“Why do you hate War Machine so much?”
“I don’t hate him. He just doesn’t interest me. Why do you like him?”
“His armor’s got more guns than a military base. What’s not to like about that?”
This is a paraphrased version of a running argument a friend and I had going for some years about James “Rhodey” Rhodes. What I am only realizing now is that my friend and I never disagreed that the War Machine armor was cool. We were simply looking at the argument from different angles we neither expressed nor recognized. My friend was arguing from the position of someone who liked the War Machine armor, the gizmo that the character uses. I was not looking at the armor – I was looking at the character. And in the end, we both found Rhodey lacking in the character department. He earns a solid shrug and a “meh,” no matter how we try to measure him.
It is a real shame when a character is only memorable and likable for the tools they use rather than for themselves. And it is interesting that, in a comic book universe which usually eschews sidekicks, Marvel should go to the trouble of making one. Let me explain by contrasting Tony and Rhodey’s friendship with the friendship between Captain America and the Falcon.
No one can say that Sam Wilson is a foil for Steve Rogers and prove it capably. Falcon has his own personality, habits, life experiences, and a sense of humor that is all his own. His skills could not be more divergent from Cap’s if the writers tried to make them so. In the comics, Sam has a personal empathetic tie with his pet falcon Redwing, but he can also empathetically connect with and command any other bird in New York City. He can quite possibly reach beyond the city limits with this power, too. He wears a wing pack in combat, spending most of his time in a battle flying, darting in and around opponents to bring them down.
Even in the films, there remains plenty of daylight between Steve and Sam. The wing pack was never in Cap’s arsenal; the man hardly ever flies, although he can when he has to do so. For the most part, Cap is the quintessential soldier; he stays on the ground and fights the enemy on his terms there.
Now compare this to Tony and Rhodey’s friendship. I am not quite clear on how long they have known each other in the comics, so I will stick with the films. Iron Man showed Rhodey as a down-to-earth counterbalance for Tony’s flights of juvenility, which is funny considering that James Rhodes is a “zoomie.” Then Iron Man 2 saw Rhodey grabbing one of Tony’s prototype suits on behalf of the government before literally trying to knock some sense into his drunken friend. Iron Man 3 did not portray him in a much better light. Although he liked the name War Machine for the armor he essentially stole from his best friend on behalf of the government, he allowed focus groups and the Air Force to change the name to the milquetoast “Iron Patriot.”
Rhodey is Tony’s babysitter for the first and second films, barely escaping that fate again in Iron Man 3. Then, when he tries to impress Tony and Thor with a story from his own repertoire of exploits in Avengers: Age of Ultron, it falls flat on them and the audience. Let’s admit it – while it is cute to imagine a general’s reaction to a tank being delivered to him by a man in a metal suit, it does not truly impress. It is a story that exposes the fact that Rhodey is a bouncer who can intimidate mid-level bullies, whilst the Avengers are the commandos sent in to dispense with hardcore villains such as HYDRA and Ultron. Sam recognized this when he told Cap, “Avenging is your world… and your world is crazy.” Rhodey could not take the hint from Thor and Tony’s expectant silence.
I think it likely that most people look at Rhodey and Sam and consider them to be nothing more than “sidekicks” or foils to Iron Man and Captain America. However, as I pointed out above, Sam does not qualify as either a sidekick or a foil. He is a man who can take care of himself, he has the strength to make his own decisions, and he can live with their consequences. The sad fact is that Rhodey cannot do this; he is always looking for orders, for guidance from above – which is cute because, as an Air Force pilot, he is usually “above” everyone else most of the time, physically speaking.
The moment which best defines these differences between the two characters in Captain America: Civil War is the yelling match they have over the Accords after Ross leaves. What are the first words we hear out of Rhodey’s mouth in this battle of words? “Secretary Ross has a Congressional Medal of Honor, which is one more than you [Sam] have,” he says to Falcon.
Excuse me?!?!? Instead of actually arguing about the strength of the Sokovia Accords, Rhodey immediately jumps to the fact that Ross has a Congressional Medal of Honor??? Seriously?!
