Celebrating Black History Month: The Distinctive Legacy of James Rhodes
A character that has been present in the Marvel Comic Universe for 40 years ago, War Machine has stood the test of time, and has been among the companies most underrated characters; this is the distinctive legacy of James Rhodes.
With Black History Month upon us, what better way to celebrate than to honor some of the iconic black characters that have represented some of the most important moments in the history of Marvel comics.
With Marvel’s commitment to diversity and representation, it has championed various black characters of note over its 70 plus years of existence; creating a culture of celebrating black characters and mirroring the very world we hope to champion.
There is, perhaps, no more complicated and interesting character than that of James Rhodes, and the incredibly conflicting and distinctive legacy that has defined him since his debut in 1979.
The character of James Rhodes was created by David Michelinie, John Byrne, and Bob Layton, and made his debut in Iron Man #118 in January of 1979.
The character was interesting from the start, meeting the billionaire superhero when both individuals were captured and placed in Viet Cong custody; as Stark was escaping in his first Iron Man suit when he passed Rhodes holding facility.
The two managed to escape, and after some time, Rhodes accepted Starks’s proposal to become the personal pilot to Tony Stark, quickly establishing himself as one of the hero’s closest friends.
Although, in the beginning, Rhodes was a character that was limited in exposition and bordered on problematic in his earlier role, it was the evolution of his character that makes him one of Marvel’s most intriguing.
What makes Rhodes’s story all the more interesting, is the backstory that unravels in Iron Man: Director of S.H.I.E.L.D #34, a story that explores further the background of James Rhodes.
Rhodes was born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and suffered from racist attacks as a young man growing up around the area of Grays Ferry south Philly.
The issue depicts, not only the horrid attacks on Rhodes at the hands of young white men but also the attacks that he suffered from not succumbing to gang violence as a young man in the same area.
Rhodes was unique, it was his hyperfocus on education and growth that made him an enemy to both racist young white men, and the horrid realities of preservation in poor black American communities.
These circumstances built in Rhodes a desire to never quit, until eventually, that commitment propelled him into a career as a combat pilot for the United States Marines.
The moment that defined Rhode’s character, however, was long after his time in the military, and well into his career as the personal pilot of Tony Stark.
In the now-iconic storyline, Tony Stark was suffering defeat at the hand of his alcoholism, a reality that forced the hero to no longer be fit to operate as the hero Iron Man; until James Rhodes answered the call, put on the suit, and fought in Staks place.
It was that moment that Rhodes became more than just a good man, he truly became a hero, and it defined the character that would eventually don the War Machine armor in Avengers West Coast #94.
James Rhodes is, by all accounts, the perfect hero. He faced enemies for the greater good and stood against them with all of the conviction of some of Marvel’s most prominent heroes.
A hero willing to stand in the face of oppression and operate as the nearly impenetrable will of justice; and it was these qualities that catapulted the character to a similar status in the adored MCU.
Don Cheadle brought the same level of heroism and commitment to good to the live-action adaptation of the character; but also suffered from a similar level of underexposure.
Rhodes, within the MCU, lost his legs; and yet still did what was right, fought alongside those he believed in, and found the strange to stand against the most insurmountable enemy in the form of Thanos and his army.
Marvel’s upcoming Disney+ adaptation of Armor Wars should place Cheadles’ James Rhodes front and center and should give the character this long-overdue chance at his very own, and well deserved, story within the MCU.