The Young Avengers are a team of adolescents who formed in the wake of the Avengers: Disassembled storyline in 2004. In terms of publication, there have been two complete volumes of stories, the first by Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung, the second by the infamous comics team of Gillen/McKelvie in 2013. They were initially assembled by the hero we’ll be discussing here today: Iron Lad. He used a secret Avengers Fail-Safe Program designed by the recently deceased Vision to find and recruit the next generation of Avengers in case the worst ever happened – and the worst just had happened.
We are exploring the Young Avengers because, recently, Marvel has been introducing a lot of those characters in their Disney+ shows and films and it just feels like they are secretly building up that team.
Thus far, we’ve covered Patriot, Wiccan, Speed, Hulkling, Kate Bishop, and Stature. This week we will introduce you to the lynchpin of bringing the team together – Iron Lad, the young version of Kang the Conqueror who is desperately trying to outrun his destiny.
Who Is Iron Lad?
Just like with so much of Marvel in the mid-2000s, in order to understand what is going on you have to understand Avengers: Disassembled – the masterpiece work of Brian Michael Bendis. This is the storyline where the Scarlet Witch – whom we later discover was under the influence of Dr. Doom – decimates the entire Avengers team due to their participation in keeping the secret of her deceased children from her. It’s in this storyline that we lose both Hawkeye and Ant-Man, who both come back later, and where Avengers Mansion is obliterated. After all of this, the Avengers split up.
It’s exactly at this time that Iron Lad shows up, looking for the Avengers.
We’ve written about Kang a few times on this site, most specifically in our article on the Time Variance Authority; however, here is a quick primer.
Kang first premiered in 1964’s Avengers #8. His real name is Nathaniel Richards and he is related to Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four, albeit a great-great-great descendant of his. He is a tech-based villain whose edge over the Avengers is that he is from the 30th century, so all of his technology is super-advanced relative to that of our own. It’s like if a soldier from the 21st century went back in time to the Crusades. In his first adventure back in time, he went to ancient Egypt where he was worshipped as a god and took the name Rama-Tut. As his own relative timeline progressed, he eventually became Kang the Conqueror, and then, later in life, he realized the error of his ways and became a wise old hero named Immortus.
On the scale of Rama-Tut – Kang the Conquerer – Immortus, the Nathaniel Richards who calls himself Iron Lad falls before all of it. He’s still a teenager.
So what’s his story?
Nathaniel Richards – still a boy – is being picked on by a gaggle of bullies when, out of nowhere, a man appears and subdues the lead bully, paralyzing him in place before the bully can strike Nathaniel. The man then freezes time around Nathaniel and tells him who he is – he is Kang the Conquerer, his future self come back in time – back in time for the man, not for the young boy, this is the boy’s present. Kang tells his younger self about his future, that he will discover a time machine, go back in time to become Rama-Tut, return to the future and subdue two warring alien races to become their leader, and will then go throughout time, conquering and subjugating as many peoples and cultures as possible.
He then goes on to tell his younger self that the bully picking on him, just minutes ago, was about to slit his throat and that he would be in the hospital for a year getting better, barely pulled from the brink of death and nearly bankrupting his parents in the process. Kang has come back to his own past to prevent that from happening and to give his younger self a gift.
That gift is a neuro-kinetic suit that will immediately respond to any of Nathaniel’s thoughts. And Kang wants Nathaniel to embrace his future as Kang now by using the suit to kill the bully. Nathaniel, disgusted by who he becomes in his future, rejects it. He doesn’t want to subjugate entire races. He doesn’t want to travel through time and kill anyone that displeases him.
In the history that Kang showed to young Nathaniel, the boy noted that Kang never defeated the Avengers. So – seeking sanctuary from his older self, he ordered the suit to take him back in time to the Avengers, whom he wrongly believed would be able to protect him when Kang came looking for him. However, when he showed up, he discovered that the Avengers had disbanded. So he broke into Stark Industries, looking for anything he could to help protect him from his future self, whom he had no doubts would track him to this time. It’s there that he discovered the decimated shell of the Vision, whom he was able to activate enough to discover that Vision had an Avengers Fail-Safe protocol.
And what was this fail-safe? It was a list of possible young heroes who were all loosely, in some way, related to the Avengers. So if the Avengers were ever destroyed at a time when the world needed avenging, the Vision could locate these younger heroes and recruit them to save the world.
Nathaniel tapped into that, gave his suit the mental command to emulate Iron Man’s suit, then located the other three heroes that would help him to establish the Young Avengers: Wiccan, Hulkling, and Patriot.
And that is how and why Iron Lad founded the Young Avengers: to keep himself safe from Kang.
So when Iron Man, Captain America, and Jessica Jones come looking for the Young Avengers to find out who they are and stop them from being heroes, Nathaniel Richards comes clean with who he is and why he is there – after all, they were the ones he initially wanted to contact anyway.
In the end, Kang returns and finds the boy, but the Young Avengers — now with Kate Bishop and Cassie Lang added to the group — fight Kang with the help of Captain America and Iron Man. And here’s where it starts to get a little confusing. Iron Lad kills Kang. This changes their timeline so dramatically that all of the Avengers are now dead and, as they argue with Iron Lad about returning to the timestream, Billy and Teddy disappear. Nathaniel then sees just how dangerous messing with time is, so he reluctantly returns to the timestream, hoping that his destiny doesn’t need to be one where he turns into Kang, but knowing that he’s doing the right thing because this will return the timeline to normal, which it does the moment he disappears back into time.
