There’s nothing quite as important to human existence as love. Love should define the core of all our relationships – with our significant other, our families, our friends, our God, and (though we often disregard this) ourselves. As such, love has always been a central feature – in message as well as in inspiration – of many of our artistic works. Love fills our novels, our pop songs, our films (from rom coms like How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days to deep, philosophical examinations like Her), our paintings, our plays, and even our comic books. Being such a foundational part of our lives, we continue to seek and explore it, always and in all ways. It should come as no surprise then that we find lots of looks at love in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But, of all the relationships and flirtationships Marvel’s given us, there’s only one power couple – Pepper Potts and Tony Stark.
Iron Man is a classic now, but it was a risky move in 2008. Marvel Studios was trying their hand at making movies and the Armored Avenger was to be their maiden voyage. Much of their future plans hinged on how this film did. Obviously, casting was key. Marvel found Tony Stark perfectly personified in Robert Downey Jr. But RDJ wasn’t the only casting coup they had. They also got Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts. I think it’s impossible to argue with the fact that their acting talent and chemistry helped propel Iron Man into the mainstream and transform a would-be geeky cult hit in a box office juggernaut. If Iron Man didn’t work, we wouldn’t have the MCU – at least not in size and scope – that we have today. And Iron Man wouldn’t have worked, at least it wouldn’t have worked as well, without Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow. Over the course of Iron Man, Iron Man 2, The Avengers, Iron Man 3, Captain America: Civil War, and Spider-Man: Homecoming, they have given us a living, breathing, couple we sincerely care about.
But they aren’t just the MCU’s first or most interesting couple. They are also the most important. Of all the relationships (and flirtationships) scattered throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it is Pepper and Tony alone who present a real relationship, with organic and healthy growth and development…or, well, as healthy as it can be when one half of the couple is an (occasionally) arrogant and ego-centric billionaire who spends his free time saving the world inside a high-tech suit of armor.
So much of the love we see in the MCU is ill-defined or (worse) an example of insta-love. Now, I grant it has to be hard to create two dynamic, well-rounded characters – bring them to life, give them history, establish their lives – and then also craft a realistic love connection over the course of two hours. I certainly couldn’t do it. (If I did I would so be writing screenplays and being the type of guy who always wears sunglasses (even when it’s night or dark) because my Hollywood-adjacent lifestyle has turned me into a quasi-tool (despite my talent).) But I know there are people who can. And – with the exception of Pepper and Tony – we don’t see much of that in the Marvel movies.
Look at Jane and Thor. As will come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog, I love Thor. I love the comics. I love the movies. I have my own Mjölnir that I bang on my filing cabinet in my classroom when the kids need to quiet down. Chris Hemsworth is perfect in every way (as Kalie articulated wonderfully in the recent Great Chris Debate). And I have adored Natalie Portman since Garden State. Long before she got the Oscar for Black Swan (she was haunting, frightening, and amazing), I thought she deserved it for Closer (still one of my all-time favorite films). I think – and have thought for over a decade – she is the definitive actress of her generation. She is without peer in my mind…but I don’t get Jane and Thor.
I mean obviously they are both gorgeous individuals. But, as characters, I don’t think either Jane or Thor would be one to fall in love with someone based on their looks alone. However, in Thor I don’t see much room for a real, organic relationship to grow. He falls from the sky. She’s fascinated by him. He looks good. She looks good. They gaze at each other a lot. They go on an adventure together. And…love. Okay, maybe Thor can credit part of his redemption to Jane and start to develop deeper feelings from there. But I just don’t see where Jane’s investment comes from outside of him being hot and mysterious. Or, rather, I don’t see where the love comes from.
