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The untold truth of Pepper Potts

With a prominent role in the Iron Man series and several other Marvel films, Tony Stark's erstwhile assistant Pepper Potts has become one of the most recognizable figures in the MCU — and she's also one of the most unlikely characters to have that honor. Yes, believe it or not, even more unlikely than the talking raccoon. At least he headlined his own comic.

Pepper Potts, on the other hand, has taken a pretty strange route to the fame that she's enjoying these days, toiling in the background of the Marvel Universe until the movies made her a breakout star. She might not be the flashiest figure in the MCU, but she's got her finger on Tony Stark's pulse like no one else. From her introduction as the most supporting of supporting characters to her revitalization as an armored hero in her own right, here's the circuitous truth behind Pepper Potts.

The cool exec(utive assistant)

Virginia "Pepper" Potts made her debut only a few months after Iron Man himself did, in the pages of 1963's Tales of Suspense #45. She even makes the cover in that issue, with a blurb boldly proclaiming the arrival of "'Pepper' Potts and 'Happy' Hogan … destined to become two of your favorite supporting characters!" That's the best thing you can say about someone making their first appearance, Stan? You had to qualify it like that? Couldn't just say "one of your favorite characters?" But to be fair, it did turn out to be accurate. It just took a few decades for it to actually happen.

In those first issues, Pepper was more or less cut from the same cloth as other early Marvel supporting characters like Betty Brant, but with a pun name that was egregious even by the standards of Silver Age comics. Before long, though, she came to distinguish herself through a sharp wit that more than lived up to her fiery nickname. While she certainly played the role of the lovestruck secretary pining for handsome, mustachioed Tony Stark, the banter around the office always ended with her landing the knockout punchlines … especially where Happy Hogan was concerned.

It's an unwritten rule of comic books — particularly the soap operatic stories that defined the first few years of the Marvel Age — that three characters cannot coexist in a single cast without some kind of love triangle developing. Once Pepper and Happy arrived in the pages of Tales of Suspense, that was definitely the case for Iron Man's most prominent trio.

Pepper Potts: Shade-Thrower

Unlike other superhero comics, though, the love triangle of the Iron Man saga omitted the main character's superheroic identity completely. Instead, Pepper was infatuated with Tony, and Happy Hogan, a former heavyweight boxer who became Tony's chauffeur once the role of bodyguard was apparently filled by Iron Man, found himself smitten with Ms. Potts. Unfortunately for him, she responded to all of his advances with what might be the most brutal zingers comic books have ever seen.

Need a few examples? in Tales of Suspense #45, when Happy made a remark about being in a love triangle, Pepper responded by telling him that "the only triangle around here is your head, Mister Hogan, which comes to a nice sharp point!" In #48, she told him that going out on a date with him was "the most reprehensive, repulsive, ridiculous idea I've ever heard," which gave Happy the rare chance to offer a punchline of his own: "Yeah, but what's your answer?" In #53, when Happy asked her why she didn't just "break down and admit you're crazy about me," she hit a Mortal Kombat-level finisher by telling him "that wouldn't be a breakdown … it'd be a total nervous collapse, you big gorilla."

This went on for about two years, and in that time, it consistently distinguished Pepper as a character who was confident, smart, and willing to assert herself rather than being the stereotypical would-be love interest. Also, if we're being honest, it made her one of Stan Lee's best-written characters of the entire era, and arguably his best female character of the '60s, period. Sorry, Sue, but that issue of Fantastic Four where Reed Richards tells people you're important because Abraham Lincoln also had a mother can't really compare to the glass-shattering dunk of Pepper saying Happy had "all the charm of a rusty doorknob" (Tales of Suspense #50).

Happy Ever After?

As you might expect from the fiery intensity of their early relationship, a romance did in fact blossom between Pepper and Happy. At first it was a pretty clear "Betty and Veronica" situation, with Pepper only deigning to date Happy in an attempt to make Tony Stark jealous, but their feelings for each other eventually deepened to the point where they got married.

Unlike a lot of comic book weddings, though — which are treated as the kind of capital-E Events that can sell an extra-sized issue packed with guest stars and party-crashing villains — the Potts/Hogan nuptials didn't even happen on-panel. Instead, it's revealed in Tales of Suspense #91 that they just went off and eloped. Regardless, the marriage stuck around for a pretty good amount of time, lasting almost 30 years before they finally got divorced. For context, that's only a year less than Peter Parker and Mary Jane were married.

All of which is to say that despite the 2008 Iron Man film positioning her unambiguously as a love interest (and the rest of the MCU following up on that to the point of a marriage proposal in Spider-Man: Homecoming), a romance between Pepper and Tony wasn't really a thing in the comics.

Divorce and Death

Unfortunately for Pepper and Happy, their relationship just wasn't meant to last under the strain of being supporting characters in a comic book. After distancing themselves from Tony and his company in order to keep Happy from being turned into a supervillain (again) or being injured while wearing an Iron Man suit of his own (again), Happy embarked on a series of failed business ventures. Then, when Tony spent two years dead or as a teenage version of himself from another dimension (long story), the stress was too much, and they got divorced.

While they remained close, any hope that fans had for a reconciliation came to an end in 2007 during the events of Civil War. When a villain called the Spymaster tried to kill Tony Stark, he wound up facing off against Happy instead. Happy, thanks to years of boxing training, was able to take the Spymaster down, but not before he was injured to the point of being comatose and potentially brain dead. Pepper, knowing Happy had retired from boxing due to his fears of a traumatic brain injury, asked Tony to take him off life support, and he did.

