Female Characters in Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes: Pepper Potts

Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts in Iron Man (2008), image credit Paramount Pictures


In the first ever co-authored Superhero Subculture post, it seemed necessary to address one of the biggest current issues surrounding superhero films – that of the roles and representation of women. The intention was initially to engage in a discussion over the roles and representation of women in superhero films. This would have gone on to analyse all key female roles in the MCU and DCCU. However, upon beginning to write this, it became obvious such a post would be incredibly long, and would likely gloss over quite a lot of the facets of many characters. To address this, the post has now been split into individual posts, each one looking at a different female character within the Marvel and DC franchises. This also allows more time for research on each character, and more space to look at them in depth. The post sections are subtitled by the author, either under the names Lycaron or Lexiholmes.

The first female character that will feature is the first one we were introduced to in the MCU, Virginia “Pepper” Potts. In her first few scenes alone, she shows that despite being ‘Mr Stark’s personal assistant’, she can quite easily keep Tony in check. His forgetfulness regarding her birthday in no way stops her from buying a present for herself using Stark’s own finances. While her main purpose in the first Iron Man film was largely as a love interest part for Stark himself, she does play a far more significant and important role in this film.

Pepper herself investigates the circumstances surrounding Stark’s abduction in Iraq, and almost single-handedly find out about the corruption inside of Stark Industries, and the dealings that Obadiah Stane had with the Ten Rings. While she does not succeed in warning Stark, the fact that she manages to bluff her way into the office of the Stark Industries CEO to access this information, and similarly bluff her way out when confronted by Stane, shows a certain ingenuity and depth to the character who until this point in the movie largely seemed to be a character to keep Stark in check (a difficult enough task) and as a potential love interest for him.

While this is largely her role in the first film, by Iron Man 2 she was established as the new CEO of Stark Industries, and has led the company to a new height following the blowback of Stane’s corruption and Stark’s announcement of being Iron Man. She continues to dominate over Stark himself, although she does lose the ability during his drunken birthday stupor, however following this keeps a cool detachment going, leading to him actively pursuing her to make an apology (despite him making several failed attempts to do so). The downside here was that from here on in, she reverts to a stereotypical damsel in distress during both this and the following film, Iron Man 3. However, her forceful and strong personality, and her ability to shut down strong men (both Stark and Killian in Iron Man 3) places her as a very important character to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, despite lacking any powers of her own (at least until the end of the finale of the trilogy). While these powers place her in a much stronger position, based on her role as CEO of Stark Industries remaining intact in Captain America: Civil War in a line of dialogue, it would appear she decided not to use these abilities and kept her personality as the strength and ability she uses to dominate over the business world.


However, whilst Pepper Potts demands the attention of the cinema goer during her scenes where she deftly handles Tony’s rather considerable flaws, it cannot be denied that she succumbs to some of the typical feminine stereotypes. With the introduction of Black Widow in Iron Man 2, she immediately becomes the less important and interesting female character, despite the confident portrayal of her in the first Iron Man film (I wonder if Scarlett Johansson’s overwhelming sexuality has something to do with that…). Iron Man 3 places her in the role of the ‘damsel’, but the glimpse of her as the legendary superhero Rescue suggested the incorporation of a female avenger who could clearly handle herself. However, and this is quite a substantial however, she falls foul of the writers when she forces Tony Stark to destroy all of his suits, clearly unable to handle his shifted attention onto the suits instead of her. Whilst this is completely understandable (what woman would want to share her man with 40+ robotic figures!), I had hoped that the acknowledgement of Pepper’s Rescue moments would allow her to step up and fight alongside Tony, rather than force him to conform to normality.

Rescue character artwork from Marvel: Avengers Alliance, art credit Sam Wood


Pepper’s was undoubtedly a strong female lead for her first outing into the MCU, however her sidelining in future films, and the lack of development in her possible future as a hero, both in the hint at Rescue in IM3, and her Extremis based powers, hopefully leaves her open to a future story arc. But with the Infinity War creeping closer to the Marvel world, it seems less and less likely that Pepper will be returning to our screens in a heroic role of her own.

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