There are many pleasures to be had from Iron Man 3, the third installment in the franchise that's the tent pole of the Marvel Universe. Among them, particularly for those of us in the audience who are nerds but not boys, is the fact that the movie passes the Bechdel Test: the rule that assesses sexism in movies by noting whether women ever converse about something other than a man. Iron Man 3 gives its women, Gwyneth Paltrow as Tony Stark's consigliere-girlfriend Pepper Potts, and Rebecca Hall as brilliant scientist Maya Hansen, some of its snappiest lines and best insights.
Pepper has evolved over three movies from a beleaguered assistant to the woman running Tony’s company and sharing his life as an equal. The films have veered from teenaged fantasy into sophisticated comedy as Tony has come to recognize her value, in business and in his emotional life.
When danger strikes, the two are forced to work together, and Pepper saves Tony twice, rather than getting rescued herself. "I think in order to move things forward and keep it fresh, you can only be the damsel in distress for so long, and then it’s old," Paltrow said prior to the movie's release. The moments in which she shakes off the damsel cliché, donning one of Tony's suits and later landing a killer punch on a supervillain, are among the most entertaining in the movie.
Maya, like many of the women in Tony Stark's universe, began as a sexual conquest. Yet the beautiful scientist is also a genius who created the powerful Extremis virus that drives much of the plot. In one of the film's best jokes, we flash back to Tony and Maya talking science before they hook up, as if discussing the regeneration of lost limbs were the most alluring kind of foreplay. When she shows up at Tony’s house fourteen years later, he says, "Please don't tell me there's a 12-year-old kid waiting in the car.” "He's 13," Maya deadpans, rattling Tony, who thought he had the upper hand.
As Maya gets to know Pepper, there's no particular anxiety between Tony's lovers past and present. When Pepper mentions Tony’s description of Maya as a botanist, Maya replies, "What I actually am is a biological coder running a team of 40 out of a private think tank, but sure, you can call me a botanist.” Then, instead of squabbling over Tony, they talk corporate ethics, defense contracts, the purity of research versus applied science, and Wernher von Braun.*
Iron Man 3’s progressive gender play is especially noteworthy when you consider the kinds of roles actresses in superhero movies usually get stuck with. Natalie Portman's Jane Foster in Thor was a wide-eyed true believer more than she was an actual scientist, and spent more time in the movie getting rescued than expanding our understanding of the universe. Captain America's Peggy Carter got to wear a gun, but she ended up a tragedy for the hero to carry with him, rather than a long-term sparring partner.
The newest Iron Man isn't perfect on gender issues, particularly in a couple of plot details I won't reveal here. But given the uniform dudeliness of Marvel's films, there's something to be said for a movie that acknowledges that while the boys are tinkering with their toys and hitting each other with big hammers, there are still ladies out there, getting things done, and without the advantage of superpowers.
Correction, May 6, 2013: This post originally misspelled the first name of Wernher von Braun.