Friday, May 3, 2013

Iron Man 3: A Mixed Bag

It's that time of year again! I'm kicking off another series analyzing the gender portrayed in the summer's blockbusters. I'll be tagging the whole thing as 2013 blockbusters. And if you want to check out last year's series, it's 2012 blockbusters. (BTW, I take a pretty loose interpretation of "blockbuster.")

So let's jump into Iron Man 3. Mild spoilers to follow.

[Image text: Tony Stark surrounded
by various versions of his suit.]

I love Tony Stark as portrayed by Robert Downey Jr. I understand that both the character and the man have their real flaws, but there's just something intoxicatingly charming about him and needless to say, I was looking forward to Iron Man 3.

As a superhero action flick, overall, it did not disappoint. Stark was humanized more than ever before, as we learn that he is struggling with anxiety attacks, insomnia, and nightmares (when he can sleep) after his experiences in New York with The Avengers. So it's no surprise that Stark's latest version of his suit allows him to control it not only from the inside, but also remotely so this his physical person is not always in harm's way. This more relatable side of Stark is interestingly paired with his usual "genius billionaire playboy philanthropist" attitude and there is still plenty of "in suit" action, humor, and suspense. So all that is to say that in a general way I liked the film. But let's take a look at the gender side of things.

The series overall contains one constant female presence--Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), who begins as Stark's assistant in the first Iron Man, but by now has risen to the top of Stark Industries and runs the business side of everything. Stark and Potts gone from two people who clearly care about each other but aren't together into an official relationship. Potts plays the "better half" role. She serves to ground Stark in reality, knock down his inflated ego and remind him that he is only human. She also has a quick wit which matches his every step along the way. She tends to serve as his moral compass (which is not an uncommon role for female characters to play in TV/movies.)

[Image: Pepper Potts holding
the Iron Man mask]
In general, Potts is saved by Stark in the classic superhero's girlfriend kinda way. OK, whatever. I get it. He's Iron Man. But Potts' tendency to be in the wrong place at the wrong time ended up getting on my nerves more than once in rewatching the other films in preparation for Iron Man 3. The same thing happens in this one, but there is a twist. (As fans have been geeking out about since the news dropped online) at one point, Potts dons the Iron Man suit and saves herself and another character. Sure, the suit ends up on her because Stark controlled it to do so...but I guess it's better than nothing?

Potts also plays a critical role in defeating the super villain Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). Killian has taken Potts captive, and literally refers to her as his trophy (ew) who he biologically mutates (I guess so she's more like him?) When Stark comes to rescue her, things don't go as planned for him and Potts, uses her new power to ultimately work with Stark to defeat Killian. While Stark weakens Killian, it is Potts who has to close the deal (thanks to her new mutation.)

There's another female character new to the Iron Man franchise who plays a critical role in the film. Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall, whom I adore!) is an old one night stand of Stark's who also has created the biological mutation that Killian uses to weaponize himself and a whole host of other people to create his evil forces.

[Image text: Maya Hansen at a computer]
Hansen is interesting to me because she is positioned as a scientific genius almost equal to Stark (which no one except Bruce Banner has really achieved in the movies.) She wants to do good in the world by helping people with injuries regenerate their damaged bodies, but her creation has a side effect which is used as the aforementioned weapon by Killian. Despite seeming like she has good intentions deep down (she comes to Potts and Stark to report Killian) Hansen has not always done the right thing. She has, after all, been working for Killian for 13 years and when Stark is captured by him, she doesn't really try to help Stark. She seems to be happy that he's in captivity so that he can help her fix the dangers side effect of her genetic work.

Big spoiler here...the most disappointing thing to me about the gender portrayed in the film is how quickly and unceremoniously Hansen's life ends. Killian shoots her in the chest to show Stark that he doesn't care about her...and that's it. She's gone. They build her up as this interesting new character, who made a huge scientific discovery. She's extra interesting to me because we can't quite peg as "good" or "bad" (think how rare that is in superhero movies!) and then BAM she's gone without another mention. It made her feel just so damn expendable. It's just not sitting right with me. So like I indicated in the title, I consider this film a mixed bag. There's clearly some good stuff going on but it's tempered with disappointing choices like this.

I would mention I think the movie does technically pass the Brechdel test as Potts and Hansen privately discuss what Hansen was trying to warn Stark about--but maybe not since she was reporting her boss (Killian) and that technically counts as "talking about a man."


Ah well, it's Marvel, ya know? I really do want more, but I guess I have to be thankful for what it does have.

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