The late 2000s were a pretty grim time for superheroes and their supporting characters, folks.

The Order

Pepper's next big development also came in the aftermath of Civil War. One of the big changes following the victory of Iron Man's side and the passage of the Superhero Registration Act was called "The Initiative." The idea was that all 50 states would have their own dedicated superhero team, apparently because there was a real danger of M.O.D.O.K. showing up in Wyoming and trying to steal Old Faithful or whatever.

Tony took a personal interest in his occasional home state of California, and the result was The Order: a team of celebrity superheroes who had artificially generated powers that gave them one year of superheroing before they were removed. The leader was Henry Hellrung, also known as Anthem. He was an old friend of Tony's who had played Tony in what was presumably a TV show about Iron Man, and was actually the one who convinced him to join Alcoholics Anonymous after both men realized they had drinking problems.

Naturally, there was only one person Tony could trust with running the team: Pepper Potts, who, inspired by the team being patterned after the classical Greek pantheon, took the codename "Hera." Using bionic implants, she coordinated their actions throughout the short-lived series. The Order only lasted a dozen issues, and aside from Pepper, none of its members have been seen since.

Pepper at the movies

It pretty much goes without saying that the biggest development in Pepper's character since … well, ever happened in 2008, when she was featured in a movie called Iron Man that was hoping to launch a sprawling, interconnected franchise that would rake in billions of dollars and eventually feature obscure characters like Rocket Raccoon and Proxima Midnight. Psh, like that could ever happen.

You probably already know what happened next. Unlike her comics counterpart, Pepper, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, was cast as a love interest for Tony Stark rather than Happy Hogan, who was played by director Jon Favreau. She played an active role in the part, including the kind of mandatory hacking sequence that every action movie was seemingly required by law to have in 2008. And, like almost everyone except Terrence Howard, she wound up sticking around for the next 11 years. All told, she appeared in seven films (and counting) in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Heartbreaker

After being featured in the 2008 Iron Man movie, Pepper Potts returned to prominence in the comics, particularly in the pages of Invincible Iron Man, a comic that was launched to coincide with the movie and became a hit after it turned out that everyone suddenly liked Tony Stark again.

While she started off as Tony's assistant with a flirty, will-they-won't-they sort of relationship, a major change came early in the run when Pepper was caught in an attack on Stark Industries by Ezekiel Stane. When he blew up a building, Pepper, mirroring Tony Stark's own origin story, wound up with shrapnel lodged in her chest, too close to her heart to be removed. To keep her alive, Tony implanted a miniature ARC reactor into her chest.

While the implant saved her life, Pepper was initially very reluctant to keep it, owing to the reactor's roots in the military-industrial complex. Pepper quite simply did not want to be a weapon, but Tony revealed that the technology in this particular implant wasn't one of his old weapons designs. Instead, it was taken from the Rand Corporation — the company owned by Marvel's own Iron Fist — which had never had a connection to weapons manufacturing.

Rescue

Pepper might not have wanted to be a weapon, but before long, she wound up getting a suit of Iron Man armor all her own. Unlike Tony's, though, her armor wasn't necessarily built for battle. Sure, it was tough, but its primary function was to help people through means that didn't necessarily involve beating them up or blasting them with hand-lasers.

The result was Rescue, the identity that brought Pepper into the superheroic spotlight for the very first time. Using the Rescue armor, Pepper scrapped with plenty of supervillains including Tony's old enemy and ex-girlfriend Whitney Frost, better known as Madame Masque. While Tony was temporarily indisposed due to being presumed dead (again), she even teamed up with his would-be successor, Riri Williams, the teenage genius who would later take the name Ironheart after building her own suit of highly advanced armor.

P.E.P.P.E.R.

There is one final wrinkle in Pepper's story, which goes back to Tony Stark's incredibly weird habit of building incredibly advanced artificial intelligences based on the personalities of both himself and his friends. This, for the record, is an incredibly bad idea for anyone who lives in the kind of universe that includes, say, Ultron, but it's worked out okay for Tony so far. Well, except for that one suit of armor that gained sentience, fell in love with him, tortured him for two days on a radioactive desert island, and then tried to kill and replace him, but hey, everyone has an off day.

On the more effective side of things, there's J.A.R.V.I.S. (Just Another Rather Very Intelligent System), the old AI armor assistant that made it to the comics after appearing in the movies, which was of course based on the longtime butler for the Avengers, Edwin Jarvis. In the comics, that one was actually created specifically to help Pepper use the Rescue armor. It worked just fine … until it wound up falling in love with Pepper and kidnapping her. Imagine that happening with, say, Clippy from Microsoft Word, and you'll understand why that might be horrible.

After J.A.R.V.I.S., Tony created a new AI based on someone else he could trust: P.E.P.P.E.R. (sadly, no acronym explanation given). As the name implies, P.E.P.P.E.R. mirrored her human counterpart's attitudes, occasionally needling Tony as he went about his business as Iron Man. The weird part is that he did all this without the real Pepper knowing about it, which is not the creepiest thing Tony has ever done but is definitely pretty close. Eventually, he'd install her as the controlling AI of a high-tech city called Troy, and true to the mythological theme, he'd change her name to H.E.L.E.N.