Following the conclusion of Civil War II on September 21, Tony Stark will (due to as of yet unknown reasons) no longer be Iron Man. Either by death or retirement, the Iron Mantle will be passed to Riri Williams in October in her own series, simply titled Invincible Iron Man.
With that announcement, the final Marvel mainstay has moved on, leaving all of Marvel’s most iconic superhero identities in new hands.
Steve Rogers is no longer Captain America. Thor Odinson no longer wields the hammer Mjölnir. Bruce Banner no longer hulks out. The yellow spandex of Wolverine isn’t worn by Logan. Peter Parker still uses the name Spider-Man, but there’s another wall-crawler in New York City who’s also taken that name. And now Tony Stark is no longer Iron Man. The Avengers don’t look like they used to.
What’s most interesting though is that every one of these white men has been replaced by a woman, a person of color, or, in Stark’s case, both.* Sam Wilson, better known to most as The Falcon, has become Captain America. Jane Foster has been deemed worthy and now wields the power of Thor. Amadeus Cho, a young Korean-American genius, holds the radioactive ability to transform into The Hulk. Laura Kinney, the female clone of Logan, is now the best there is at what Wolverine does. Miles Morales, a half-Latino/half-black teenager, stars in both his own Spider-Man series and the current Avengers series.
And now we have Riri Williams, a black 15-year-old MIT student and genius who figured out how to build her own Iron Man armor.
Since it was announced almost two years ago to the day that a woman would be picking up Thor’s hammer in his unworthy stead, slowly but surely Marvel has been diversifying their key characters. Most of these announcements, unfortunately but rather predictably, have been met with virulent racism and sexism by so-called comic fans (though admittedly they seem less gung-ho with each replacement). So why is Marvel making such deliberate and controversial moves to diversify?
And I mean besides the obvious moral and ethical ones. Of course there are writers, artists, and execs at Marvel who want to see diverse heroes in comics to properly represent our diverse world. Brian Michael Bendis, creator of Miles and Riri, and Greg Pak, creator of Amadeus Cho, have been two of the loudest and most consistently vocal figures to argue for diversity across the comic book medium and I absolutely respect them for their drive and success in doing so.
But comic books are a business and I doubt we’d be seeing such a complete changing of the guard if there wasn’t a monetary value in it.
The comic book medium has never pulled in the same numbers as movies or video games, in terms of money or audience, despite its now broad influence on our culture. The business has always relied on a core set of hardcore fans to keep it afloat over the years. But that steady, reliable market is limited, both for revenue and creativity (see the comments section of any article discussing the aforementioned character swaps to get an idea for how much they like change). Marvel made their most recognizable heroes more diverse (not to mention younger) with the hopes that they could expand their consumer base past the Generation-X & Y white dude demographic that comics had been catering to for nearly fifty years. With the broad, mass appeal success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they saw ample opportunity to not only sell a couple more books but to turn new readers into regular readers.
Marvel bet on diversity.
If the recent sales numbers are any indication, it’s working. June was the best-selling month for comics in nearly twenty years, with sales to comic stores hitting 8.5 million issues. This is undoubtedly thanks in part to the continuing popularity of superhero movies and to the debut issues of mega events like Marvel’s Civil War II and DC’s Rebirth, but comic sales have been rising steadily for quite a few years now. Comics are, slowly but surely, growing.
Marvel put their top talent on a roster of new and diverse characters to take up the superhero identities previously held by white men, they let creators write and illustrate unique stories working in whatever genres they wanted, they elevated previously minor PoC and female characters to starring roles throughout their entire book lineup, and it’s paying off. All of the new titles have found some measure of critical and commercial success but The Mighty Thor and Spider-Man, in particular, have been consistently solid sellers. Even with B- and C-list characters Marvel has found success by diversifying, most notably with Kamala Khan, a Pakistani American of Muslim faith, the breakout star of Ms. Marvel.
But there’s also the benefit diversifying the comics has for the movies. As things stand now, that Marvel Cinematic Universe is a white sausage fest. Literally every major black character is stuck in a sidekick role to a white dude and there’s a total of about three women who have spoken on screen. But this version of the MCU is coming to an end soon. Phase 3 of the MCU is coming to an end with The Avengers: Infinity War Part II in 2019, which will see the Avengers go up against the MCU’s big bad, Thanos. So what happens after that?
Unlike comic book characters who just stay roughly thirty-five years old forever, the actors of the MCU are eventually going to age up and move on out. Contracts expire, people want to do other projects, movie stars need to bathe in their Marvel-funded pools of money. We do have new characters coming up to join the world. The 20-year-old Tom Holland is only just starting to get his feet wet as Spider-Man and his film series will presumably continue past Infinity War. Chadwick Boseman will almost certainly be getting more Black Panther movies. Captain Marvel will be relatively new to the universe and probably continue on afterwards. But what about our old stalwarts? Who’s gonna be there to fill the Robert Downey Jr or Chris Evans sized holes in our hearts? If only there was some source of inspiration Marvel could draw from for young, fresh, new characters that will carry the mantles of their box-office-smashing superheroes into the future…
Maybe it’s wishful thinking for a movie series that’s currently 85% comprised of guys named Chris to get an overhaul and feature the same kind of diversity we’re starting to see in the comics but Marvel is already making some moves in the right direction. Ant-Man’s sequel has been titled Ant-Man and The Wasp, making The Wasp the first female superhero to get her name in the title of an MCU movie. The aforementioned Black Panther and Captain Marvel movies will star the first black superhero and the first solo female superhero of the MCU respectively. Assuming Black Panther and Captain Marvel are a success and with Marvel not wanting to sleep on profitable brands like Iron Man and Captain America, hopefully Marvel will draw inspiration from the comics and give women and people of color the spotlight they deserve.
Every time one of these new characters was announced to replace an old one, from Jane to Sam to Miles to Amadeus and now to Riri, one of the oft-repeated cries from the seedier parts of the internet said that deliberately making a work diverse didn’t mean it would be any good. Why focus on diversity, said the naysayers, and not just focus on telling good stories? Marvel pressed on anyway, clear in their ideas and goals. Their intense shake up of the Marvel universe is still ongoing, creating new characters, promoting others to their own series, and actively encouraging for a greater range of genres, stories, and characters.
Obviously, there are still problems in comics. Behind the scenes of the comic book world, the creators, writers, and artists aren’t nearly as diverse as Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Wolverine, Spider-Man, and Iron Man are now, but this new roster of heroes provides more than a glimmer of hope that, even in the most stagnant and stubborn of places, real change can happen.
*A bit of a caveat to address: a few days after announcing Riri’s Iron Man book, Marvel also announced an upcoming book titled Infamous Iron Man, which will star Victor von Doom, a white guy. It’s not clear what his relationship to Riri will be or how they’ll share the Iron Man title, but Riri’s book is clearly the flagship Iron Man book. Similarly, Steve Rogers recently got his powers back and has gotten back to the hero business in Captain America: Steve Rogers but Sam Wilson’s book is still the flagship Cap book. Logan is (kind of) back but once again, he’s not the Wolverine. So far, none of the new, diverse characters has stepped down from their place as the primary version of that superhero.