Marvel fuels internet clash by making Iron Man a 15-year-old black girl

Tony Stark will soon be replaced in Marvel's Iron Man comics by a teen genius named Riri Williams. 'Uh oh,' says everybody on Twitter.

Tony Stark will soon be replaced in Marvel's Iron Man comics by teen genius Riri Williams

Iron Man, as he currently appears in Marvel's online character database at left, is described as 'cool exec with a heart of steel' Tony Stark. The company announced Wednesday that Riri Williams, right, will be replacing Stark as the comic book series' hero. (Marvel)

Marvel, purveyor of superhero franchises, has given two vocal and constantly sparring online communities a new reason to wage battle this week by changing the gender, age and race of a canonical comic book character.

Whether or not the fans were flamed on purpose is up for debate — but what's certain is that Iron Man will soon be a 15-year-old black girl from Chicago.

Meet Riri Williams, a science prodigy who leaves the "chaos and violence" of her city behind to enrol at MIT, where eventually she reverse-engineers an Iron Man suit in her dorm room.

Williams doesn't have the resources of billionaire weapons inventor Tony Stark, who has appeared in the Marvel universe as Iron Man since 1963, but she's got the smarts to keep up with her predecessor. Based on what Marvel writer Brian Michael Bendis says, she may even be smarter than Stark.

"This young woman is flying by him in terms of how quickly she's doing it," Bendis told Time in an exclusive interview about his forthcoming Invincible Iron Man series Wednesday. "Her brain is maybe a little better than his. She looks at things from a different perspective that makes the armour unique."​

Bendis says that the character was inspired by his own experiences working on a TV show in Chicago, where he noticed a striking amount of violence.

Riri Williams, the young MIT student introduced in Marvel’s Invincible Iron Man No. 9, will be replacing Tony Stark as the series' lead character when it relaunches later this year. (Marvel)
"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," he said. "I thought that was the most modern version of a superhero or superheroine story I had ever heard."

Noble as his intentions to modernize Iron Man may have been, groups of hardcore comic book fans have been known to rail against major character changes such as this one, particularly when those changes involve a Marvel hero's race or gender.

Like Muslim Ms. Marvel Kamala Khan, DC's gay Green Lantern, or Miles Morales, the half-black, half-Hispanic Spider-Man, Williams as Iron Man became the subject of heated debate almost instantly after her character's role was announced.

Much of the online commentary has been moderate, with people either applauding the move or asking Marvel why white men continue to write most of its stories despite the public push for more diversity among superheroes.

Still, those who've been around the web for some time could sense another nasty conflict brewing between "misogynistic fanboys" and "social justice warriors" as soon as they heard the news — and they weren't wrong.

Harsh words and accusations (which will not be repeated here) are flying from extremists on both sides of the fence.

People who champion social progress and campaign aggressively against anything they find offensive are attacking critics of the character as "racists," "nerds" and "trolls."

People who champion "tradition" and campaign against the efforts of what they call "SJWs" — sometimes to the extent of organizing mass harassment stings or sending death threats to women online — are decrying political correctness for ruining society, once again.

Evidence of this can be seen all over Twitter by searching for "Iron Man" or simply by reading replies to any of the more passionate tweets about Marvel's announcement.

There's more to the latest comic book controversy than #gamergate-style Twitter sparring, however.

Some are also asking questions about Marvel's motivation for changing so many characters over a relatively short span of time.

Is the company working to better reflect the diversity of American comic book readers for the sake of progress, or the sake of profit?

Bendis, for his part, seems genuine in his efforts simply to create cool characters for Marvel.

"Some of the comments online, I don't think people even realize how racist they sound," he told Time. "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."

About the Author

Lauren O'Neil covers internet culture, digital trends and the social media beat for CBC News. You can get in touch with her on Twitter at @laurenonizzle.


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