This all takes place in Young Avengers (vol.1) #1-6. If you want to know anything about the Young Avengers, this is crucial reading.
Now – fast-forward to Avengers: Children’s Crusade #5 where Nathaniel Richards returns to help out. He was monitoring the timeline and saw that his old team needed more help than usual – so he chose this moment to return. After helping subdue both Magneto and Dr. Doom – which is a feat in its own right – and with Wanda Maximoff under their care, Iron Lad takes the entire team into the timestream. Wanda had lost her memories of ever having been the Scarlet Witch and, as such, had forgotten that she had ever had children. To help Wanda get those memories back, Iron Lad takes her back in time to the day when it all started – when she enchanted a reanimated android named Jack of Hearts to explode on the grounds of Avengers Mansion and kill Scott Lang. Iron Lad and Cassie Lang have a romance between them, so he knows how much it might mean to Cassie to see her father and, potentially, to change the timeline in a way that allows her father to be brought back to life.
Iron Lad promises that they will just monitor things as they happen; after all, they are just trying to help jog Wanda’s memories. However, of course, it turns out that the technology Iron Lad had promised them didn’t work and everyone there is able to see them. This is readily apparent when Scott Lang appears and asks Cassie what she is doing at Avengers Mansion and why she is dressed as a superhero. That’s when Jack of Hearts walks up, catching Scott’s attention and causing all of the Young Avengers – who know what happens – to run away from the explosion with Scott and Wanda. But, as they all run away, Wanda recovers her memories as Scarlet Witch and uses her magic to instantaneously transport them back to their present time. It’s in this way that Iron Lad helps to resurrect his girlfriend’s father. Well, sorta girlfriend.
In the end, after fighting with the X-Men, and the Avengers, and Dr. Doom, Cassie Lang is dead. Iron Lad immediately jumps to the conclusion that he needs to zip her away into the timestream to find a way to save her or bring her back or something. They can’t just leave her for dead. But all of his teammates disagree, as do the Avengers and X-Men that are there. Vision tries to talk sense into him, but Iron Lad believes Vision’s motive is to keep Cassie there because he, the android, whose artificial brain is based on Iron Lad’s mind, wants to keep her there for himself. Enraged that everyone has essentially turned against him, Iron Lad kills Vision and then escapes back into the timestream. The team notes that Iron Lad has now started down the road to fulfilling his destiny as Kang the Conqueror – a destiny he had been trying to outrun.
Before we go forward, we should offer you this spoiler warning for the Disney+ series, Loki.
So, spoiler warning.
With the exception of Teddy Altman, all of the other Young Avengers are cast, at the very least, but in most cases, we’ve already met some version of them in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, we’ve not yet met Iron Lad. BUT – we have met one of his future versions in Loki. As played by Jonathan Majors and named He Who Remains in the series, he is a version of Kang in the comics known as Immortus. Immortus is a version of Kang who sees the errors of his ways in the past and is attempting to keep the peace as a hero at the end of time. For the Disney+ series, they gave him a quirkier, more unhinged, and at the end of his rope quality, but this was due to a lifetime of subduing every other selfish, evil version of him in the multiverse.
When Loki and Sylvie come upon this version of Kang at the end of time, Sylvie decides to kill him and, in so doing, releases every other version of Kang to wreak havoc on every possible timeline. Essentially – this version of an elder Kang had brought order to a universe that was otherwise chaotic because of all his other incarnations.
Sorry. Kang is always confusing.
Even in the comics, they make fun of how much of a headache he can be.
With the chaos now released in the MCU, it’s in this way that we might get a young Nathaniel Richards who learns of his destiny as Kang the Conqueror and wants to escape it. This is, perhaps, the most defining characteristic of Iron Lad: his desire to be the hero instead of turning into the villain. Iron Lad is the uncorrupted purity of one of the biggest bads in Marvel Canon. He is the ultimate version of the hero that Kang could be. It’s this desire to outrun his destiny and be the hero that leads him to put the Young Avengers team together in the first place. It’s this desire that leads him to leave the team when he sees the damage his time-traveling has done. And it’s this desire that leads Iron Lad to return to the Young Avengers present when they are fighting Dr. Doom to save Wanda. He incapacitates Magneto and Dr. Doom! At the same time! With one motion of his fingers!
However, it becomes increasingly evident that this same power he hopes to control is now starting to control him. As they go back in time with Wanda, the rest of his old teammates are hesitant and voice their concerns, but Iron Lad assures them he has everything under control, only to discover that — no, he doesn’t. Anytime the situation becomes difficult, Iron Lad offers to take everyone back in time and start over – something that everyone always denies. They all see the danger of it, but Iron Lad, in his growing hubris, believes in his own power and in his ability to control everything around him with that power. In his mind, he’s using time travel for good – and he’s not necessarily wrong – but he’s lost sight of the consequences. So when Cassie Lang dies and his immediate answer is to use time travel to save her, it’s no surprise when no one else wants him to do that.
And it’s no surprise that he is enraged and slips back into the timestream to fulfill his destiny as Kang the Conqueror.
His is a morality tale – that power that great, no matter how good, compassionate and true the intentions may be, will always corrupt.
That’s it for Iron Lad! Next week, we’ll take a look at Ms. America herself – America Chavez!
This article was originally published 9/13/21.