Riri Williams has barely put any miles on the Iron Man suit and she’s already catching more flack than the Avengers did for destroying New York City while squaring off against Loki and his Chitauri army during the Battle of New York. For all the fanboys ( and girls -- if there are any) up in arms about Marvel’s new Iron Man, cool your jets. The unnecessary mourning for Tony Stark -- who isn’t being killed off -- is not only ridiculous, it’s without merit. As is every other time in recent history a faction of fandom has risen up in faux rage because the thing that’s been predictably the same for decades suddenly gets rebooted and reimagined. (This does not include the white-washing of ethnic characters. If you can't see how that's not that same thing, you may want to exit stage left now.) Even the casual comic book reader knows that nothing in comic books is permanent, not even death, and practically every aspect of a character and franchise is completely fluid and subject to a total overhaul at any moment.
Legacy characters have long been a staple in comic books, starting in 1939 with The Phantom, the first costumed hero whose mantle was passed down from generation to generation in the Walker family. Since then, DC, Marvel and other comic book publishers have relied on legacy characters, using the trope for both their bigger and lesser-known titles. Though Bruce Wayne and Kal-El/Clark Kent are the most famous Batman and Superman, both characters are technically legacies, with the former mantle being held by at least six other people (not including Bruce’s Batman, Incorporated) and the latter part of the story arc in The Death of Superman as well as the subject of Syfy’s upcoming Krypton, a prequel about the House of El. Ben Reilly -- the first successful clone of Peter Parker -- was the first of many to take over the mantle of Spider-Man back in 1975. And while everyone knows Steve Rogers as Captain America, William Burnside, Willam Naslund and Jeff Mace each held the mantle during the ’40s and ’50s while Rogers was MIA -- all of which became part of the character’s official canon starting in 1977.
In some instances, the successor(s) end up being just as popular, if not more so than the original hero.
Swamp Thing earned a cult following in the '80s and '90s, largely due to Wes Craven. Both the ’80s film and ’90s TV versions focused on Dr. Alec Holland, the second Swamp Thing, though the story they adapted really belonged to the original Swamp Thing: Alex Olson.
The Green Lantern
The Green Lantern Corps has over 7600 members, all of them known as The Green Lantern. Seven of them are mostly associated with the name, of which there are two fans argue over being “the best”: Hal Jordan and John Stewart, both of them successors to the original Green Lantern, Alan Scott. Jordan has already famously been played by a pre-Deadpool Ryan Reynolds on the big screen, so it could be the equally popular Stewart that DC uses for its Justice League movie, or they could pull off the ultimate surprise and use Jessica Cruz.
Carol Danvers is Marvel’s biggest female hero, and seen by some as their most powerful Avenger (yes, even mightier than Cap). And while Danvers is arguably the most famous Captain Marvel, and the one that will be depicted on the big screen, she is actually the sixth Captain Marvel since the original, Mar-Vell, having only officially taken the title in 2012.
While Jay Garrick was the OG Flash in the comics, his successor Barry Allen is the most famous one. Allen’s turn as The Flash has long dominated both the comic and live-action adaptations. Although, a strong case can be made for Wally West’s popularity, with some die-hard fans arguing that he is superior to his predecessor Allen.
Ant-Man mostly played a supporting role in the comics, and it wasn’t until his 2015 big screen debut that the character was popular enough to get his own book. Long-time readers knew before the movie that HanK Pym was the original Ant-Man, but Scott Lang, his successor, is the one Marvel has chosen to revive and build the franchise on.
Possibly the most interesting example of a legacy character, Nightwing is the persona adopted by Batman’s famous sidekick Dick Grayson, because even HE knew how lame it was to be Robin. And while fans are usually Team Grayson or Team Todd - Jason Todd being Grayson’s own successor as both Robin and Nightwing - Grayson himself isn’t even the original Nightwing. That distinction goes to Superman, who created the vigilante identity back in 1963 when he and Jimmy Olsen traveled to Kandor, where Supes was considered an outlaw, in Superman #158.
The concept of a legacy character opens up the door for writers and artists to continue to push creative boundaries and explore possible storylines that would otherwise be limited or simply un-tellable if the character in question stayed the same. Vulture touched on Marvel’s smart use of the tactic to diversify their super line-up from predominantly white characters, most created over 50 years ago, to a team that is more representative of everyone that reads comics. And while there is a valid conversation to be had about the creation of Riri Williams, it has nothing to do with Tony Stark or the Iron Man character itself.
Context is paramount to good storytelling. Gender, race, religion, and socioeconomic status are just a few of the factors that drastically influence an individual’s experience in life, fictional or otherwise. And while it’s a good start, simply creating a black female character to inherit the role as one of the most famous superheroes in popular culture isn’t enough. That change has to come from behind the scenes. The writers and artists who bring these stories to life need to be as diverse as the characters depicted on the pages and screens. It’s their stories, their imaginations, and their art that should be represented and celebrated with comic book runs, TV adaptations, and multi-million dollar box offices. Anything short of that runs the risk of coming off as cultural appropriation.
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