The Marvel Cinematic Universe will soon welcome a new hero.
Much of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever will focus on familiar faces, including Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), Shuri (Letitia Wright), Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), Okoye (Danai Gurira), and M'Baku (Winston Duke). The film will also introduce a formidable new antagonist: the powerful mutant Namor (Tenoch Huerta), who leads the underwater kingdom of Talocan and faces off against the Wakandans.
But the Black Panther sequel will also establish a new hero who doesn't hail from Wakanda or Talocan. Her name is Riri Williams, a.k.a. Ironheart, and after a brief but influential run in Marvel comics, she's ready to make her big-screen debut.
Dominique Thorne (If Beale Street Could Talk) plays the teenage Riri, a genius inventor and student engineer born and raised in Chicago. She uses her intellect and mechanical skills to follow in the footsteps of Tony Stark, building her own armored suit and finding her own path to heroism.
"I love the fact that she is just fully herself," Thorne says. "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."
Marvel Studios Dominique Thorne in the Ironheart suit in 'Black Panther: Wakanda Forever'
Created by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Mike Deodato, the teenage Riri made her comics debut back in 2016, taking over the Iron Man mantle after Tony Stark stepped away. Now, she'll join the MCU in Wakanda Forever before starring in her own Disney+ series Ironheart in 2023.
"I remember when Riri was invented in publishing, and there was a level of excitement around her coming up," says Black Panther director Ryan Coogler, who's also producing the Ironheart show. "It was similar to when Miles Morales was invented. Having lived with these archetypical characters for so long, it's always exciting seeing somebody come up and take on the moniker with a different background."
Tony Stark built his Iron Man legacy as a genius/billionaire/playboy/philanthropist, but the young Riri is decidedly more down to earth. In Wakanda Forever, she teams up with Shuri, and Wright says she's particularly excited for Shuri to meet another girl with an equally brilliant mind — and for young audiences to see another smart, science-focused Black woman as an on-screen role model. "It's like that's being done again in a fresh, beautiful way," Wright says. "I think it's just beautiful to see that there's more room being made for those characters to shine."
Still, despite their shared intellect, Shuri and Riri have distinctly different backgrounds and personalities. Shuri, after all, was raised as the princess of a powerful and advanced African nation, while the American Riri grew up in Chicago.
"She brings a different type of energy, but she also has some similarities to characters that we've seen in this universe before," Coogler explains. "The film deals with a lot of things, but one of them is foils — people who exist in contrast, but there's a thread of similarity. In this film, we get to see Shuri meet someone who has some things in common with her but is also very, very different."
Amy Sussman/Getty Images Dominique Thorne
Thorne originally auditioned for the first Black Panther as a college student, and although she didn't get the role, she later worked with Coogler when he produced Judas and the Black Messiah. Several years after her initial Black Panther audition, she got a call from Marvel producer Nate Moore, who asked her if she was familiar with the role of Riri Williams — and if she'd want to play her in both Wakanda Forever and a planned Ironheart series.
Between Beale Street and Judas and the Black Messiah, Thorne has already built a brief but powerful career, but playing Riri is her biggest project yet. To prepare for Wakanda Forever, she threw herself into superhero training: Not only did she brush up on her welding and soldering skills, but she also learned to hold her breath for some of the film's lengthy underwater scenes.
Despite all that preparation, she couldn't help but get a little starstruck on set. Thorne remembers sharing a scene with the Oscar-nominated Bassett on her very first day of filming. "I don't think that I could have asked for a better way to come out of the gate," Thorne says with a laugh. "What a fabulous scene partner to start my birth into the MCU with."
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever will hit theaters Nov. 11. For more on the film, read EW's Wakanda Forever cover story.