[Contains SPOILERS for Invincible Iron Man #5.]
Even with a teacher like virtual Tony Stark, there are no training wheels for superhero-dom. Like anything else, a million practice runs can only prepare you so much when a genuine challenge arrives– especially when a twisted criminal with control over technology hunts you down. Fortunately for Ironheart Riri Williams, she’s not flying her iron suit solo. Not only does she have an artificial intelligence version of Mr. Stark to aid her in Invincible Iron Man #5, but a chance encounter with Pepper Potts (aka Rescue) turns out to be beneficial in many ways.
No sooner have the two Iron heroes met, than they're assaulted by Tomoe, a recently "born" Inhuman known as Techno Golem (at least to Tony). While Pepper battles an army of cyber-ninjas and the mechanized behemoth constructed from her and Riri’s armor, the young Ironheart and Tony soup up a virus to stop the rampaging menace. Pepper’s luck seems to have run out, when Tomoe zeroes in on her before they can upload the virus.
Will the computer bug put a stop to the Techno Golem? Even if it does, could Tony and Riri have created something far worse than Tomoe?
With ninjas breathing down Pepper’s neck and a killing blow glowing on Tomoe’s metal hand, one of Tony’s remote suits of armor soars in to the rescue. Distracting the the Inhuman technophile gives Riri just enough time to send the virus, which infects the Techno Golem as she assimilates the remote armor, quickly disassembling her super-suit. After a brief woman-to-woman standoff between Riri and Tomoe, Pepper knocks the crime boss just as the cavalry arrives.
Sharon Carter and SHIELD drop in to help with the cleanup, taking Tomoe into custody. When Pepper introduces Riri to Carter, the second-in-command recognizes her armor from Civil War II, noting her allegiance to Iron Man (and against her and Captain Marvel). Nonetheless, she's impressed by the young woman's handiwork, which brought down the Techno Golem. Both women are shocked to learn that she’s only 15. Agent Carter offers Riri a gig in the agency’s training program, but she turns her down, citing her concerns about the organization’s disturbing accumulation of political power as of late (a tip-off to Captain America's Secret Empire).
Despite the less-than-affable introduction, Pepper talks Agent Carter down. One thing is made readily apparent, though: SHIELD will be watching the up-and-coming heroine.
Protecting the Innocent
If there’s one underlying theme to the generation-bridging Invincible Iron Man #5, it’s the eternal question about transitioning young women and men into the responsibilities of adulthood. While this issue drives a little slower than prior ones, it offers more of Brian Michael Bendis' solid characterizations, which definitely isn’t a bad thing, even in comics. Riri is already struggling with the status quo, thanks to her scarred childhood and being mentored by the naturally skeptical Tony Stark. Riri's mother also wrestles with her daughter's safety as she comes of age in the very dangerous superhero world.
While her mother freely admits that Riri is and has always acted older and wiser than her age, Ms. Williams brief chat with the nonexistent computerized presence of Tony Stark (poignant but also amusing) is a reminder that the young genius hasn’t even hit sweet sixteen yet. She’s incredibly young and incredibly capable, but most of all, inexperienced in the often brutal adult world. Towards the end of the issue, Riri’s mother finds her crashed out in the garage after her ordeal. The teen hero admits that she now realizes she “might be able do this,” to her mother’s eternal pride and trepidation.
Bendis also translates Riri’s ascent into heroics as a metaphor for the children of today who are super-powered in their own way. Gifted with knowledge beyond the capabilities of those who came before them, modern youths have an incredible amount of resources at their fingertips and can communicate across the globe instantaneously. However, (sorry Spider-Man) with great power comes great responsibility and great risk. Having these amazing abilities (via meaning or another) is one thing, but avoiding their pitfalls and using them wisely for the benefit of others is something infinitely more challenging.
This time around, it's the elder generation, especially Tony Stark's AI form even more so than her own mother, who has misgivings about keeping his adolescent ward safe.
Tony Stark’s Lament
Back at Stark Industries, computerized corporate decision-maker Friday is startled to see Tony Stark’s virtual form pacing back and forth like the physical version once did. He then reminds her that he’s less a computerized construct and more a manifestation of Tony’s consciousness – a "phantom body," akin to someone that experiences nerve sensations from a missing leg or arm. His comparison paints a curious picture of his limbo-like state, caught between man and machine but his next statement echoes very real variation of sci-fi cliches that humanity could face in the not-too-distant future.
Friday asks Tony how his protégé is doing, and he admits that Riri’s doing very well. But he’s troubled by his limited capabilities as a virtual entity to keep her safe. However, Friday seems most concerned when Tony's mentions his biggest concern when it comes to protecting “the good from the bad” – humanity.
Although the ___ gone bad (insert robot, artificial intelligence, cyborg, etc.) is an old science fiction and comic book trope, it’s a concern very worth revisiting – especially in an era where supercomputers are reaching super-intelligent levels, science is trying to crack emotional algorithms, and AI Tony Stark isn't quite so far-fetched. The threat of Skynet – the ubiquitous evil computer that menaced Sarah Connor in The Terminator series – is still pretty darn unlikely. But with smartphones that talk back (and even get snarky with you), machines writing newspaper articles, and artificial intelligence brighter than ever, it seems far more likely in contemporary times than during The Terminator's era, when the threat of an Apple IIe with a 1200 bps dial-up modem didn't sound particularly menacing.
While Tony Stark isn't necessarily headed for full-on Skynet mode (he's still provisionally human, after all), the final moments of Invincible Iron Man #5 do hint at an Ultron-esque edge to the virtual incarnation of Mr. Stark. Of course, it’s also possible the same virus Tony and Riri used to infect Tomoe’s armor has infiltrated their systems and is having some unintentional side effects. After all, she did note some potential glitches in her armor.
Their short-term victory over a new enemy could wind up causing far bigger problems, especially if Tony Stark’s been compromised. It would take a computer whiz to figure out how to stop him. Thankfully, as she's proved time and time again, Riri is a natural.
Invincible Iron Man #5 is currently available.