The internet is in a furor once again over a Marvel change to one of its most popular characters. Iron Man will soon become a 15 year old Black female. Comics has a long history of passing mantles and replacing old characters with new ones.So is this change really that drastic, or will it even last long enough to be mad about?
After the explosion of superheroes in the Golden Age, it was followed fairly quickly by a collapse with only DC’s trinity surviving by becoming anything but traditional superheroes. With the Golden Age and its most popular titles gone, there was a large void to be filled once again by people in colorful outfits fighting for Truth, Justice and the American way (without a hint of irony). Roughly five or six years after the Golden era passed (a veritable lifetime for devotees of the Newsstand distribution), DC revamped its former speedster Jay Garrick with Barry Allen, kicking off the Silver Age and more modern additions to its catalog. Alan Scott was replaced by Hal Jordon, Al Pratt gave way to Ray Palmer, etc. Unlike changes now, these changes stuck because the new Silver Age characters were the ones that resonated with fans.
What is pretty remarkable is that even when DC brought back the old Golden Age characters (via their newly invented Multiverse) they didn’t supplant their replacements, they remained elements of DC’s past.
Moving ahead some years, Hal Jordon would have to share his title with John Stewart, marking (at the time) a major step for diversity and progress. John’s popularity would vary over the years but would at times surpass Hal’s.
Across the street, Marvel was experimenting with the legacy model by making a new Human Torch for the Fantastic Four and a new Ghost Rider that wasn’t a Western cowboy.
A few decades later, comics have become more crowded but not necessarily more diverse. We’ve had a few more Green Lanterns, Barry Allen passes his mantle on to his protege Wally West, Batman and Superman briefly let others take on their roles. After the 00’s, diversity becomes a major issue for fans and publishers have tried to accommodate. This leads to a Hispanic teen Blue Beetle, a Black Mr.Terrific, a few more Spider-Girls and Wonder-Girls.
Skipping ahead to now, comics does indeed look more diverse with minority characters given more respect and attention now that representation is now an ongoing concern. Sam Wilson is now Captain America, Jane Foster is Thor, the Hulk is a Korean teen, Peter Parker shares his Spider-Man title with a biracial teen, an alternate Earth version of his former girlfriend and a few others. Marvel typically doesn’t do legacies, but roles like Captain America have been open to others when Steve Rogers wasn’t up to it.
The Hulk is a fun example, think of all the characters that share the name “Hulk”. She-Hulk, Red-Hulk, Red She-Hulk; there’s only one actual Hulk. Red Hulk actually premiered after Bruce Banner almost broke the Earth and needed a break from rampaging. The thing about that though, is that Bruce Banner returned to rampage again, and he’ll likely do it again in the future.
Same thing with Captain America and Thor, they’ve let others try their monikers and tools until Marvel brings them back stronger. This is what separates Legacies from Placeholders, Legacies don’t get their monikers taken away when the original comes back. Placeholders keep the stuff safe until their owner returns to take them back. We’ve seen Bucky Cap end quickly after Steve Rogers came back to life and now that he’s not old anymore (which also didn’t last that long) its a safe bet that Sam Wilson won’t be FalCap much longer.
So where does that leave Riri Williams being Iron Man?
Iron Man is Tony Stark, we know this because Iron Man 3 beat this into our heads repeatedly. James “Rhodey” Rhodes couldn’t make the role his own, no matter how many times Tony gave it up. Rhodey was a placeholder, pure and simple. Maybe that’s why Marvel killed him (I swear thats not the first time for that either), so it would seem like Riri would hold on to the Iron Man name longer than he ever could. Which she probably will, but I don’t think it will last too long either otherwise why is Tony still hanging around alive and well?
For a legacy character to take, the original has to be gone long enough so he’s not reminding readers that he was their favorite. The JSA characters were gone so long that they’re never gonna be a genuine threat to Flash or GL, but then they have competition from their newer counterparts. Miles Morales bucks this by existing alongside Spider-Man in the 616, but then the Peter he replaced died and turned evil. It’s a tricky line to walk by having a legacy and the original coexist, but it can be done if the publisher is committed to it. However, not every mantle lends itself to being shared. Batman for instance, while fun having two of them is just too much. Sometimes you can have five heroes with one name and others there can only be one.
If you’re curious where your favorite legacy characters lie, look at the history of that legacy and if the original is still hanging about in the background ready for a return.