I’ve always considered myself a romantic. But I have never, ever been able to get behind the idea of love at first sight. I just don’t see it. Intrigue at first sight, sure. Interest, like, lust, or desire at first sight – yep, absolutely. But love? When I think of love I think of a willingness to give your whole self to the Beloved. I think of…well, I don’t really think of anything. I feel it. And what I feel is beyond my ability to capture in words. It’s the stuff or Rumi’s poetry or Paulo Coelho’s fiction or a particularly brilliant film or song. But the word love – and what it conveys – is far too complex, far too mystical for me to express in words. And it’s certainly not something that stirs deep within the soul after catching sight of someone. You can’t know someone’s heart and dreams and personality and aspirations from a glance. And I don’t think you can love someone without allowing yourself to be pulled into that part of them. So insta-love as a plot device (even when I ADORE and respect the actors portraying it) has never worked for me.
We don’t really find love so much as its potential with Steve and Peggy. Now I don’t want to dwell on this too much because it makes me sad. No matter how many times I see it, I always cry at the end of Captain America: The First Avenger. We never get the chance to see their flirtation blossom into love which, to the film’s credit, it doesn’t try to convince us they have. There is a deep connection between the two of them…but they are ripped apart before it ever has the chance to grow. Honestly, it would be easier to deal with if Cap had died in the crash. Him awakening seventy years later, enough for he and Peggy to see each other again but to never be able to have the life they could’ve had, is the most tragic, heartbreaking thing yet to happen in the MCU. It kills me. Steve and Sharon Carter on the other hand, are a different story. They’re bordering on insta-love but could be developed to be something more.
Bruce and Betty are a non-issue because when Edward Norton left the Marvel Cinematic Universe apparently they got rid of the whole idea of his relationship with Betty too. Bruce mentions, “The last time I was in New York I broke…Harlem” in The Avengers but he never mentions Betty. Then in Avengers: Age Of Ultron he and Natasha are all flirtin’ up on each other. But that’s a discussion for another post.
Does anyone even remember Rachel McAdams character’s name in Dr. Strange much less her relationship with Stephen? I sure don’t. So they can’t be a great example of love. And sure, Peter’s got a thing for Liz in Spider-Man: Homecoming but it’s the stuff of kids and crushes, not deep and abiding love. We have Hope and Scott in Ant-Man too but that’s a flirtationship at best. Thankfully the writers resisted the temptation to go full on into the LOVE zone with their characters in the first film.
Gamora and Peter give us the potential for something real in Guardians Of The Galaxy. Peter is attracted to Gamora and he tries to pursue her…because, well, he’s Peter Quill. That’s what he does. But Gamora shuts that shit down. She is “not some starry-eyed waif who will succumb to [his] pelvic sorcery!” From Guardians Of The Galaxy to Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 their connection grows as they learn more about each other. They come to respect one another, to know one another, to become friends and – eventually – family. The romantic chemistry never leaves and, from this groundwork, there is the potential for real love to be born. However we’ll have to wait to see where it goes in Avengers: Infinity War and/or Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3.
But Tony and Pepper work. In them we see what Gamora and Peter have the potential to build to. And they are a real, organic, healthy(ish) vision of a loving couple.
When we meet Pepper and Tony in Iron Man, she’s his assistant and has been for years. They have a preexisting relationship. They’re boss and employee, sure. But there’s a real friendship there too, an obvious trust and genuine care exist between the two of them. They’re flirty with each other…but – and this is important – it stays at flirting in the first film. In fact, it’s not until the conclusion of Iron Man 2 where the finally kiss! After surviving Vanko’s attack, they come out and finally say what they’ve been feeling for a long time. We saw growth and evolution in their relationship. Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr. have incredible chemistry and what’s so wonderful about them is they deliver the will they/won’t they romantic tension effortlessly but then they also make us love Pepper and Tony together as a couple. That’s no easy feat!
Their growth and evolution doesn’t end with a rooftop kiss either. We see their bliss in The Avengers, as they work together to design Stark Tower in Manhattan and we see the strain Tony’s life as a superhero puts on their relationship in Iron Man 3. We see them grow together and we see the work they have to put into their relationship to stay together. Openness, honesty, vulnerability – these are things that must be constantly developed. Life doesn’t always make that easy and that’s presented honestly with Pepper and Tony.
