mean to be a dude writing comics largely about dudes if I did indeed have a daughter. I’d have an awful lot of explaining to do one day for comics’ many, many transgressions against both women characters or women creators. That my silence, that my lack of conscious effort to not fight back against that stuff by simply being complicit was inexcusable.
When given the chance to write Pepper again in Iron Man he was determined to give her an arc. Something beyond the woes of being Tony Stark’s assistant. And when Gwyneth Paltrow, a big famous, Oscar-winning movie star, was cast as Pepper in Iron Man it clinched it for him.
It was like, “Oh, well that’s a real actress. She’s going to be around.” Why not invest her with this dramatic arc, and have her be more than just a secretary? Have her kind of ascend this hero’s journey, in parallel to Iron Man, but in a completely different direction. A chance to retell the Iron Man story within the pages of Iron Man. If he did it with Rhodey, it made sense to me that he’d do it with someone else if presented the chance. It’s just my crazy bugaboo, maybe there should be more interesting, strong women in comics.
And that folks, is when things changed for Pepper Potts. And I mean changed. Like she broke super spy Black Widow, and residential bad ass Maria Hill out of prison. Single handed.
And due to an accident Fraction had been planning to include since The Order Pepper now has a generator where her heart should be, just like Tony. Only her’s gives her super powers. The kind that allow her to go toe to toe with assassins and Spider-Man villains. It also powers her super suit.
That’s right. Pepper Potts is a full on heroine with her very own Iron Man suit. Except it’s built entirely for search and rescue. That was a conscious decision on Fraction’s part. He wanted Pepper Potts to be extraordinary and an equal to Tony in every way, but he didn’t want to destroy her characterization in the process. As Pepper isn’t the sort to go flying into battles and gunning down bad guys and doing crazy feats of martial prowess, this means her Iron Man suit isn’t a war machine. It’s the ambulance helicopter to Tony’s Apache.
I was kind of blown away while devouring her adventures in Fraction’s Eisner award-winning book. I’d grown so accustomed to my mental image of the character that I really didn’t expect to see her change, and change so significantly. It was–well it was shocking. It sort of felt like if they made a concerted effort at DC to turn Jimmy Olson into a flaming bad ass.
Only mildly less ridiculous because Pepper is suddenly filling a void that’s often found itself in the Iron Man mythos. And because Fraction dared to address the “refrigerator” phenomenon.
At one point in the series Tony Stark is put into a coma and is nearly dead. The only way to save him is to dismantle Pepper’s super suit and take the generator out of her chest and give it to him. Essentially “depowering” her for him. It’s quintessential refrigerating and gave me a bad taste in my mouth. But I persevered (largely because I got fed up and glanced at Pepper Pott’s Wikipedia page and saw things might improve). And after Tony gets back to form Pepper is in his face demanding he give her back the powers he took.
While elsewhere in comicdom women are regularly sacrificed to the the narrative gods in Invincible Iron Man they’re given lead roles. They’re allowed to change in dynamic ways comic book characters often are denied. And Pepper isn’t the only one. Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders from The Avengers) is a full on supporting character. Where Pepper has risen to Lois Lane status in the Iron Man book Hill has taken up her old spot. Savvy support.
And the women don’t fight with one another either. Even when they find out they both slept with Tony.
The changes are mirrored in the films. Where Gwyneth Paltrow plays a vital role, and even finds time to show up in The Avengers just to bust Stark’s balls and remind him of his humanity in a way no other character could. From Girl Friday to Lois Lane touchstone, Pepper Potts has changed, and it’s most excellent.