With Oscar-nominated actor Don Cheadle taking on the armored role of War Machine in Marvel and Paramount Studios’ “Iron Man 2,” hopes are high for the big screen rendition of this character. In this installment of THE IRON MANUAL, CBR looks at the the evolution of James Rhodes, from his supporting role as Tony Stark’s bodyguard and friend to full-blown super-hero.
Created by the writer and artist team of David Michelinie and Bob Layton, James Rhodes first appeared in “Iron Man” #118 (January 1979). The character was introduced into Iron Man’s backstory as a pilot who rescued the millionaire weapons manufacturer from the jungles of Viet Nam. As a result, Tony Stark approached Rhodes and offered him a position as his personal pilot. It did not take long for Rhodes to become a fan favorite and his role in “Iron Man” grew to the point where he was almost Iron Man/Tony Stark’s sidekick. His role grew even further as a result of one of Michelinie’s more controversial storylines dealing with Stark’s battle with alcoholism. During one of Tony’s relapses, James Rhodes quickly ascended from the role of beloved supporting character to super-hero.
A rival industrialist, the villainous Obadiah Stane (portrayed in the first “Iron Man” by Jeff Bridges), engineered the slow collapse of Stark International. With his company in shambles and after having been betrayed by his lover (who was a mole for Stane), Tony Stark fell off the wagon and back into the bottle. In an impaired state, Tony donned the Iron Man armor and engaged in battle against a second-rate villain named Magma. Due to his diminished capacity, Stark was forced to flee the battle and, once back at Stark International, Tony revealed his identity to Rhodey before passing out. Rhodes, no stranger to heroics, put on the Iron Man armor and defeated Magma. In the aftermath, Stark realized his drinking problem prevented him from being Iron Man and asked that Rhodes assume the role. Thus it was that in “Iron Man” #170 (May 1983), James Rhodes became Iron Man.
With Rhodes inside the armor, Iron Man would continue to be a fixture in the Marvel Universe. Stark Industries, however, was not as fortunate as Obadiah Stane took over the crippled company. Once this occurred, Rhodes quit the company and took his Iron Man career on the road, his first act being to take control of the remaining Iron Man suits and liberate them from Stane. The spare armor was then dumped into the ocean and destroyed.
As Iron Man, Rhodes served as a member of the Avengers, fought alongside the heroes taken by the Beyonder in the “Secret Wars” (May 1984 – April 1985) and eventually joined Tony Stark in rebuilding Stark’s company. It was about this time that Rhodes started to experience regular headaches, which were actually caused by the armor being calibrated for Stark’s brain. As a result, Rhodes stepped down as the armored avenger and Stark once again assumed the role. Rhodes would become Iron Man on one more occasion when Tony Stark was believed to be dead in Iron Man #284 (September 1992). When Stark returned and revealed his death was a ruse, the two suffered a falling out and their friendship faltered. Despite this, Stark asked Rhodes to keep the armor that had been designed specifically for him. It was this armor that would allow Rhodes to create his own legacy as War Machine.
War Machine went his own way and became the head of a human rights organization named Worldwatch. From that platform, Rhodes viewpoint on world affairs caused War Machine to become directly involved with conflicts around the globe that world governments and other heroes wouldn’t insert themselves into. It was this series of choices that lead War Machine directly into conflict with Iron Man. Rhodes, attempting to recover the plans for the War Machine from Stark, ended up instead going head-to-head with his old friend. Only an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) weapon stopped the two from tearing each other apart. While they were disabled, Rhodes and Stark were captured by Stark’s old foe, the Mandarin. The heroes overcame their differences and teamed together to defeat the Mandarin and War Machine joined Stark’s fledgling super-team, Force Works.
As often happens when a character is created out of a similar character, the writers were never quite clear about what to do with War Machine. Rhodes was given his own title and then, in a painful series of events, did some time travel, lost his armor, got some alien armor and eventually just retired from super-heroics completely when his book was cancelled. At this point, most of Marvel’s core heroes (including Iron Man) were killed and then given a new universe all their own to play in with the company’s Heroes Reborn initiative. During this time, Rhodes was hauled out to take on the role of Iron Man again until Tony Stark returned from the reality he had been trapped in.
War Machine’s next appearance was in “The Crew.” The series, the brainchild of author Christopher Priest, ran only seven issues (July 2003 – January 2004) and featured four African-American heroes dealing with a crime-ridden area of Brooklyn, New York. While the series was not a commercial success, “The Crew” was sharply written and showed what could be done with War Machine if he was written as something more than an Iron Man clone. In “The Crew,” the focus was on the man James Rhodes rather than the armor. During the course of the series, two telling events helped to define the new direction for Rhodes. The first was the death of his sister at the hands of the gang known as 66 Bridges and the second was his investment in a corrupt business that was causing the very crime problem he was battling. This set up was intended to be a story of self-discovery for War Machine (and the other heroes), and while it was never finished, it once again made War Machine into his own man and more than just the black Iron Man.
Over the course of Marvel’s “World War Hulk,” “Civil War” and “Dark Reign” events, War Machine came to the foreground again. In the series “Avengers: The Initiative,” Rhodes was placed in charge of overseeing the training of new heroes for Tony Stark’s 50 States Initiative aimed at placing a team of properly trained super-heroes in every one of the U.S.’ states. Rhodes held the position until Stark was ousted as head of S.H.I.E.L.D. by Norman Osborn. It was then that War Machine followed his personal agenda as a peacekeeper, taking on extra-national corporations and even the Dark Avengers in an attempt to protect the innocents of the world from the Osborn-created rising tide of darkness. War Machine even went toe-to-toe with Ares, the god of war, in a battle reminiscent of previous conflicts between Iron Man and Thor. In a very real sense, War Machine has come into his own and is a player in Marvel’s big leagues.
With his appearance in one of the most anticipated action films of the year and Marvel editor Tom Brevoort announcing that War Machine will be joining fellow “Iron Man 2” co-star the Black Widow in Ed Brubaker and Mike Deodato’s upcoming “Secret Avengers” series, fans of the armored hero can expect his role in the Marvel Universe to continue to become bigger and better.