When a new character takes on the legacy of an older one, the greatest challenge is making that transition seem fitting and meaningful. It helps when the older character has a sizable network of friends, family, and side-kicks in the wings, ready to carry on that legacy in a way that feels like a true extension of the story. This is how Batman’s legacy can continue whenever Bruce Wayne is MIA, whether it’s through Dick Grayson, Terry McGuinness, or the occasional robot.
Unfortunately for the legacy of Iron Man, Tony Stark isn’t as keen on side-kicks and family. Throughout his history, he tends to monopolize all things Iron Man. At times, he gives the impression that he only tolerates War Machine because he doesn’t use a title or color scheme that undermines his brand. He’s akin to a musician who doesn’t mind people doing goofy parodies of his music. That may be an effective way to control a legacy, but it does create issues once Tony is unavailable. With no Robin or even a Bucky Barnes waiting in the wings, Iron Man’s legacy is especially vulnerable.
That makes the task Brian Michael Bendis undertook in creating Riri Williams all the more daunting. He doesn’t have the time or capacity to create the kind of built-in legacy that Batman has. He has to put Riri in this role of filling in for Tony Stark with next to no build-up or dramatic underpinnings. Riri just happens to be in the right place at the right time when Tony Stark goes down in Civil War II. It’s the kind of happenstance that can only come at Marvel where Cosmic Cubes, deals with Mephisto, and the Scarlet Witch going crazy constantly skew the odds.
With Generations: Iron Man and Ironheart #1, Bendis has a chance to forge a greater personal connection between Tony Stark and Riri Williams. In a sense, that sort of connection is overdue because even in his AI form, Tony acts more as a guide than a mentor to Riri. The lack of any deeper undertones still creates the impression that Riri’s role is forced and contrived. Creating a more personal connection can help mitigate that impression.
Bendis makes that effort and even tries a different approach, compared to previous iterations of Marvel Generations. Whereas the other stories have taken characters to the past, he takes Riri to the future. That’s somewhat more practical, given the inherent themes of futurism in Iron Man. However, pragmatics only go so far. When it comes to actual substance, the story falters and only ends up highlighting the reasons certain fans complain about Riri in the first place.
By taking the story to the future instead of the past, she ends up in a very different world, compared to the one she comes from. This is inherently an issue for her character because so much of her story is tied to her situation in the present. Her family, being from Chicago, and stumbling through the growing pains of being a hero are part of what makes Riri’s story compelling. None of that is present in Generations: Iron Man and Ironheart #1. That leaves Riri isolated and only highlights some of her less flattering traits.
From the moment she arrives in the future, Riri basically acts as her own narrator. It tries to come off as cute and awkward, as is often the nature of teenagers, but it just comes off as annoying and self-centered. She doesn’t say or ponder anything that isn’t depicted by Marco Rudy’s skilled art. When she encounters familiar-looking heroes from the future, including a next-generation Avengers team and a 126-year-old Tony Stark, who also happens to be the Sorcerer Supreme, the moment falls flat. For overly-emotional teenagers, that just goes against the laws of physics.
That’s not to say Riri is cold in the story. She does make it a point to hug Tony when she gets the chance. However, that’s pretty much the extent of the connection they forge. It’s also the extent of the drama in the story. There’s no epic battle. There’s no shared struggle. One is teased, but goes absolutely nowhere. There’s no point where Riri really works with Tony, thereby gaining a better understanding of what it means to be Ironheart. She basically just sits back, watches, and gets a crash course in how great the future is.
While that sort of techno-utopian ideology is a key component to Iron Man, Generations: Iron Man and Ironheart #1 doesn’t present it in a very compelling way. It’s mostly done through Tony Stark talking, Riri Williams reacting, and everyone else just shrugging their shoulders. It’s as compelling as it sounds. There aren’t any moments of real struggle with Riri. She’s basically just a guest passing through and not much else. Her passing out when she first arrives is the most she does to move the story forward.
That’s not to say there’s no overall impact for Riri. Seeing the future and all the beauty that Rudy’s art can depict leaves an important impression. It shows that the future she, Tony, and all things Iron Man are trying to build is worth building. That’s a meaningful impression, but one that doesn’t need to be belabored in an Iron Man comic, which is built on the very premise that a better future can be built. Riri’s story already involves plenty of future-building so the impression comes off as redundant.
Bendis has many opportunities to craft a more meaningful connection between Riri and Tony in Generations: Iron Man and Ironheart #1. Few, if any, of those opportunities pan out. Riri still comes off as an annoying teenager who basically stumbles to success at every turn as Ironheart and Tony comes off as overly coy with his ego. The story succeeds at capturing the futurism themes inherent of most Iron Man stories, but that’s all it succeeds with. For someone as capable as Riri Williams and Tony Stark, that’s just too low a bar.