Riri Williams is 15 years old. She’s black. She wears her hair naturally. She’s a genius, enrolling at MIT. And when the dust settles after Civil War II, Marvel’s latest crossover comic book event, Riri Williams will be Iron Man.
Giving a black girl one of the most recognizable names in the Marvel universe and turning her into a flagship hero is a monumental move for the comic book company — one that will affect more than just Marvel’s future comic book stories.
Riri Williams’s ascension to Iron Man status comes amid Marvel’s ongoing push for more diversity in its titles, which has already given us a black Captain America, a female Thor, a Muslim American Ms. Marvel, and a black-Latino Spider-Man. That push has been met with applause from fans who want to be included, praise and recognition from critics, and prickly criticism from comic purists who believe their beloved titles have been shunted aside for gimmicks and stunts.
Here’s a brief explainer of Marvel’s big move.
What’s happening with the current Iron Man, Tony Stark?
The most important detail to keep in mind regarding Riri Williams and her place in the Marvel universe is that Marvel’s comic book universe and its cinematic properties are traveling at completely different speeds, so it helps to think of the two as more independent of each other than they are related.
What happens in one doesn’t necessarily affect the other. And sometimes it takes years, decades even, to see a comic book story, or a character like Riri, make its way onto the big screen.
With that in mind, while Captain America: Civil War dominated the box office for Marvel this summer, the current big story in the company’s comic books is called Civil War II, a crossover event that affects many of Marvel’s titles and characters. And the main conflict of the crossover pits Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, against Carol Danvers, a.k.a. Captain Marvel.
An abridged, spoiler-ish summary of what’s happened in Civil War II so far: Captain Marvel finds an Inhuman who can more or less predict the future, which allows Captain Marvel’s team to deal with crises before they start. One of the Inhuman’s predictions involves Thanos, and in trying to stop Thanos, a member of Captain Marvel’s team is killed. It’s Rhodey, who happens to be Captain Marvel’s love interest and Tony Stark/Iron Man’s best friend.
Additionally, Stark’s company is going through a possible financial collapse, and he’s dealing with the prospect of learning the identity of his biological parents. And now he’s mourning his best friend and going up against Captain Marvel’s squad. Stark is at his emotional limit, signaling that he isn’t his usual self and possibly hinting that he’s unfit to be Iron Man.
Captain Marvel’s cohorts believe in this Inhuman’s power to save lives, while Stark is sounding like someone who took Minority Report extremely seriously — he thinks it’s dangerous to put all your trust in someone who can effectively preempt the future, and he’s already suffered a loss from it.
He’s not the only one who feels this way; his fellow Avengers, as well as teams like the X-Men, are fracturing, split over whether to trust the Inhuman or oppose him.
Civil War II is still in its early stages, so we don’t yet know how everything will eventually play out or what will happen to Tony Stark. But Riri’s presence and this news signals that something’s in the works. Perhaps Stark will take time off from the team or adopt a new moniker, or maybe he’ll pass his title and his armor to Riri.
Who is Riri Williams?
Riri Williams makes her first appearance in Invincible Iron Man No. 7, which came out in March 2016. In that issue, written by Brian Michael Bendis and drawn by Mike Deodato, we learn that Riri is a kid genius who’s working on an Iron Man–like suit:
We see glimpses of her in subsequent issues — basically showing us that she’s skilled enough to engineer Stark’s old armor, and that she’s wickedly smart. And as Bendis explained to Time, in the latest issue, Invincible Iron Man No. 11, Stark is made aware of what she’s doing.
In that same interview, Bendis talked about his inspiration for creating Riri. He said:
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. 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 the right place.
Bendis is known as one of Marvel’s more progressive writers, creating characters like Miles Morales (the aforementioned black-Latino Spider-Man) and Benjamin Deeds (a gay X-Man), who represent minorities we didn’t historically see in comic books. He often cites his three daughters (two are adopted; one is Ethiopian, another is African-American) as inspirations for what he writes and how he sees the world.
"I have daughters, and I'm very aware of the world they are growing up in," Bendis told me in February 2016. "The point of these books isn't to scream at each other online. It's to live to a higher ideal. That's the point of most of these books."
It’s not difficult to see a connection between Bendis’s inspirations and experiences and Riri as a character. Riri will make her debut as Iron Man this fall (no firm date has been set) with a new volume of Invincible Iron Man, which will be written by Bendis and drawn by artist Stefano Caselli.
What Riri Williams says about Marvel’s biggest fans
In the past few years, Marvel has spent a lot of time tweaking and reimagining its lineup of heroes. Miles Morales is now part of the main Marvel universe, Kamala Khan is Ms. Marvel, and many of the company’s superhero teams have been made much more diverse. And it’s been fascinating, and sometimes puzzling, to witness the reception these changes have received from Marvel’s readers.
Introducing heroes who are black, Latino, gay, Asian, or transgender has an effect on readership. The inclusion of characters from minority groups can bring in readers who normally wouldn’t read comics. Bendis told Time:
Once Miles hit, and Kamala Khan hit and female Thor hit — there was a part of an audience crawling through the desert looking for an oasis when it came to representation, and now that it’s here, you’ll go online and be greeted with this wave of love.
But there’s also been some pushback. One of the more embarrassing responses I’ve noticed is an ugly, Ghostbusters-esque campaign from so-called comic purists against these new or altered characters and the readers who enjoy them. Some people believe Marvel is just looking for good publicity (which isn’t exactly wrong), and that it’s caving in to complaints from minority audiences.
"Some of the comments online, I don’t think people even realize how racist they sound," Bendis said. "I’m not saying if you criticize you’re a racist, but if someone writes, ‘Why do we need Riri Williams, we already have Miles?’ that’s a weird thing to say.
Part of me understands the notion that these characters and Marvel’s comic books are crucial parts of some fans’ beings — I fully believe in a comic book or superhero’s power to teach people empathy and morality. What’s more difficult for me to understand is how a community that grows up reading about being kind, being responsible, and being understanding has such a hard time seeing how a character like Miles or Riri could bring that kind of joy to people who have never seen anyone who looks like themselves in comic books.
Perhaps the most interesting and pertinent discussion, as far as what Riri’s debut as Iron Man brings to Marvel’s creative future, has to do with whether the company is or isn’t diversifying its writer and artist pool even as its characters are becoming more diverse:
How cool would it be to have WoC guest writers for Marvel whenever they introduce a new WoC protagonist?— Black Girl Nerds (@BlackGirlNerds) July 6, 2016
As others have pointed out, Marvel’s fictional protagonists, including the nonwhite and LGBTQ characters, are still predominantly written by white men. To that end, Marvel (and the rest of the comic book industry) still has a lot of work to do to diversify its ranks. But it also has the opportunity to expand the push for diversity we’ve seen on the page by hiring more people of color and LGBTQ people behind the scenes. Shouldn’t nonwhite/LGBTQ writers, artists, and creators be allowed to tell their own stories?
No doubt Riri’s moment is a big one for Marvel, for the character, and for the legacy of Iron Man. Her comic book will be a celebration and a milestone for both the character and the company. It’ll be exciting to watch Riri take up the mantle and soar through the sky like Tony Stark. But ultimately, her story — and stories of heroes like her — are truly, as they have always been, about the readers. And that tale is just beginning.