Iron Man quits. Tony Stark has officially had it and he’s retiring as one oft he biggest heroes of the Marvel Universe. His replacement is a character nobody likes, neither in the real world nor in-universe. All the while there would be a great character waiting in limbo.
By now, everyone has had their initial moment of incredulity, being upset and then being accused of being a racist. Because Iron Man is being replaced by an African-American teenage girl by the name of Riri Williams, sometimes spelled RiRi.
RiRi Williams? Who’s that?
RiRi Williams was created by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Mike Deodato Jr.. She first appeared in Invincible Iron Man #7, but was first mentioned in passing in #1. Looking back, the character hasn’t been off to such a great start.
From the first mention we know the following:
- She’s 15 years old
- She’s studying engineering at M.I.T.
- She has built an armour in her dorm room
From there, it was an unfortunate slope downhill. Well, not exactly, because at the point where Tony Stark called Riri Williams a dick in her very first mention, readers didn’t quite know who he was talking about. When it became known that Iron Man would no longer be Tony Stark or a man, people looked back at it and the collective groaning began.
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 [sic] until I had the right character and the right place.
As we’ve been slowly and hopefully very organically adding all these new characters to the Marvel Universe, it just seemed that sort of violence inspiring a young hero to rise up and act, and using her science acumen, her natural-born abilities that are still raw but so ahead of where even Tony Stark was at that age, was very exciting to me. Brian Michael Bendis, Time.com
Fans, of course, took umbrage with a number of statements in this quote. Most prominently, the word organically, because recently, none of the main criticisms of publisher Marvel’s editorial decisions feel particularly organic.
- A lot of characters that have been around for decades are being replaced by more progressive characters, belonging to minorities. Among them: Wolverine, Ms. Marvel, Thor, Nova, Captain America
- One reboot chases the next
- One universe-changing event follows weeks after the next
- Books are being cancelled once a year only to relaunch a month later with a new #1.
Sometimes, all these changes work, other times they don’t.
What made all this even worse – and mind you, we’re still not at the point where readers met Riri Williams in a comic book – was this quote by Bendis in the same interview.
Some of the comments online, I don’t think people even realize how racist they sound. 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. They’re individuals just like Captain America and Cyclops are individuals. All I can do is state my case for the character, and maybe they’ll realize over time that that’s not the most progressive thinking. . Brian Michael Bendis, Time.com
This taps straight into a problem long-time comic book fans have been experiencing for a while now. Their sentiment goes something like this: “The second I say something negative about a new, progressive character, I’m being called a sexist, a racist or a homophobe”. This is due to a vocal minority thinking it absolutely okay to lose their inability to divorce criticism from racism, sexism or homophobia and hurl abuse at people who have been engaging in comic book criticism for years or decades.
There is no doubt that there is a percentage of homophobes, racists or sexists among the people being upset with Riri Williams et al, but even comic book fandom tends to shun these people. Rightfully so. It is still quite a new reality that long-time fans find themselves in, having to walk on eggshells around their younger peers to not risk being labelled as the scum of the earth.
Finally, meet Riri Williams
Half a year later, readers were finally formally introduced to Riri Williams in a scene that once more doesn’t paint her in that good a light.
So during the night, at M.I.T., Riri Williams makes enough noise that other students are bothered by it. Is this what we want a hero to be? Someone who chases their glory and fame without concern or regard for the very people she will vow to save? I don’t care what race this he or she is, but that person is not a nice person. He or she is not a person I want to care about.
“Hey, wait a minute”, I hear you say, “Tony Stark was an arms dealer and alcoholic. And you like him!”
That is correct. The main problem here is relatability. I have no frame of reference for what life is like as an international business mogul arms dealer who gets captured and builds himself an armour in captivity. I know some alcoholics, but I admire those who manage to get over their addiction and I pity those who still are addicted to the bottle. Riri Williams on the other hand keeps people awake at night because of her selfish reasons. When confronted with the fact that she’s being a dick, she reacts negatively, unapologetic and outright belligerent. Now this I can relate to. Who hasn’t had a roommate like that? And who here likes that person?
