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Character Profile: Riri Williams, A.K.A. Ironheart
Created by: Brian Michael Bendis and Stefano Caselli
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Comic Book Debut: May, 2016 ((Invincible Iron Man (2015-2016) #9))

Column by: Max Mallet

“Your daughter has tested at the level… what they now refer to as super genius… she’s bored because she’s smarter than you.” — Invincible Iron Man #1 (2016)

A (very) Brief History:

Invincible Iron Man #1 (2016) cover by Stefano Caselli

Meet your very new, not-yet-invincible Iron Man: 15-year old Riri Williams of Chicago, Illinois.  Performing heroics under the alias Ironheart, Riri is one of the growing legion of new Marvel super-heroes, most of whom are young women.  

Riri Williams is one of the smartest characters in the Marvel Universe.  A super-genius from a young age, Riri was always bored with the routine of everyday life.  In her formative years, tragedy struck close to home and Riri had a chance encounter with one Tony Stark our classic Iron Man. Following the events of Civil War II, Riri takes the mantle of Iron Man for herself.

In an age where demand for increased representation of women, non-white characters and other underrepresented groups is at a boiling point, it makes sense for Marvel to tap Brian Michael Bendis (New Avengers, Ultimate Spider-Man)  to write Riri’s story.  After all, the iconic Marvel writer created Miles Morales: the black and latino Spider-Man of Marvel’s alternate Ultimate Universe.  

Abilities:

Cover for Invincible Iron Man #3 (2016) by Stefano Caselli

Riri is exactly one year old (in publishing terms) this year, so she has plenty of time to develop her abilities.  For now, she has two noteworthy super-hero attributes:

  1.  Advanced inventing and engineering skills, which she harnesses to build the Ironheart suit and its modifications.
  2. A super-genius level intellect to rival the smartest minds in the Marvel Universe.

Riri is simply brilliant.  While most 15-year-olds have no clue where (or if) they want to go to college, Riri enrolls at M.I.T. Someone who is too young to drive but able to create her own Iron Man suit is the perfect person to fill Tony Stark’s shoes. After all, Tony is usually a run-before-you-can-walk kind of guy.  Riri isn’t yet a tactical combat genius, but that should come with practice and spending time in the field with Captain America, Wolverine and others.

What Drives Her:

Riri providing the goodness and noble intentions that have been sorely lacking from many mainstream Marvel titles throughout the past year and change.

A few different factors motivate Riri:

  1. Her restless imagination and intellect, which ensures that she never has idle hands.
  2. A public tragedy that took two people close to her.
  3. A genuine desire to be a force for good.

You can see all three of these factors at play when reading Riri’s story.  She’s extremely multifaceted and wholly realized, thereby avoiding pitfalls of more one-note characters.  While she’s no stranger to tragedy, she also doesn’t let it define her every waking moment.  This gives Riri a lot more nuance than many older, more established super-heroes.    

Riri and Representation

Riri Williams is the next addition to the race-and-gender diversification of the Marvel super-hero rolodex in recent years.  Captain Marvel is now an A-list super-hero, Miss Marvel is a Pakistani-American Muslim teenager, Lunella Lafayette is nine-year-old black girl and smartest person in the Marvel Universe… the list goes on.  While Riri isn’t the first female to take the mantle of a traditionally male super-hero (there’s also a female Hawkeye, Thor and Wolverine, to name a few recent examples), she’s unique.  Not that being Thor or Wolverine is easy, but you have to be crazy brilliant to be Iron Man.  Riri doesn’t wield a godly hammer and doesn’t have a mutant healing factor, instead she has her mind and a suit of armor.  Much like X-23 taking Logan’s mantle as Wolverine, Riri is poised to be an incredibly high-profile super-hero moving forward.

Which is why it’s incredibly important that Bendis writes the character with respect to the unique challenges of being a young, black woman in today’s America.  Unlike many other white comic book creators, Bendis might be uniquely situated to pull this off because he has two adopted black daughters.  With that said, not everyone is pleased with Riri’s aesthetics (nor Bendis’s previous dialogue for characters of color), which ties into the larger conversation of having more people of color write and illustrate characters of color.

