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The Untold Truth Of Marvel's Ironheart

During Disney's 2020 year-end Investors Day livestream, a number of exciting new Marvel projects were announced, and other projects in the works received new updates. Among that former category of newly announced projects was an Ironheart series on Disney+, with Dominique Thorn in the lead role. Fans were excited by the news, the prospect of seeing Ironheart in live action setting them abuzz. Though Ironheart hasn't been around very long in the comics — her first appearance was in Invincible Iron Man Vol. 2 #7 — she's quickly become a fan favorite. Created in 2015 by comic book writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Mike Deodato and later revised by Eve Ewing and Kevin Libranda, Ironheart, better known as Riri Williams to her friends and family, made an immediate impact. 

For as beloved as she's become, she's still so new that most fans outside of comic book fandom have never heard of her. Plenty may be wondering who she is in the wake of the news that she's getting her own show. Who is she? Here's the fascinating backstory of Riri Williams, a.k.a. Ironheart. 

A reflection of our world

Ironheart came along at a time in which a number of other young, diverse characters, such as Miles Morales and Kamala Khan, were also stepping into prominent positions in the Marvel Comics lineup. Creator Brian Michael Bendis says that Riri taking over for Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, in the comics wasn't a premeditated move made to hit some imagined diversity quota. Instead, her creation came about organically. Speaking to TIME Magazine in 2016, Bendis explained, "We never had a meeting saying, 'We need to create this character.' It's inspired by the world around me and not seeing that represented enough in popular culture."

Like the other young heroes, Riri was created to be a more accurate reflection of the world in which we live. All of them, including Ironheart, show readers that anyone can be behind the mask. Anyone can be the hero. In an 2016 interview with EW, Bendis reflected on how superheroes have impacted us, and how Riri and the other Marvel Comics newcomers are changing minds about who can wear the cape when even five years prior to that, superheroes just weren't as influential as they are today. "This is so exciting to me, to my peers, and to our fellow readers that all of these walls are disappearing," he said. "They're not even being knocked down. Young kids don't even see them. Anyone could be these heroes." 

A literal super-genius

Ironheart is inspiring in other ways, too — like the fact she's a genius. Only 15 years old at the time of her introduction, she was tested and declared a certified super-genius at the age of five. As she grew older, she became obsessed with technology and engineering, forgoing socializing and friends in favor of working on her inventions and research instead. By age 11, she was attending classes at MIT — yes, the world-renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology — on an academic scholarship. Like many kids her age in the Marvel Universe, particularly budding scientists and engineers, Riri was fascinated with billionaire playboy genius philanthropist Tony Stark. Unlike those kids, however, she had a personal connection to Iron Man: He'd saved her and her late stepfather from a Skrull attack when they invaded Earth. 

So determined was Riri to follow in her idol's footsteps that, while attending classes at MIT, Riri secretly started working on building her own modified suit of armor like Iron Man, taking his Mark-41 design and reverse-engineering it before putting her own spin on the armor. She accomplished this by stealing parts from around campus, including from the robotics lab where she studied and worked. When campus police showed up at her dorm to confront her about it, she put on the armor and flew away, impulsively deciding to quit school to be a superhero. 

Tony Stark's successor

When Tony Stark caught wind of Riri's exploits, he decided he had to meet the young super-genius who showed so much potential — and the same penchant for breaking the rules that had always driven him. After Riri quit school, she headed back home to Chicago to her mom's house to repair her suit, which had been damaged on a test run. Stark showed up on her doorstep — but far from scolding her for quitting school and fighting crime on her own, he came away deeply impressed by Williams' brilliance and commitment. Instead of dissuading her, he gave her his stamp of approval, supporting her in her decision to be a superhero. He even recruited her for his team in the second Marvel civil war, enlisting her aid in his conflict against Captain Marvel.  

