Meet Marvel’s New Iron Man, Black Teen Genius Riri Williams
Goodbye for now, Tony Stark. The latest hero to suit up as Iron Man is a 15-year-old black girl—a tech genius and former MIT student named Riri Williams.
Tony Stark is stepping out of the Iron Man suit to make room for a new successor: Riri Williams, a 15-year-old engineering genius who happens to be black.
Time reports that Riri will be the star of the Invincible Iron Man series this fall, after Marvel’s Civil War II event series wraps up. Readers first met Riri in May’s Invincible Iron Man #9, in which she caught Stark’s attention after reverse engineering her own Iron Man suit from scratch in her dorm room. She got kicked out of school for that, but Tony uses the opportunity to seek her out in person.
Civil War II architect Brian Michael Bendis, who also writes Invincible Iron Man, says Riri’s turn in the Iron Man suit will force Tony to reckon with the fallout from his recent turbulent storyline. His business is currently collapsing, his best friend James Rhodes—aka War Machine—died at the start of Civil War II, and he’s just discovered who his biological parents were. (Comics are just soap operas with capes.)
“That’s stressful for a character who is wired the way Tony is wired and has dependency issues the way Tony does,” Bendis told Time, adding, “Tony is also a master at not paying attention to the thing that’s most important and distracting himself with Avengers stuff. How that all shakes out such that Tony is no longer in the armor? You’ll have to wait to find out for the end of Civil War II. But it does create a path for Riri Williams, who Tony will know wand will be interacting with very shortly in the comics.”
Bendis also elaborates on the inspiration for the character, whose intellect and engineering prowess is already on track to surpassing Tony’s.
“One of the things that stuck with me when I was working in Chicago a couple of years ago on a TV show that didn’t end up airing was the amount of chaos and violence,” he said. “And this story of this brilliant young woman whose life was marred by tragedy that could have easily ended her life—just random street violence—and went off to college was very inspiring to me. I thought that was the most modern version of a superhero or superheroine story I had ever heard. And I sat with it for awhile until I had the right character and place.”
Marvel is still being coy about Stark’s fate in the aftermath of Civil War II (Bendis assures readers that Riri’s presence isn’t a giveaway for the series’ ending), but a teaser for the publisher’s fall slate showed two divided groups of heroes and villains with Stark notably absent. Victor Von Doom holds the Iron Man face plate while on the opposite side, Riri stands front and center.
Riri is the latest in a diverse group of new comics characters who have taken on the mantles of traditional comics heroes. Jane Foster made her debut as the new Thor in 2014, Amadeus Cho is now the star of Totally Awesome Hulk, Spider-Man Miles Morales (another Bendis creation) is now an Avenger, and Kamala Khan is Ms. Marvel. Marvel editor-in-chief Axel Alonso says the new characters are a deliberate effort to represent an underserved audience.
“Traditionally [writing] comics has been a hobby for white guys, and that has changed over time,” he told The Guardian last month.
Still, the publisher’s behind-the-scenes representation remains a sore spot in its ongoing efforts to diversify. Most of Marvel’s titles starring women or people of color are still written by white men, while literal databases of untapped talent of color exist. This month alone, female creators published all of eight series in total—while, for example, Bendis wrote six.
That isn’t to say that creators should only write stories starring people who look like them. But looking at the impact that black writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates have brought to titles like Black Panther, or that Muslim writer G. Willow Wilson has brought to Ms. Marvel, it’s hard to deny the storytelling benefits (not to mention monetary gains—both those titles have been bestsellers) of hiring writers of diverse backgrounds.
Marvel’s push for change by introducing characters like Riri Williams is a laudable step in the right direction. There’s still much more to be done, but if any publisher is capable of embracing positive change, it’s the House of Ideas. Don’t let us down.