If black women are critiquing artistic portrayals of Riri, then those of us who are not black and not women should sit back and listen.  A common critique is that she’s inconsistently portrayed, particularly on covers.

Invincible Iron Man (2016) #1 variant cover by Jeff Dekal.

Invincible Iron Man (2016) #2 by Stefano Caselli.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yes, the former implements realism and the latter uses more of a ‘cartoon’ style, but Riri only realistically passes for 15 on the right.

Whatever your opinion about Riri’s appearance, one thing is clear: she’s unapologetically depicted as a black woman.  What do I mean?  Consider this Uncanny X-Men cover:

Uncanny X-Men #542 by Paul Smith. This cover has a lot to like, such as three women donning the front of a wildly popular series.  Still, Storm’s blue eyes are a curious choice.

Yes, Storm is arguably the most high profile black female in comics.  Yes, she’s both African American and Kenyan, which made her her an incredibly forward-facing character for 1975 debut.  However, she’s most often depicted with straight, white hair.  While cool, this isn’t an accurate representation for most young black women.  Furthermore, the above cover shows off a Storm that has light hair and blue eyes.  There’s just one problem: She’s Kenyan, not German.  In contrast, Riri has natural, undyed hair and brown eyes.  She looks more like the young and diverse target audience that Marvel is trying to capture when it creates a character like Riri.

A Plea to Marvel

  1. Though Marvel beat DC to the punch of creating an interwoven cinematic universe by several years, it’s DC that put out a female super-hero film first.  No doubt, Marvel executives noticed that Wonder Woman has a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  Major comic conventions will be flooded with Wonder Womans this year (more than usual), and DC is going to rake in a lot of related merchandising dollars as well.
  2. Additionally, women, communities of color and other underrepresented groups are as engaged as ever in public discourse and shaping our culture.  While much of this is politically driven, you can’t divorce politics from pop culture.  Not if you’re being honest.
  3. Lastly, the Marvel cinematic universe is approaching a tipping point.  With the Avengers about to fight Thanos, there’s speculation that at least one of our heroes doesn’t survive the cinematic event.

What do these three things have in common?  They all point to one conclusion.

Marvel should kill off Iron Man in 2019’s Infinity War: Part Two.  Robert Downey Jr. has been the glue of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) since Iron Man debuted in 2008.  His charisma is infectious, but he’s also now in his 50s, a feat that not even Hugh Jackman achieved in his 17-year-run as Wolverine.  

Iron Man has also inflicted a lot of damage in Marvel films, from creating Ultron to helping fracture the Avengers in Captain America: Civil War.  Furthermore, die-hard Spider-Man fans are complaining that Iron Man has too much influence over Spider-Man’s suit in the latest Spider-Man: Homecoming Trailer.

Here’s the solution: introduce Riri Williams either during or after Infinity War.  Aside from Black Panther, the only black heroes in the MCU are sidekicks who don’t have a ton of agency.  Black Widow has been in five films, and it doesn’t look like you care about making a solo film for her.  Furthermore, even if you did, her origin is such that its tone would not match the hope and optimism that Wonder Woman is reportedly giving us over at DC.  

If you want to avoid the predictions of a growing sense of genre oversaturation, you’re going to have to buck convention.  Having a young, black female Iron Man protege does this and solves many of the problems clinging to an otherwise smooth-sailing movie franchise.

Imagine this scene:

Tony Stark putting on the Mark V Iron Man suit in Iron Man 2 (2010)

With this character:

From Invincible Iron Man (2016) #1. Art by Stefano Caselli.

Riri brims with naivete and optimism, while Tony often stews with cynicism and arrogance.  She would fast become a fan favorite, easily exchanging quips with a character like Spider-Man.

Make it happen, Marvel.  You and the comic book industry are doing a better job of giving women and underrepresented groups more characters with more agency.  However, your movies, like the rest of Hollywood, don’t represent the demographics of your fanbase and American culture at large.  Let Riri be the beating, dare I say iron heart of your cinematic universe following the events of Infinity War.

Invincible Iron Man (2016) #5 by Stefano Caselli. Imagine this movie poster five years from now. Seriously Marvel, I have more ideas. Feel free to reach out.

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