Many of the most popular superheroes are impossibly smart. Batman has multiple degrees, Tony Stark is a mega-rich inventor, and Hank Pym redefined what we know about the physical world. But the genius of these men is often lost within the panels, swallowed by intense action scenes laden with punches and energy blasts.
After all, being smart is just one part of the superhero package, along with being handsome, charming, and -- in many, many cases -- absurdly rich.
However, when the script is flipped and comics lean away from these usual suspects, we see a shift. Especially in traditionally more "vulnerable" characters, smarts become just as important as Wolverine's claws or Hulk's strength. And recently, we've seen intelligence become a major power for a seemingly unlikely subset of heroes: young women and girls. Here's a look at some of these heroes and why it's so important they exist in comics right now.
A 15-year-old genius at MIT, Riri Williams took the liberty of creating her own Iron Man suit out of parts she "found" scattered around the campus. Late nights, obsessive work, and noise complaints plagued her development of the suit, which eventually served her in helping save the day for a number of people. Following the example of Tony Stark, Riri adopted and rebranded the mantle of Iron Man, naming herself Iron Heart. The suit she ends up with is her own, but there are some clear StarkTech influences.
Riri's introduction into the Marvel universe is significant. Riri is something of a go-getter, convinced that she's meant to fill in the role of Stark during the events of Civil War II. She feels a need to step in and help, inspired to use her genius to fight for the innocent and protect those around her.
Not only is she an intelligent and capable young woman who earned the chance to attend MIT; she's also a young woman of color, part of a demographic often underserved in comic book stories in general. Seeing her work tirelessly, embrace her genius without reservation, and step into Tony Stark's role using tech similar to his own is an important moment for diverse representation in comics.
It has obvious room for improvement by way of utilizing a more diversified creative team to helm her story, but seeing Riri Williams standing confidently in front of Tony Stark on the cover of a book is a powerful piece of imagery.
The daughter of famed scientist Hank Pym, Nadia is a newer addition to the Marvel universe and the latest character to adopt the infamous mantle of The Wasp. After being raised in Russia to fight, Nadia was recognized for her talent in science and was allowed to begin conducting her own experiments and tests. She procured a Pym particle from the black market and, after extensive testing and tinkering, managed to create her own suit to utilize the particle's unique technology. After successfully shrinking herself down and finding the Avengers, Nadia met with and was given the blessing of Janet van Dyne to keep the Wasp name, so long as she used it for good.
Nadia is new enough that we haven't fully seen her impacts on the greater Marvel universe, but her story is still interesting and noteworthy. Particularly her interaction with Janet van Dyne, which portrays something sadly uncommon in media: a positive female friendship.
Women are often written to be calculating and manipulative, constantly in competition with others for various reasons and using relationships for personal gain. Janet had all the right in the world to shun Nadia after learning who she was and what she had done. Instead, she embraced Nadia's presence and became something of a mentor for the young teen. Seeing a relationship like this is refreshing, particularly because it shows the depth interpersonal relationships in fiction can have.
She's arguably the least recognizable on this list, but Ziggy Karst is an important member of the X-Men, particularly in the story of Nightcrawler.
A young mutant, Ziggy is a student at the Jean Grey School whose power manifests in the manipulation of strange modules of liquid metal. The origin of these modules is unclear, but they linger around her, telepathically linked to Ziggy. These modules allow Ziggy to create and summon a number of things, including small explosives, energy weapons, and golems to fight for her in times of trouble. She's also a technical genius with the ability to recognize and understand the functional capabilities of machines, tech, and other engineered creations.
Additionally, having this insight allows her to know instinctively how to upgrade or improve upon them, making her a technical genius who very literally takes her work with her wherever she goes. Ziggy has only appeared in a handful of issues of Nightcrawler, but we're hopeful we'll see her make a return to comics sometime soon.
Lunella is a 9-year-old genius with a love of inventing and engineering and a penchant for mischief. She's brilliant, but her genius often gets in the way of her life when she's too distracted by a new invention or discovery to make it to school on time. Worse, she remains completely unchallenged in her educational environment, being that she's years ahead of her peers and has more insight to offer on most subjects than even her teachers.
And, because of her genius, she struggles to fit in and find her place, often being treated as an outcast and loner by other kids her age.
It's when she finds common ground with and befriends Devil Dinosaur that Lunella begins to come into her own self. A bizarre pairing, she and Devil are both exceptional beings, wildly out of place and incapable of blending in. When they share a mutual goal of thwarting a common enemy to recover prehistoric tech, they work together as a functional, effective team.
Lunella is an interesting character in the Marvel canon. By all accounts, her "superpower" is her brilliance, and the way it manifests is fitting of a 9-year-old. She doesn't rely on strength or brute force to fight back; instead, she turns to her arsenal of powerful gadgets with a whimsical twist; an extending boxing glove for a weapon; a detector used for locating Kree materials; easily accessible roller skates to help with quick getaways and maneuvers.
And, like Riri, she's a young black girl fearlessly using her genius and owning her power to help people and fight for good, all while being a role model for girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) pursuits. She's the young Inspector Gadget we never knew we needed until she thundered into the streets on a massive red dinosaur.
Pre, post, and post-post-Killing Joke Barbara Gordon is impressive. She's intelligent, well-read, and a fast learner, capable of using her quick deduction skills in tandem with her physical prowess. But even more than that, Barbara is a clever young woman with the ever-valuable ability to adapt and evolve.
After the incident that left her paralyzed from the waist down, she took to computers and technology as a way to take up arms against crime in Gotham City. As Oracle, she served as the backbone for Bruce Wayne and the rest of the bat-family, providing them with the intel and oversight necessary to fight the rogues gallery that maintains control over the seedy underbelly of the city.
After she regained the full use of her body, Barbara once again donned the cowl and became the Batgirl of Burnside. But, unlike her counterparts in Gotham City, she wasn't all punches all the time. Rather, a good chunk of her time is spent deciphering complex coding and figuring out how to deal with a rogue AI she created out of her previous self.
Barbara is brilliant, clever, able to adjust to adversity, and a unique character able to attend college by day and fight cyber criminals at night. It sort of puts your last Netflix binge in perspective.