In further issues, it will be revealed that Riri Williams has stolen raw materials to build her prototype armour. Let that sink in. In order to keep her peers up at night for selfish reasons, she stole items from said peers so that she can fuel her own ambition. Is this our superhero? Is this the hero we need or want?
So far, Riri Williams has not overcome anything. She has not overcome addiction, obsession, captivity or any of the other things that we’re used to from heroes. She revels in her selfishness, she gives in to her obsession and she is ready and willing to walk over corpses for that. For a while, this would have included the corpse of the legacy of Iron Man. But now, it’s been revealed that her hero name will be Ironheart, because someone realised that she’s not a man.
So not only does everything Riri Williams does come at the cost of the well-being of her peers, she also is reputedly smarter than Tony Stark, a genius man who has spent decades studying, developing, experimenting, failing and succeeding. Riri Williams is brilliant, successful from the get go.
And she’s beyond reproach due to the fear that many comic book fans feel at the danger of being labelled as racist, homophobic or sexist. The case of Riri Williams is a parade example of how any and all criticism can be suffocated under the pretence of progressive thought.
Our heroine, ladies and gentlemen.
Lila Rhodes – The Better Alternative
While there is no debating the fact that comic books are – for the large part – media dominated by the portrayal of white men, that’s not to say that Iron Man’s replacement needs to come at the cost of diversity.
Looking into the Marvel archives, there’s a perfect candidate who is not only deeply rooted in the whole Iron Man mythos, but also a genuinely nice person. This person is Lila Rhodes. Lila is the niece of War Machine Jim Rhodes who, for a short while had his own comic book starring him in the Iron Patriot armour. This was back when the publisher still tried to maintain a semblance of continuity and therefore had a spare armour lying around after Norman Osborn ended his tenure as an almost-reformed super villain wearing the red white and blue Iron Patriot armour.
The book flopped. This was partially because James Rhodes had become so inseparable from his identity as War Machine that fans just had issues accepting him as anything but the wearer of the black and silver armour. There was also very little in the ways of promotion done and – many would argue – the writing just wasn’t up to snuff, even though it is obvious that writer Ales Kot had a big story in mind. Iron Patriot was cancelled after five issues.
However, the book did one thing right. It emphasized the importance of support characters. Therefore, James Rhodes got a family. When not saving the planet, he would live with his father and niece. Said niece was young, smart and quite interested in mechanics. Not that she was building her own armours or any of the other comic book worthy gadgets, but she wanted to take a look at the Iron Patriot armour that was stored in the garage at times, take it apart and see what made it tick. The question whether or not she would actually understand what she saw was left open at the end of the book.
Lila Rhodes was also considerate of others, seeing as she stood up for people she believed in, namely her uncle. When Iron Patriot announced that he would limit his actions to American soil, a huge outcry went not only through the USA but also the world. Critics accused Rhodes of being a warmonger and the USA of being a military state. Lila Rhodes would not let that stand. She took to social media and recorded a video of her defending her uncle and his choices.
In the later issues of the series, Lila Rhodes would prove that she’s not just a nice kid with a smart head on her shoulders, but also has the ability to think on her feet. When she’s kidnapped by a mysterious villain, she is never beaten. She constantly tries to fight against the man in a power suit. She relies not on brute force, but on her smarts and her physical appearance. Using her own advantages, she manages to escape her captor and call in help. After a tragic loss and some time in mourning, Tony Stark even offered to teach her a bit about electronics and armour building. Because, you know, she’s a teenager. There’s no way she can build a bleeding edge armour.
It is clear that Ales Kot had plans for Lila which probably would have ended with her wearing her own armour. Sadly, these plans never came to fruition and Lila Rhodes may never have existed after the most recent reboots – yes, there have been several since Lila debuted in 2014 – or is in the place where undesired characters go when they need to be away for a bit: Limbo.
Lila Rhodes would have been the perfect candidate. She’s young, she’s nice, she’s a member of a demographically relevant minority, she’s smart and she has a connection to the story of Iron Man.