While we are on this subject just how, exactly, did Ross earn that Congressional Medal of Honor? Did he receive it after Bruce Banner became the Hulk, or after he turned Emil Blonsky into the Abomination in order to fight fire with fire? Maybe he received it for letting the Abomination wreck Harlem after he went rogue on Ross.
Yes, I am being very sarcastic here. The fact is that there is no way in the walls of the world Ross should have received that Medal. He did nothing to earn it. I would bet good money he got it for political expediency. He does not deserve the Medal; not now, not in the future, never.
But the fact that Rhodey thinks this is sufficient evidence that Ross has his and the Avengers’ best interests at heart is what is truly distressing. When someone holds a gun in his face and says, “Your wallet or your life,” should he consider it a sign that the mugger respects him? No, he should not, as we would not. Presuming he did not freeze and do what he was told, Rhodey would beat the mugger up, take his gun away from him, and call the cops. Yet Ross can throw down the gauntlet in front of him and the Avengers, but because he has a Congressional Medal of Honor, it is a sign of respect for Ross’ “greatness” that Rhodey and the team should immediately sign on to the Accords – in essence, hand over their wallet?
It only gets better when Rhodey says, “A hundred and seventeen countries have signed this, Sam. A hundred and seventeen! But you’re just like, ‘It’s cool, no big deal.’”
No, it is not a big deal! How many of those countries routinely violate human rights? China and North Korea are in the U.N., right? Is China a model of how a country must respect human rights? No, it is not. North Korea shoots off missiles to threaten the Orient and swagger in front of the U.S., they keep their own people in prison camps on the brink of starvation, and the rest of their population are stuck in grinding poverty – and in time. Their fashions and technology are still in (at least) the 1970s. They are an example of posturing, backward fools, not progress!
A good number of the other hundred seventeen countries which agreed to the Accords have records which are about as bad, if not worse. But does Rhodey mention that here? Does he even stop to consider it? Not in front of us. A hundred seventeen countries sign a document proclaiming him an attack dog which they want to leash, and just like that “it’s cool.”
It is not cool, and Rhodey cannot see that. What is more, he refuses to see it. He brags about Ross’ medals, yet the leader of the Avengers – his leader – has far more experience. Cap has earned and shunned more medals and honors than Ross could ever hope to gain… But instead of listening to him, Rhodey calls him “dangerously arrogant”? Something is very wrong here.
It becomes worse when War Machine drops in to “stop” Cap, Sam, and T’Challa in their “fight” over the escaping Bucky Barnes at the Bucharest tunnel. “Nice job, Cap,” Rhodey says scathingly. “You’re a criminal.”
No mention of German Special Forces turning Bucharest into Swiss cheese in an attempt to kill Bucky I notice, Rhodey. Or are you more familiar with the range and danger of a mini-gun than most civilians walking down the street are? Of course you are; you are a U.S. Airman. They are civilians who are minding their own business when a Special Forces helicopter suddenly drops leaden rain from above trying to kill a wanted fugitive. I guess the U.N. does not have any statutes saying a man is innocent of a crime until proven guilty. Wow, what a shocker.
Cap’s attempt to reach out to Bucky – even the initial attempt by the German ground troops to capture him – was more sensible than that. But Rhodey’s scorn is not for the idiocy of the bureaucrats who called in a helicopter and ordered the men aboard to fire at Bucky regardless of potential “collateral damage” to the civilians he was running past. It is instead all aimed at Cap, who was fighting smarter, not harder.
We do not see Rhodey again until the battle in the Leipzig airport. Iron Man zaps Clint’s chopper with an EMP device and lands in front of Cap, War Machine right on his tail. The two take a moment to verbally beat up on Cap, and then the fighting starts.
Cap keeps both T’Challa and Rhodey where he can see them at the beginning of the fight. For a guy with a metal suit, Rhodey does not do very well in personal combat with Cap. Yes, he is going for the knockout punch instead of a kill shot, but his fighting ability is still downright sorry in this confrontation. He has supposedly been working with and training under the greatest soldier of all time, whom he should know well enough to fight competently. But in practice he is getting his metal fanny handed to him on a platter.
