Please be aware there are spoilers, so if you haven’t seen Captain America: Civil War, turn back now!
Captain America: Civil War is one of the finest films Marvel Studios has produced to date. It’s not just an extraordinary achievement in action spectacle, it’s an intricate balancing act of character beats spread across two leads and a massive ensemble. Thanks to directors Joe and Anthony Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, almost every hero who hits the tarmac in the film’s triumphant airport set-piece has a damn good reason to be there. The battle between Cap and Iron Man is intrinsic to the story’s narrative, but beyond that, each supporting character is endowed with purpose when they go to war, and Don Cheadle‘s Rhodey has one of the lowkey most interesting and resounding arcs in the film.
Until now, Rhodey has had a bit of a tough break. He had a great introduction in Iron Man as Tony’s loyal right-hand man (and occasional savior), but as much as Rhodey was played up as a real-world hero, he didn’t have a chance assume the mantle of his comic book counterpart, War Machine — a decision that makes sense considering Iron Man was, rightly so, all about Tony Stark and his journey from playboy billionaire to titular hero. Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait long to see Rhodey in his War Machine gear. He suited up immediately after in Iron Man 2, but it wasn’t quite the triumphant character debut fans hoped for.
While there’s no denying Don Cheadle is a tremendous actor and a boon to the MCU’s ensemble at large, audiences had to re-learn the character again when Cheadle stepped in for Terrance Howard. At the same time, Rhodey had a bit of a shitty turn in the second film, stealing Tony’s technology and inadvertently handing it over to the bad guys. With the best intentions, of course, but you know what they say about the road to hell. Ultimately, Iron Man 2 did show off some of Rhodey’s tactical intelligence and we got to see him battle side-by-side with Iron Man, but in addition to the recasting and somewhat stumbled character arc, War Machine’s big debut happened to arrive in one of the MCU’s weakest films to date.
Then War Machine didn’t even make an appearance in The Avengers. Again, understandable considering how much that film had to juggle, but a bit of a disservice to the character all the same. In Iron Man 3, Rhodey got his fair shake. He was an active player in the film, a badass who jumped eagerly into the action alongside Tony to take down the big bad, earning his hero stripes inside and outside the suit. But he was essentially still playing sidekick, helping to fight Tony’s battles.
With Avengers: Age of Ultron War Machine finally joined the Avengers, but once again, he seemed second seat to the bigger heroes. As much as I love Rhodey’s comedic bits in Age of Ultron, the gist of his watercooler stories, which underwhelmed his famed heroic counterparts, is that even in a super suit, he was still relegated to the “kid’s table”. Finally, at the end of Age of Ultron, he earned his place as an Avenger, and now, with Captain America: Civil War, he’s at last endowed with an a commanding presence befitting the Marvel’s most military-minded hero.
In an odd turn, it’s the MCU’s most crowded film that finally gives Rhodey the chance to come into his own — even more odd for the fact that he doesn’t ultimately have that much screentime. However, the time he does have carries a lot of weight because, in the context of a very earth-bound political dispute, Rhodey is given a powerful voice that resonates not just for his eloquence, but for his inherent investment in infrastructure and systems of authority. Unlike most of the MCU’s other Avengers, Rhodey isn’t just a warrior; he’s a soldier. It almost seems given that Rhodey would be on Tony’s side, considering his long-running status as confidante and right-hand man, but when you consider how often the two have come to blows over opposing points of view in the past, that’s not necessarily the case. If anything, it’s Tony who comes closer to Rhodey’s way of seeing things after the years he’s spent in combat with the Avengers.
In fact, Rhodey’s investment in the Sokovia Accords sells even better than Tony’s. For Tony, the motivation to acquiesce to the Accords is rooted in guilt (and arguably a pretty significant case of PTSD). Conversely, Rhodey is the voice of a stalwart soldier who believes in regiment and regulation. Along with Vision’s well-wrought calculations, Rhodey is the best counterpoint to Cap’s “dangerously arrogant” investment in unregulated affairs. What’s more, Rhodey stands up to Cap, the MCU’s great all-American hero, uncowed — a circumstance that one must imagine doesn’t come lightly to a man with such reverence for the American military. Even so, Rhodey stands tall and proud in what he believes, not just a hanger-on to Tony’s philosophy, but a convincing proponent for the deeper issues at hand.
While watching Rhodey finally come into his own alongside his fellow Avengers is rewarding, it’s the way his arc reflects the ideological dispute at the heart of Civil War that makes him the film’s secret weapon. Through Rhodey’s devastating fall at the end of the airport battle, we see the exact human repercussions Rhodey was fighting to prevent. Heroism has consequences, often dire ones. Heroes fail, and when they do people get hurt, maimed, and killed. When Vision makes his dreadful error — an error made all the more tragic because it’s born out of learning human affection for the first time — Rhodey ends up paralyzed thanks to a little old-fashioned friendly fire. And try as they might, neither Tony nor the warring Falcon, can save him.
It’s a hit that brings the ruinous potential of our heroes’ high stakes battles closer to home than ever before. Sure, we lost Agent Coulson in Avengers, but he was always a minimal and expository, if loveable, character who never fought alongside the big guns. We lost Quicksilver in Age of Ultron, but he was new to the team and his impact was felt mostly `through the effect it had on Wanda. And perhaps most importantly, when these heroes fell, they were done and gone (well, gone from the cinematic MCU, in Coulson’s case); their suffering only momentary. Rhodey’s loss is one that will have to be lived with on a daily basis (though no doubt partially alleviated by Tony’s technical assistance). As future Marvel films roll out, Rhodey will continue to feel the cost, not just in a sense of grief, which lessens with time, but in the sense of disability, which is a day-to-day, moment-to-moment struggle. What’s more, War Machine’s fall has an even greater impact for the way that it mirror’s the real life adversity that often befalls military veterans. Acts of war bear human consequence, and while the MCU may tend to keep a lighter tone, Rhodey’s injury is a firm reminder of the human fragility at the heart of the superhero action.
Can Rhodey still be a hero? Of course he will be. We know that Tony is actively working to aid him in his new-found lifestyle, but beyond that there’s the fact that James Rhodes is one of the most heroic men in the MCU; down to the bone. He was fighting his good fight long before superheroes entered the picture, and he’ll continue to do so even with his newfound incapacitation. Perhaps most exciting, Rhodey’s fate in Civil War has opened up the opportunity to tell the story of the physically challenged in a landscape dominated by the physically extraordinary. Regardless of where his story goes from here, Rhodey emerged as one of Civil War‘s highlights, delivering one of the film’s most cogent points of view and impactful supporting arcs.