MAJOR SPOILER Warning!!! Be cautious about reading all the way to the end.
Iron Man (2008)
Ready? Let’s talk about Tony Stark and Pepper Potts, the President and First Lady of the MCU. 2008’s Iron Man sets up Tony Stark as a playboy, frequently with women on his arm and in his bed. However, Iron Man also plants the seeds for one of the most interesting, dynamic, and adult relationships in the MCU: the one between Tony and Pepper.
Pepper starts out as Tony’s doting assistant; she knows what he needs, when he needs it, she takes care of nearly everything in his life, and she’s one of the few people he can trust. Although the first Iron Man movie has moments that lean into the “unrequited crush” aspect of their dynamic, it also demonstrates the mutual respect they feel for each other. We first see this when Pepper helps Tony replace parts from his arc reactor, and then gifts him the first one: “Proof that Tony Stark has a Heart.” Another example of this respect is in the dance scene. Here is a YouTube clip I have watched approximately 500 times since 2008:
The film’s climax features Tony and Pepper working together to defeat Iron Monger. It’s also another example of Tony trusting Pepper to do the right thing in pressing the button to blow up Stark Industries, even though they both think it will kill Tony. Iron Man ends with some cheeky quips about how, now that Tony is a superhero, he needs a girlfriend who is the only one that knows his secret identity. Also, the repeated formality of the pair calling each other “Mr. Stark” and “Ms. Potts” is not only a playful nod to the comics, but is indicative of how much they value each other in their lives.
Iron Man 2 (2010)
Iron Man 2 basically resets the events of Iron Man and much of Tony’s personal growth when it comes to realizing what’s important in his life. We open with Tony descending onto a stage filled with bikini-clad women, and later the film introduces Black Widow to be ogled at by both Tony and Happy Hogan. There’s also the entire arc of Tony’s self destruction and hitting the lowest of lows – and when he hits that low, Pepper isn’t there to clean him up: she lets him sit in his own mess (literally).
However, Iron Man 2 does give Pepper a big boost: making her CEO of Stark Industries. This gives Pepper something to focus on that’s not Tony, and again, relies on the trust between Tony and Pepper. Tony knows Pepper can do just about anything, and he recognizes that Pepper knows that, too. Iron Man 2 gives the pair their first kiss, which is undercut by Rhodey, but overall progresses their relationship to something more solid and tangible.
The Avengers (2012)
This more equal dynamic is what we first see on display in The Avengers in the build of Stark Tower: not only does Pepper boost Tony emotionally, the two work more and more in tandem to accomplish their goals. Unsurprisingly, it’s the events of The Avengers that leads to the biggest strain on Pepper and Tony’s dynamic, on display in the delightful Iron Man 3.
Iron Man 3 (2013)
At the end of Avengers, Pepper is the person Tony wants to talk to most before launching himself into space for good. In Iron Man 3, Tony is dealing with the effects of PTSD and adjusting to life again after the Battle of New York. Meanwhile, Pepper is flourishing in her career as head of Stark Industries. Rather than actually express his feelings, Tony hides away in his work, building suit after suit. Pepper desperately tries to give Tony normalcy: date nights, trips away, and other normal things couples do. While Iron Man 3 deals with Tony relearning how to exist without his suit, it also proves again that Tony Stark has a heart: his love for Pepper. We see the pieces of the arc reactor taken from his chest and put into a necklace for Pepper, another symbol of the partnership between them.
Homecoming, Infinity War, and Endgame
After a quick break from the spotlight in Avengers: Age of Ultron (where Tony brags about Pepper’s success) and Captain America: Civil War, the more recent MCU entries, like Spider-Man: Homecoming, Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: Endgame, all bring Tony and Pepper’s relationship back to the forefront. Spider-Man: Homecoming finally sees their engagement, and Avengers: Infinity War sets up one of the most loving and tragic payoffs in Avengers: Endgame.
Tony learned self-sacrifice in Avengers, and that experience was enough to put him off of that whole idea until Endgame. At the beginning of Endgame, Tony is rightfully angry about the Avengers’ loss to Thanos, and decides to head into early retirement and have a baby with Pepper – a concept which was foreshadowed in Infinity War. Tony has played the part of father figure to multiple people in the MCU, but his daughter Morgan has solidified his eternal Daddy status. Early on in Endgame, while Tony and Pepper are lake loungin’, both come to understand that while Tony is afraid of what he’ll lose, they both know he won’t be able to rest unless he does everything he can to save humanity.
One of the most satisfying shots in Endgame features Tony and Pepper, in the Iron Man and Rescue armors, respectively, fighting back-to-back: they are truly partners, amidst the chaos. The ultimate illustration of the love and trust that’s built up between them over the past eleven years comes in Tony’s dying moments: when Pepper says they’ll be OK, and he can rest now.
Now that Tony is gone, his original arc reactor has been laid to rest, and Pepper is a widow, we just wanted to take some time to appreciate the evolution and nuance of the MCU’s first ‘ship. Rest in peace, Pepperony (I have to say, I hate that as their ship name) – you were too good for this world.