Last month, Marvel proudly announced that the next character to don Iron Man's iconic suit of powered armor would be a 15-year-old, black, genius MIT engineering student named Riri Williams. The series, written by Marvel veteran Brian Michael Bendis, would tell the story of how after reverse-engineering one of Tony Stark's suits in her dorm room, Riri becomes a hero in her own right while proving herself to be a worthy successor to the Iron Man moniker.
While this wouldn't have been the first time that a woman took over the mantle of a traditionally male superhero (hey, Jane Foster), it was unclear whether Marvel planned on having Riri go by "Iron Man" until yesterday, when the publisher announced that her official hero codename would be Ironheart.
In an interview with WIRED, Bendis explained that he and Marvel's Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada settled on Ironheart after deciding that Iron Woman was too stuffy and Iron Maiden would probably come with a bevy of legal woes. Ironheart, Bendis explained, spoke to the connection that Riri would have to both the Iron Man legacy and franchise.
"Tony first put on the armor to save his heart. Riri puts it on for different reasons altogether but still heart-related," Bendis explained. "When people see her story, you’ll be amazed at how simple and brilliant Joe’s suggestion was.”
Here's the thing about "Ironheart," though: There's already a superheroine by that name from a 2014 Japanese Iron Man porn parody produced by Giga, a company that specializes in erotic superhero-themed videos. (NSFW link here.)
As porn parodies go, Ironheart is a pretty run-of-the-mill spoof of Marvel's Iron Man 3 that incorporates elements of light bondage and flogging. The movie's eponymous costumed hero is captured by villains who disable her
spandex armor, tie her up, and proceed to have sex with her before she defeats them, saves the day, and goes about her business. Because Ironheart is pornography, one can assume that actress Hibiki Otsuki consented to participate in her scenes, but that doesn't entirely erase the fact that to a casual viewer, Ironheart (as a brand) is linked to stylized sexual violence against women.
Bendis told Wired that Quesada came up with the "Ironheart" codename after discussing his plans for Riri's story arc, but the fact that Giga's Ironheart was released in 2014 raises questions as to just how much basic research Marvel put into the name before deciding to run with it.
While there's nothing wrong with porn parodies, the optics of giving a 15-year-old girl the same superhero name as a pre-existing, sexually explicit knockoff are especially bad considering the critiques leveled at Marvel for creating yet another character of color who won't be written by a person of color.
For all of the fanfare surrounding Riri's introduction into the Marvel universe, there are a number of elements of the character that reflect the fact that very few (if any) black women were consulted about who she is or how she was going to be portrayed.
In her piece for Women Write About Comics, illustrator Olivia Stephens highlighted the many ways in which Riri's design itself hinted at artist Stefano Caselli's lack of understanding of natural black hair and, stylistically speaking, played into the problematic trend of depicting black children as adults.
"As soon as we caught a glimpse of Riri Williams’ cover, we saw a two-foot fro with an inexplicable middle part on the top. We saw an illustration of a fully grown black woman passed off as a 15-year-old," Stephens wrote. "We saw, yet again, how rarely black children are allowed to be perceived as children."
To be fair, Riri would not be the first comic book character whose hair inexplicably defied the laws of real-world physics. But Stephens' point has less to do with aesthetics and more to do with fact that Riri, a supposed symbol of Marvel's dedication to making comics more inclusive, doesn't come across as a character borne out of an understanding or care for black girls, but rather an assortment of ideas that a group of white men have about black women.
In the right hands, Riri Williams could very well be the greatest Marvel hero ever to put on a high tech suit of armor. But if Marvel can't be bothered to approximate what an actual black teenager looks like or give her a name that isn't directly linked to pornography, it's difficult to say that the right hands are theirs.