Those are some quality learning abilities you have, Rhodes. Why were you put in the new Avengers lineup again? Oh, that’s right – for your suit.
In contrast, Falcon more than holds his own with Tony, bopping him in the head with Redwing at one point and thereby properly disorienting him. He has less physical protection than Rhodey, yet he does better fighting the Invincible Armored Iron Man than the “zoomie” Avenger does in his battle with the unarmored First Avenger!
It does not get any better for Rhodes when Lang has Cap throw a fuel truck at him, Panther, and Black Widow. Now how Scott could mix up even a German fuel tanker with a German water truck is beyond me, but the fact is that he managed to do it. And instead of smartly moving aside, catching the truck, or blowing it up, Rhodes just stands there and lets it hit him. Brilliant, War Machine – NOT!!!
Rhodey is dead weight for most of the following incidents in the battle. He is a convenient ragdoll for Ant-Man and an equally easy target for the Scarlet Witch. Where his teammates and everyone else on Team Cap show innovation and creativity during the battle, Rhodes makes himself nothing but a handy punching bag or darn-it doll.
Things only become worse when he tells Vision to get Sam off his back. Distracted by his concern for Wanda – whom Rhodey hit with a high-powered sonic – Vision does as he is asked and fires at Sam. But the nascent synthetic man is growing into a very human character, and this means that his shot is off from the get-go because of his concern for his friend. He misses Sam and hits the War Machine arc reactor, shutting down the armor and leaving Rhodey to fly the suit “dead stick.”
If anything, Rhodey ought to sue Tony for poor workmanship. The Iron Man armor(s) can go into the upper atmosphere, through a portal into space, help blast apart a floating city, all at low power capacity, and the War Machine armor cannot keep him from shattering several vertebrae after a two hundred foot free fall? Yeah, right!
All this is not to make light of Rhodey’s significant injuries. To his credit, Rhodes takes the devastating news like a man. When Tony makes him a set of special leg braces and he inevitably falls down, he manfully refuses help and gets set to start practicing on his own again.
This scene was very good, but not necessarily for Rhodey. It was good for Tony because now, in this moment where his best friend is incapable of doing what he used to do – of being who he used to be, even – Tony gets a glimmering of what Steve has been doing since he learned that Bucky was alive. For three movies, Steve has fought to get his old battle brother back. And in this film, he stands beside and supports Bucky as the other man tries to find himself after years of being lost in a mental/emotional waste land.
Rhodey’s journey is more physical and less likely to get other people killed. But Tony is willing to do whatever it takes to help him get back on his feet. If he is ready to do that for Rhodey, why should he begrudge Steve for his desire to help Bucky relearn how to be a normal person?
Tony will probably take forever to forgive Steve in the next Avengers film(s). In this moment during the movie, he only has a slight understanding of what Steve is going through. And we all know that Tony is quite prepared and willing to rationalize away anything and everything he does not want to face or admit. He avoided accepting his grief over his parents’ deaths; he is still avoiding it now. And he has decided to avoid accepting responsibility for his actions by signing the Accords. Stark has no problem lying to himself about important matters until the eleventh hour.
But after a point, he cannot run from the truth. Sooner or later, it will occur to him that what he is doing for Rhodey is the same thing Steve is doing for Bucky, just on a less impressive scale. As for Rhodey, well, for the moment he seems to be a lost cause as far as recognizing the truth. If anything, he is better at rationalizing than Tony is. It remains to be seen how well that will work in Avengers: Infinity War.
Of course, with his back almost completely shattered, Rhodey might not have any part in the upcoming Marvel films. That would be a shame; it would be nice for War Machine to step out of Iron Man’s shadow and show some real character of his own for a change.
Given past experience, though, that does not look to be a very viable possibility at this time. Bummer.
Secret Avengers – Assemble!
The Mithril Guardian