Unfortunately, Tony fell into a coma after battling Captain Marvel, so Riri decided to take up the mantle, choosing the name of Ironheart to honor her mentor's legacy while also being her own hero. That didn't mean she was completely without Stark's guidance, however. Ever the future planner, Tony had downloaded a duplicate of his consciousness into an A.I. framework, enabling himself to serve as a voice of (often unwelcome) wisdom in life and crimefighting.

And Tony mother-hens her

If you thought an A.I. version of Tony Stark would be less of a motormouth than the real thing, you'd be wrong. Similar to the dynamic between Stark and Peter Parker in the MCU, the Tony Stark-Riri Williams relationship in the comics is one of a mentor and his protégé. However, unlike the real Tony Stark, the A.I. version doesn't have to sleep, can technically be with Riri 24/7, and is able to access all her files effortlessly. The result is that their relationship sometimes mimics that of a father and adopted daughter, with Tony mother-henning Riri about things like her future, finding friends, and having a social life. And Tony being Tony, his A.I. snoops into Riri's personal life with good intentions but a lack of boundaries.

But their closeness has created a special bond between Tony and Riri where she's come to rely on him for personal advice as much as professional mentorship. During the first fight she lost, in fact, even as she was in the middle of fighting Will o' the Wisp, Riri still carried on a conversation she'd been having with Tony before and asked him what he thought she should do with her life. "What does your gut tell you?" he quipped. "Is it telling you to focus on this fight?"

Memorable mentors

Tony Stark may be Riri's greatest superhero mentor, but that doesn't mean he's been her only adviser in the superhero business. Riri has been lucky enough to also have a trio of amazingly powerful, capable women to guide her early on in the superhero game: Pepper Potts, who was moonlighting as the armored hero named Rescue; Tony's biological mother and former Stark Industries President, Amanda Armstrong; and even Mary Jane Watson. After the events of Marvel's second civil war, Amanda and MJ offered Riri Tony's labs to use as her own research facility and base of operations. Pepper also fought alongside Riri, providing an example early on of how to be a hero and wear the suit. 

And one other famous Marvel face provided important mentorship to Riri at a turning point in her life: the vampire hunter known as Blade. When M.I.T. invited Riri back to school, the young superhero was torn by the decision. It was Blade who advised her to return and said she could more easily continue her search for Tony Stark's body from there. Ultimately, he was the reason she decided to accept M.I.T.'s offer.

Ironheart for a reason

There's a fascinating story behind Ironheart's name, in the comics as well as real life. According to co-creator Brian Michael Bendis, the superhero's name came out of an editors' discussion. They all agreed that "Iron Woman" was too old-fashioned, and "Iron Maiden" was a lawsuit waiting to happen. Then-Marvel CCO Joe Quesada was actually the one to come up with the name. "And Ironheart, coined by Joe Quesada, after I told him my planned story for Riri, speaks not only to the soul of the character but to the Iron Man franchise as a whole," Bendis explained in an interview with Wired. "Tony first put on the armor to save his heart. Riri puts it on for different reasons altogether but still heart-related."  

The protection around Tony Stark's heart is literal; the protection around Riri's is emotional. In the comics, it's Tony's A.I. who suggests to Riri she give herself the name of Ironheart. It's symbolic of two impactful things that shaped Riri. The first was her best (and only) friend, Natalie Washington, and Riri's stepfather both being shot through the hearts and killed in a drive-by shooting when the three were picnicking in a park in Chicago. The name Ironheart is a tribute both to the nature of their deaths and to the metaphorical armor Riri has been building around her own heart ever since. 

An homage to a friend

Not only is Riri's chosen superhero name partly an homage to her fallen friend, she specifically chose to honor Natalie's memory in another significant way. It's true Tony may be her guiding A.I., but he's an actual A.I. hologram that exists in the world, not the A.I. system that powers her suit. Tony opted to base his in-armor A.I. guidance system on his father's butler, Jarvis, or J.A.R.V.I.S. (Just Another Rather Very Intelligent System).

