Why does the world seem to hate Iron Man 2?
Sure, its superhero vs supervillain plot isn’t the best, but the movie is a lot of fun, and has a lot of great character stuff to boot. Perhaps it’s not particularly thrilling as a standalone comic book movie, but as an instalment in the growing Marvel universe, seen after Iron Man 1, it’s pretty great.
And — shock of shocks — it actually has two significant female characters. One of whom is a hero in her own right. If only she wasn’t standing in an almost anatomically impossible way on the promo poster.
Iron Man 2 completely subverts the typical hero tropes. After seeing Spiderman and his ilk angst over their powers and the pressure of responsibility before finally embracing their potential at the end of the movie, it’s fun to see Tony Stark enjoying being a superhero, before being knocked down by his hubris and learning to be more responsible by the movie’s end. It’s refreshing and compelling, and definitely more fitting for Stark’s character that the usual emotional arc we see.
But really, I want to talk about Natasha Romanoff. I’d been eagerly anticipating Black Widow’s Marvel movie debut, and although she’s not what I’d call indispensable to the plot here, she makes a good showing. She’s a very capable lawyer. An excellent event organizer. A fluent speaker of multiple languages, including Latin. And of course a deadly spy who can take down a room of enemies unarmed while barely breaking a sweat.
Although I’ve written before about the need for female superheroes in movies, with emphasis on the superpowers, I do think its great that Natasha is our first hero who can fight and scheme and take down evil entirely under her own power. Iron Man may have come from the brain of Tony Stark, but his fighting abilities are all down to the suit. The Hulk was an accident, Captain America is an experimental super soldier, and Thor is a god. But Black Widow is just incredibly skilled. She’s a badass entirely under her own power. And that’s awesome.
Of course, it also means that people underestimate her, because she’s pretty, and small, and a girl. And mostly, her reaction is just boredom. Even though she’s undercover, she’s introduced as a badass from her very first scene, when boxing!guy mocks and belittles her for saying she has some boxing experience, and she casually knocks him to the ground. Not with a superpowered punch, of course, but with pure skill.
And although boxing!guy is shown to be an idiot from the very beginning, and is similarly embarrassed when they storm the facility at the end of the movie and he takes down one guy to Natasha’s twenty, he’s not the only one to underestimate Natasha. In fact, his blatant sexism in the first scene mirrors Tony’s (only slightly) more subtle attitude to her. Sure, he’s impressed by all her language skills, but his response is to say, “I want one,” and to put her on display in the boxing ring. He picks her as a hot (and intelligent) assistant, and she’ll spend the rest of the movie casually pwning him and proving that she is so much more than his sexist brain could ever imagine.
And then there’s Pepper Potts. Although her main onscreen role seems to be “fighting with Tony Stark” for most of the movie, she also proves to be incredibly capable, incredibly intelligent and the voice of reason throughout. Tony may have made her CEO of Stark Industries in order to avoid his responsibilities, but that doesn’t change the fact that she’s fantastic at the job. She’s great at handling Tony and at PR, but she’s also completely unafraid to call him on his crap. And when she realizes that being CEO of Stark Industries means cleaning up Tony Stark’s messes for a career, she quits, confident that her talents will earn her another powerful position in no time at all.
Of course, Pepper Potts’ characterization isn’t flawless. She talks to the reporter from the first movie, another woman in an influential position, and is invited to be involved in a powerful women article in Vanity Fair, but their interaction is still colored by Pepper’s dismissal of her and her not-so-subtle slutshaming carried over from the first movie. The movie starts to set up a similar rivalry between Pepper and Natasha, with Pepper’s approval of Natasha’s abilities vanishing once she realizes that Tony thinks she’s hot, but thankfully that’s subverted by the end, with the two of them teaming up to help save the day. And then all of Pepper’s intelligence vanishes at the end of the final battle, when she stares at a beeping, flashing metallic device instead of running like any sensible person would. But hey, we gotta leave room for Tony to sweep in and save the girl, right?
But still. Two significant female characters. Who are intelligent and capable and badass in very different ways. Who play major roles in saving the day. Maybe I’m setting a low bar here, but considering past superhero efforts, that’s pretty damn impressive.
I just hope it continues.