Onscreen partnerships have been invariably either about male bonding or a romantic relationship between male and female characters. Searching for an onscreen partnership between a man and a woman stretching over many movies not defined primarily by romance and love is a difficult task. This is where the onscreen partnership between Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr. stands apart.
Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr. are a good onscreen duo primarily because they, at first glance, seem like diametrically opposite individuals but reveal similarities and almost identical characteristics upon closer inspection. Downey Jr., in his “Iron Man” and “The Avengers” movies, comes across as a cool dude with virtually no chinks in his armor. Gwyneth Paltrow, on the other hand, gives the impression of an ordinary, hardworking person who has no ambition to save the world single-handedly. She appears as a charming and pleasant person-somebody no-one would mind chatting with, even if no particular reason existed to do so.
This seemingly stereotyped setup of a brash, hyperactive, and super-intelligent whiz kid and his ordinary secretary almost forces the viewer to inspect their performances more deeply. That is when it becomes evident that the characters share many similarities. Even as Downey Jr. struts around with complete and absolute confidence in his talent, brains, and personality, it is evident that the veneer of confidence bordering on arrogance is a mask to hide his desire to measure up to his father’s achievements, and his search for a higher calling, which, ultimately, gets revealed when he designs the suit.
In the same way, Pepper’s devotion to her boss hides an unshakeable belief that Tony Stark is capable of being a much better man. Gwyneth portrays her character’s inner depth in the witty repartees to Tony’s unreasonable and spoilt behavior. The dance scene in “Iron Man” sums up Tony’s respect for Pepper. After struggling to remember his own Social Security number, he nonchalantly admits that Pepper’s decision to quit would make it impossible for him to survive.
The rapport shared by Robert and Gwyneth can be compared, to a certain extent, to the camaraderie shared by Judi Dench and her 007 agents in James Bond movies. However, the line defining the authority of one character over the other is blurred in “Iron Man” and “The Avengers” movies, and this fact, along with the latent but combustible sexual tension that Robert and Gwyneth manage to convey on the screen, sets this duo apart from all other onscreen couples.
Robert and Gwyneth come across as an attractive couple who complement and supplement each other in every aspect of their lives. This helps the audience identify with the two characters despite that one of them happens to be a genius who has designed the baddest suit in the entire universe to stop multiple bomb fragments in his chest from piercing his heart.
Thanks to changed audience perceptions or to Paltrow’s strong and impressive handling of her role in the series, it became evident that Pepper’s character would grow bigger and stronger. Not surprisingly, viewers get to see Paltrow take over the task of running the Stark empire and even try the superhero suit in “Iron Man 3.”
Impressive performances apart, personal chemistry makes a huge difference to the success or failure of an onscreen couple. The first “Iron Man” movie saw Downey Jr. and Paltrow trade barbs and retorts before ending up becoming a couple in the romantic sense. Pepper matches Tony barb for barb, and this verbal jousting, apart from other attractions, makes the first movie a treat to watch.
“Iron Man 2” has the duo taking their relationship to the next level. Downey Jr. does a great job of a man staring at the slow but inevitable approach of an early death. Paltrow retains her disarmingly witty barbs but does a good job displaying the softer and more caring side of her character. Of course, that the movie never lingers on the physical nature of their relationship merely enhances the depth of their characters.
The development of the two lead characters reaches its logical conclusion in “Iron Man 3,” where the Gwyneth replaces Robert in his business dealings and steps in to become Iron Woman when the occasion demands.
Aided by strong characterization and an interesting plot, the duo has done a great job understanding the relationship between Iron Man and Pepper and translating it accurately onto the big screen. It remains to be seen whether the pair will agree to work together in other movies in the future.