Continuing The Legacy of Marvel Characters
Continuing the Legacy
One big factor in the increased diversity of heroes in the Marvel universe in the last few years has been the introduction of legacy characters. A legacy is when an older, classic hero passes on their mantel (often including their hero name and their costume) to a younger hero who will take over from them. Many of the new characters who have been introduced as legacies are members of a minority (in terms of gender, race, disability, and so on) in contrast to the pantheon of almost all straight white men who made up the classic heroes. Let's take a look at how Marvel has introduced readers to a new generation of more diverse heroes.
Marvel's Big Three
You might have noticed that for a little while there last year, Marvel's three most prominent and popular characters were all replaced by legacies. Sam Wilson (a black man) took over as Captain America, Jane Foster (a white woman) was Thor, and Riri Williams (a young black girl) is the new Iron Man. It was a remarkable time for those of us who love comics to see the three leading white men hand over their mantles to a more diverse group. While the reaction to these new characters has been mixed – fans generally love Sam Wilson, and most people are very excited for Riri, but Jane hasn't convinced many Thor devotees – the fact that they are there at all seems to indicate incredible progress in the diversity of mainstream comics.
In fact, Marvel seems to be more committed than ever to showcasing legacy characters. This month, the publisher will be debuting a ten-issue anthology book titled "Generations" which will show a series of team-ups between classic Marvel heroes and their modern counterparts. These include the classic Hulk, Bruce Banner, and his modern counterpart Amadeus Cho, and the original Wolverine, Logan, going on an adventure with Laura Kinney, who became hugely popular thanks to the Logan film. I'm personally most looking forward to seeing Peter Parker and Miles Morales go on a Spider-Man adventure together!
Additions, Not Replacements
One noteworthy thing that Marvel has been doing with their legacy characters is integrating them into the same universe as their original counterparts. You can see from "Generations" that this is the direction writers are going in. The traditional idea of legacy characters was as a replacement for the original – more or less, the original character would be killed off or retire and they would be succeeded by a legacy character. This would often provoke an angry backlash from fans who didn't want to lose their favorite character. For example, back in the 90s when Batman had his back broken and DC replaced him with Azrael, fan reaction was so furious that the change was undone within a few months.
This fan anger over replacing classic characters can be particularly ugly when the legacy character is a member of a minority. In 2011, Marvel announced that they would be replacing Peter Parker in the Ultimates Universe with Miles Morales, a black-Latino teenager. Despite the fact that this was a side universe, and the regular Peter Parker was still alive and well and starring in his own comic in the main 616 universe, many (obviously non-comic reading) people took this as a clear example of “diversity gone too far”. The concept of a white character being killed off and replaced by a character of color made people furious, and there were a lot of hateful and racist comments made about whether a young boy of color could be a hero at all.
To avoid this kind of storm of controversy, Marvel has been adding in new legacy characters who work alongside their original counterparts. For example, some of the most fun scenes of the new Ms. Marvel comic involve youngster Kamala Khan being hugely over-excited to meet her hero, the original Ms. Marvel, Carol Danvers. Or in the current Marvel event, original Iron Man Tony Stark has become an AI and he watches over and advises the new Ironheart, Riri Williams. This direct link between the old characters and the new not only appeases fans but also gives older characters the change to step into a mentor role and for readers to see a new side of them.
To Promote Diversity, Do You Create New Characters Or Update Old Ones?
One argument that comes up a lot in discussions of diversity and legacy characters is that if Marvel wants more diverse characters, then they should create new ones rather than updating or changing older heroes. This argument is used particularly by those who don't want the classic characters to be changed, at all. And in some ways, this is a good point – diversity doesn't mean just telling the same stories as always but with black faces or female faces attached to the characters. Ideally, a character's experience of race, class, gender, sexuality and so on should be written into their story as part of who they are, not added on to a presumably straight-white-male character template.
However, there are good reasons for making use of legacies to promote diversity. Firstly, the fact is that it's extremely difficult to get the comic-buying public excited about a new character before their comic is released, and this is especially true of diverse characters. For example, when Image comics released Motor Crush at the end of last year, retailers admitted to not ordering the book because it has a queer black female lead. Never mind that the comic came from a respected and well-known creative team, the mere fact that it was perceived as a “diversity” book meant that it wasn't ordered by stores, and that meant that it wasn't available for comics fans to see or to buy.
With legacy characters, it's a different story. Despite the jaw-dropping stupidity of a senior Marvel executive claiming that diversity was to blame for poor sales of comics, in fact, books like "Invincible Iron Man" in which Riri Williams stars are some of Marvel's top sellers. The built-in fan base for legacy characters makes them a much easier sell than trying to persuade fans to add (yet another) new book to their pull list.
How Legacies Change the Marvel Universe
There's one more thing to consider about legacy characters, and that's the way that they affect the universe that they live in. The Marvel universe has always been known for staying close to our real-world, unlike DC, and this is a distinctive feature of the publisher. But this leads to some difficulties with the timeline: how is it, for example, that Tony Stark (a regular human with no powers) has been a hero since the 1960s but apparently hasn't aged? This is addressed in-universe by monkeying around with time travel and alternative versions of the character. But legacies show a different route to solving this problem.
Legacies give a sense of history and development to a universe to stop it from seeing static and outdated. Legacy characters reflect changes to readers' societal attitudes, like an increased acceptance of queer sexualities or people of color in prominent roles – but they also show how the fictional universe has changed over time. There have been heroes in the Marvel universe for fifty years, and the presence of these heroes has changed the in-universe public's attitude so that many people want to become heroes themselves. This is sort of the opposite of a book like Watchmen which shows how the public would hate and fear heroes, instead showing how people can become inspired by heroics. And isn't that the point of a superhero story?
I love Marvel's classic heroes, but I love the newer, more diverse generation of legacy heroes too. Adding a sense of progress and change over time to the Marvel universe can only be a good thing and it will hopefully lead to many more exciting new characters.