He has a cool nickname and is played by one of the most talented actors working in Hollywood. So, why is James “Rhodey” Rhodes (aka War Machine) such a lame duck in the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
Introduced in Iron Man #118 in 1979, War Machine has proved himself a capable hero and loyal friend throughout his comic run, someone who is reliable and faithfully patriotic. In short, he represents everything Tony Stark is not. Which is why it pains me to say he’s the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s least interesting hero.
When Rhodes made his debut in 2008’s Iron Man, he was portrayed as a smooth-talking and respected lieutenant colonel who acts as the military’s chief liaison to Stark Industries’ much-lauded weapons division. He has a close relationship with Tony Stark, and in the Iron Man sequel, dons the War Machine armor for the first time.
But things soon take a turn for the worst.
Not only does Marvel slyly change the actor who plays him, but there’s a meta name change that makes him sound like a special edition Jeep rather than a fearsome hero. And for some inexplicable reason, he doesn’t appear in The Avengers at all, despite being a huge asset to the team.
Marvel rather unsuccessfully tried to give War Machine an identity in Iron Man 3, but it’s more ostentatious than heroic. He’s essentially a flashier, more suave Captain America who winds up getting his red, white, and blue armor stolen.
Through it all, he remains loyal to Stark as ever, which is one of his strongest characteristics. But there’s never any growth for him beyond being Stark’s friend. Sure, he gets to cavort with the Avengers for a bit in Age of Ultron, establishing himself as a useful second stringer. But he’s utterly, painfully useless in Captain America: Civil War.
As the climactic Berlin battle comes to a head, War Machine loses every duel he’s in. He starts off by getting pegged by Captain America’s shield, and then his baton is broken after he takes a spill. That’s just the beginning.
A truck is dropped on his head, he gets thrown around like a rag doll, and then he gets shot out of the sky by Vision, who is supposed to be on his team. He just barely survives.
Which is to say, Rhodey, who is at times funny and mostly dependable, doesn’t deserve his current fate in the MCU. He’s been a peripheral team member at best, someone who has served no real purpose to the overarching story.
He’s just kind of there, tragically falling out of the sky when Marvel needs to add drama. And even after he becomes disabled, Marvel keeps him around to make Stark feel good about himself.
“138. 138 combat missions,” Rhodes says. “That’s how many I’ve flown, Tony. Every one of them could have been my last, but I flew them. A fight needed to be fought. It’s the same with these accords. I signed because it was the right thing to do.”
Maybe the right thing would be to give War Machine something actually interesting to do, rather than keeping him around to stroke Tony’s ego. When you’re much less interesting than Hawkeye, you know something is wrong.
Hopefully, War Machine will get his due in next year’s Avengers: Infinity War.
Update on May 1, 2018: I’m very glad to say that Marvel has made War Machine a great representation disability, as detailed in this excellent Hollywood Reporter report. Rather than demanding sympathy, the movie portrays Rhodey without judgement and as stern opposition to the messy politics around the Accords from Civil War. He’s loyal, capable, and still part of the team, despite his current situation.