Today, Marvel and writer Brian Bendis broke the news via Time Magazine that at the end of the currently-running event “Civil War II” the mantle of Iron Man will be taken over by a 15-year old black MIT student named Riri Williams
(This is a major shocker, because the vast majority of fans assumed Riri’s introduction in the pages of Invincible Iron Man (visit the guide) – where she was reverse-engineering Tony Stark’s armor – was a set-up for her to take over the mantle of War Machine. Rhodey has become unavailable to carry that title due to the events of Civil War.)
Riri Williams as Iron Man is a very good thing. We do not have enough female heroes or heroes of color, and to see a that in a character who is both as she takes over the mantle of ostensibly Marvel’s most popular single hero outside of Spider-Man is a huge, visible step not only for Marvel comic readers, but for their film fans who this news will surely reach. To have Williams also be a female super-scientist when Marvel generally boasts only a handful is even more wonderful.
(The most prominent female geniuses of Marvel are Kitty Pryde, who is frequently shown to be nearly as genius as Beast; Valeria Richards, whose preternatural intelligence is partially attributed to super powers; the new Moon Girl; and Mockingbird, an oft-forgotten PhD) .
So Riri Williams as Iron Man is a good thing, right?
On the face of it, yes. Inclusion means representation. I love reading books about heroes that are women, and so does my daughter – also a girl of color.
However, there are some aspects of this character choice that have given some fans and critics pause, which I’d like to discuss here – three in particular. I’m very interested in your input. (Edited to add: Here is a post with similar critique from black writer Son of Baldwin, Here is another from black female nerd BlerdGurl.)
1. Minority legacy heroes are only useful until the original makes their return; then their marginalization can be worse than the average minority hero.
“Legacy Heroes” is a term applied to heroes that are the replacement or junior version to their original heroes. They are sometimes used by creators as an opportunity to change the gender or race of the character bearing the main mantle.. The easiest examples to give are from DC comics (Superboy, Batgirl, Wondergirl, etc), because Marvel simply isn’t known for this practice outside the past few years.
Let’s stick with Marvel, for the moment. For a brief time in the 1980s, Tony Stark could not serve as Iron Man and Rhodey Rhodes took over the title. Rhodey is the best possible example of a Legacy Hero – he was a dynamic, well-developed character long before he became Iron Man, and that means that he was able to continue to be featured even when Tony Stark returned.
As War Machine, he’s lead his own title on many occasions (though they are usually short-lived) and he’s and been a significant character in both comics and now films (though he’s frequently sacrificed as a narrative reason to make Stark feel bad, as has happened twice this year alone).
His time as a Legacy Hero made him more visible, but after being Iron Man he didn’t stay an A-level hero. The white guy bumped him.
Another terrific example is the relatively new Ms. Marvel, the Pakastani-American Kamala Khan (visit the guide). Kamala is a wonderful analog to the original Spider-Man as a new, unsure hero, and Carol Danvers is very unlikely to ever retake her “Ms.” hero mantle now that she is officially Captain Marvel.
Her books sell ridiculous amounts of copies and have been nominated for Eisners. She’s now an Avenger. Things are going well … but we’re only in year two.
There are examples that don’t go as well. At the end of the comics version of the original Civil War, Captain America appears to die, and Bucky takes over the mantle as Cap (visit the guide). His days as Cap are amazing – great, layered storytelling. When Cap came back they shared the mantle for a while before Bucky was spun back to being Winter Soldier, at which point he began to sink back into obscurity – and he’s a white guy who stars in movies.
As with War Machine, he’s now a character Marvel needs to periodically kickstart into a new title or team only to watch him sink again.
Despite those concerns, check out the amazing list of Legacy Heroes Marvel is currently fielding: [Read more…] about Marvel introduced a black female Iron Man – is that a good thing? (Yes.)