Riri, however, chose to base her own in-armor A.I. system on the memory of Natalie, her best friend who was tragically gunned down. Named N.A.T.A.L.I.E. (Neuro-Autonomous Technical Assistance and Laboratory Intelligence Entity), the line between A.I. construct and human is as blurred with Natalie as it is with A.I. Tony Stark. Natalie often pushes Riri to heroic deeds when she's conflicted about a situation, and it has brought them into conflict more than once. It's not unreasonable to think of a future in which Natalie's A.I. might one day power a suit on her own and become a full-fledged superhero rather than remaining in a support role for Riri.

The magic of 15

Brian Michael Bendis imagined Riri as a 15-year-old girl for a few reasons. He was drawn to that age because it represents one foot in childhood and one in adulthood, as he told EW. "I think there's something really magical about this age. You are in some cultures considered an adult, but there are whole parts of you that are still childlike," he explained. "You don't even know what you don't know yet."

Yet because Riri is a super-genius, she runs the risk of retreating from the world. It's something that happens, both in real life and with some characters from Marvel Comics, that the incredibly intelligent often find themselves growing bored with the world and with other people, so they compensate by isolating and getting too far inside their own heads. But because Riri is a teenager, as Bendis explained in a different TIME interview, she has her parents, specifically her mom after her biological father's death, to keep her engaged with the world. "I discovered, through research, that it is a thing that gifted children need desperately," said Bendis. "As we say in the story: high intellects, out of frustration, can sometimes retreat into their own world. This young woman has had that burden but she also has a grounded parent who helped her get to this point." So in many ways, it's Riri's mother who is the hero of the story. 

She knows her own mind

Thanks to her mother, Riri isn't just well-grounded intellectually, but also emotionally and in her sense of self. Riri's been through a lot at her young age, and she still wants to do good and help others despite having so much taken from her. Despite her young age, she knows exactly who she is — or at least she knows exactly who she doesn't want to be. So much so that she even turned S.H.I.E.L.D. down flat. Her predecessor and mentor Tony Stark had often turned down the offer to work with S.H.I.E.L.D. over the years, whether through arrogance or a distaste for rules; at other points, S.H.I.E.L.D. turned him down due to his difficult nature. Still, Stark became the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. at one point. 

Riri, however, turned down S.H.I.E.L.D.'s offer of recruitment immediately because of her own morals. When S.H.I.E.L.D. commander Sharon Carter learned of her genius, she invited her to be a part of S.H.I.E.L.D., but Riri refused, believing that S.H.I.E.L.D. too often abused its own power. "I think S.H.I.E.L.D. might be the devil, but I'm sure you're a very nice person," she said, much to Carter's amazement. Most people in that (admittedly far-fetched) position would have jumped at the chance to be a superhero S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, but not Riri. She knows herself too well.

A Champion

Just because she didn't want to join S.H.I.E.L.D., that didn't mean Riri wasn't willing to join any team. In fact, she became a proud member of the Champions, the teenage superhero squad consisting of Ironheart, Miles Morales/Spider-Man, Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel, Amadeus Cho/Hulk, Sam Alexander/Nova, Viv Vision, Nadia Van Dyne/Wasp, Joaquin Torres/Falcon, and Rayshaun Lucas/Patriot. The teens were all deeply disillusioned after the second civil war and struggling with the actions of the veteran superheroes, so they determined to form the Champions team and recruit other like-minded young heroes. Their mission statement was a perhaps naive but a noble one, to "enforce justice without unjust force" and to "win the right way — not with hate [or] retribution, but with wisdom and hope." Along with the Wasp and Cho, Ironheart helped build the Champions Mobile Bunker, a moving headquarters for the young team.

Even though they were teenagers, the Champions — and Ironheart with them — accomplished some pretty impressive things, such as tracking down the Hydra impostor Captain America and destroying Hydra sleeper cells across the United States. They even went up against Thanos, and it was Ironheart who charged him in her rage. She was easily beaten, but her fearlessness was notable. And when the team was collectively stricken with amnesia and scattered across the alternate dimension Weirdworld, it was ultimately Ironheart who brought the team back together.