Of all these women in the MCU (again, with the exception of Gamora and Peter), Pepper is the only one who’s presented as an equal to Tony in both his personal life and his superheroing. In Iron Man 2, as he’s facing his own mortality, Tony names Pepper CEO of Stark Industries, a title she carries forward throughout all her other appearances in the MCU, running the company far more efficiently than we ever see Tony do. And, in Iron Man 3, we see Pepper suit up in Tony’s Mark 42 armor and protect him from the Mandarin’s attack on their home. It’s also Pepper, not Tony, who ultimately faces the Extremis-powered Aldrich Killian in the film’s conclusion.
Their relationship, despite the equality and respect we see between them and the history they share, is not perfect nor is it easy. This too, reflects the reality and complications of real life. Their problems in Iron Man 3 didn’t stop with the finale of the film, just as real problems in relationships aren’t magically solved with one act or one conversation. Tony’s first scene in Captain America: Civil War sees him giving a presentation at MIT and he’s clearly thrown by the mention of Pepper on the teleprompter when she’s not there. Later, Steve asks him about her:
Steve – “Is Pepper here? I didn’t see her.”
Tony – “We are… kinda… well not kinda…”
Steve – “Pregnant?”
Tony – “No, definitely not. We’re taking a break. It’s nobody’s fault.”
Steve – “I’m so sorry Tony. I didn’t know.”
Tony – “Few years ago, I almost lost her, so I trashed all my suits. Then, we had to muck up Hydra. And then Ultron. My fault. And then, and then, and then. I never stopped. ‘Cause the truth is I don’t wanna stop. I don’t want to lose her. I thought maybe the Accords can split the difference. In her defense, I’m a handful. Yet, dad was a pain in the ass, but he and mom always made it work.”
I was heartbroken! Where was Gwyneth?!? Where was Pepper?!? I was so worried she decided to leave (or she was let go) and this was the way they were writing her out. BUT THEN we get to the conclusion of Spider-Man: Homecoming and Tony and Pepper are not just back together but Tony (in an admittedly Tony-fashion, to give them something to talk about at a press conference) is talking about getting engaged. Aaaahhh! Yay! I’m not at all kidding when I say this scene between Pepper and Tony was my favorite part of the entire film (if you don’t believe me, here’s an old post I wrote about Spider-Man: Homecoming where I say that exact thing).
We see Pepper and Tony fall in love, a love that has grown over time and is anchored in a solid relationship, a friendship of love, trust, and support they’ve built for years. We see their relationship grow – as they challenge each other, growing together and apart. They aren’t a hero and his damsel but two strong, independent, willful, and competent individuals. They are two equals and their love reflects this. Yet even they are not immune to struggles, pain, and setbacks. They break-up. People do, even couples who seem like they are made for each other. Yet, at the end of the day, they find their way back to each other. They are a beautiful example of real love, made all the more surprising and important for being presented in a series of films primarily about a man in a shiny suit of armor battling superpowered villains. It’s not Before Sunrise but it’s remarkably well-crafted for a superhero movie.
If we lose Tony in Avengers: Infinity War or Avengers 4 (as I’ve been predicting we might), it will break my heart. The heart and they center of the MCU will be gone and I will mourn all we will be missing without him. But, if he dies, I will mourn the loss of Tony and Pepper’s relationship most of all. The greatest tragedy in the potential loss of Tony Stark will be our losing more development of Pepper’s character and the chance to see more of their growth and their life together.
As Tony asks Pepper to help switch out the arc reactor in his chest in Iron Man, she protests, saying she shouldn’t be doing this. He looks at her with sincerity and tells her, “I don’t have anyone else.” Later she tells him, “You’re all I’ve got too, you know.” These weren’t romantic proclamations meant to woo, but rather the honest confessions of two people who have built a very real, very intimate connection over years of knowing each other. From there comes love and from that love, the heart and soul are nourished. Of all the ways the characters of the Marvel Cinematic Universe can and do inspire us, it’s Pepper and Tony who show us how love grows and illustrate what love has the potential to build. What a beautiful blessing this is.