Who is Ironheart? The history of Black Panther 2’s new superhero

An image of Riri Williams in her Ironheart suit from Marvel comics
(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

Iron Man is dead! Long live Ironheart!

With its superhero roster historically dominated by white men, Marvel Comics made an effort to add some much-needed diversity to its line-up in recent years. Among others, Miles Morales inherited Peter Parker’s Spider-Man mantle, Jane Foster became the new Thor, and Amadeus Cho turned big and green as the latest incarnation of the Hulk. Riri Williams, meanwhile, stepped into Tony Stark’s robotic shoes as the spiritual descendent of Iron Man.

Williams may not have Stark’s multi-billion-dollar resources but this super-intelligent teen has the smarts to build her own superpowered suit of armor. She subsequently becomes a hero in her own right, adopting the alias of Ironheart when she flies into action.

Now, less than seven years after her first appearance on the comic-book page, Williams is primed to make her big screen debut in the upcoming Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, before taking the lead in her own spin-off TV series on Disney Plus. So, ahead of Riri’s trip to Wakanda, here’s everything you need to know about Ironheart, and how she might fit into the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Who is Ironheart?

In Marvel Comics, Ironheart (sometimes known as Lady Ironheart) is the superhero alias of Riri Williams, a teenager who wears sophisticated robotic armor much like Tony Stark’s famous Iron Man outfit.

Although Williams possesses similar genius levels of intellect to Stark – she wins a scholarship to MIT aged just 15 – she doesn’t share the resources of Marvel’s most famous billionaire playboy. Instead, the ever-resourceful Williams reverse-engineers Stark’s tech to build her own weaponized suit, raiding her college campus for parts.

What’s Ironheart’s history in Marvel Comics?

After Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor and the rest, we’re used to Marvel characters, dating back to the 1960s – or, in the case of Captain America and Namor: The Sub-Mariner, even earlier. Riri Williams, however, is a much more recent addition to the comic-book canon.

The creation of writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Mike Deodato, Riri made her first appearance in 2016’s Invincible Iron Man (Vol 3) #7. Her Ironheart alter-ego would debut a few months later in 2017’s Invincible Iron Man (Vol 4) #3.

Riri grew up in Chicago with her mother, stepfather and sister, and her super-intelligence was identified at an early age. But, as is the case with so many Marvel superheroes, Riri’s backstory is filled with tragedy.

Her father, Demetrius Williams (nicknamed Riri), died before his daughter was born. The comics would go on to reveal that his death was faked, and that he’s an operative for the Ten Rings, the criminal organization that became the Big Bad in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

When Riri was 13, she saw both her stepfather and her best friend, Natalie, murdered, innocent bystanders in a drive-by shooting. When Riri later developed her own answer to Tony Stark’s JARVIS/FRIDAY, her in-suit AI NATALIE (Neuro-Autonomous Technical Assistant and Laboratory Intelligence Entity) would take the form of her late friend.

Riri started building her first Iron Man-style suit as a challenge to herself. Original Iron Man Tony Stark was so impressed by Williams’ engineering exploits that he took her under his wing. She subsequently joined his side in Civil War II, and assumed the Ironheart mantle – wearing a souped-up version of her original armor – when Stark was incapacitated by Captain Marvel.

She later joined the Champions (an Avengers spin-off featuring numerous teen superheroes), and – in some neat foreshadowing of Wakanda Forever – teamed up with Shuri to do battle with the Ten Rings. She also had a brief stint as monarch of Latveria, the European nation that was the home of infamous Marvel supervillain Dr Doom.

The official artwork for the Ironheart Disney Plus show

(Image credit: Marvel Studios)

How will Ironheart fit into the Marvel Cinematic Universe?

Riri Williams will make her MCU debut in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, which lands in theaters on November 11. She’ll be played by Dominique Thorne, who’s previously starred in If Beale Street Could Talk, and Judas and the Black Messiah. The latter was produced by Black Panther director Ryan Coogler.

Thorne previously auditioned to play Shuri in the first Black Panther movie. Obviously she lost out on that role to Letitia Wright, but the actor stayed on the filmmakers’ radar – in fact, producer Nate Moore offered her the Ironheart role without even asking her to audition.

As is usually the case with Marvel movies, it seems that Riri’s screen backstory will borrow elements of her comic book origins while adapting them to fit the needs of the wider MCU. The Target-branded promo below shows Riri building her own superpowered armor, inspiring other aspiring inventors and – perhaps inevitably – buying key components for her suit from the ubiquitous retailer:

“I love the fact that [Riri] is just fully herself,” Thorne told Entertainment Weekly.  “She's definitely not the typical or traditional superhero. She's very much Riri Williams, the 19-year-old student first, and then there’s this whole Ironheart business that she has to figure out.”

A recent Wakanda Forever trailer, meanwhile, gives us a brief glimpse of Riri’s Ironheart armor in action. While it’s considerably cruder than the nanotech suits Stark wore during his later Iron Man years, it’s notable that this armor still packs a hell of a punch. We also see Thorne inside her helmet’s heads-up display, emulating Stark and Rhodey in previous MCU movies.

With Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man out of the equation since Avengers: Endgame (and we already covered Stark-as-mentor with Spider-Man anyway), it looks like Riri’s benefactors and mentors will now be from the state of Wakanda. This clip from the upcoming Black Panther sequel suggests that Shuri and Okoye have been keeping an eye Riri’s progress, and have decided it’s time to recruit her – whether she wants to join them or not. “I’m going to give you two options,” says Okoye. “You can come to Wakanda conscious or unconscious.”

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Perhaps more importantly for the ever-expanding interconnectivity of the MCU, however, Riri Williams’ debut in Wakanda Forever is setting up her own Ironheart spin-off on Disney Plus. Part of Marvel’s vast Phase 5 release slate, the Ironheart TV show is due to land on the streaming platform in late 2023. Chinaka Hodge (a veteran of Amazing Stories and Snowpiercer) is on board as head writer, with Sam Bailey (Dear White People) and Angela Barnes (Blindspotting) directing.

For more Black Panther-based content, read our spoiler-free Black Panther: Wakanda Forever review, or check out our Black Panther: Wakanda Forever ending and post-credits scene explained article.

Richard Edwards

Richard is a freelance journalist specialising in movies and TV, primarily of the sci-fi and fantasy variety. An early encounter with a certain galaxy far, far away started a lifelong love affair with outer space, and these days Richard's happiest geeking out about Star Wars, Star Trek, Marvel and other long-running pop culture franchises. In a previous life he was editor of legendary sci-fi and fantasy magazine SFX, where he got to interview many of the biggest names in the business – though he'll always have a soft spot for Jeff Goldblum who (somewhat bizarrely) thought Richard's name was Winter.