'Iron Man 2': A brief history of War Machine

The new poster for Iron Man 2 (launched on Yahoo Movies) prominently features War Machine, Iron Man’s partner-in-Armor. This has me incredibly excited. I love War Machine. Because of an accident of timing, I’ve always thought of War Machine as the original armored hero. Iron Man is just a pale, more colorful imitation.

Let me explain. I grew up during a bizarro-world phase of comic book history when practically every major iconic character was being killed or otherwise eliminated to make way for a newer model, usually with some kind of chic mecha-costume add-on that would look great on an action figure. (You like Superman? Try Cyborg Superman! You like Batman? Try Gold-Plated Batman!)

Iron Man wasn’t immune to the reboot shenanigans; at one point, the armored avenger turned evil and died, only to be replaced by a college-aged time-travel version of himself. This led to a messy James Bond, Jr. period that everyone has agreed to never mention again, under penalty of torture.

During this extreme low point in Iron Man’s publishing history, War Machine was my hero. In the comics, War Machine was the alter ego of James “Rhodey” Rhodes, a Marine vet who served as Tony Stark’s personal pilot slash second banana. He filled in as Iron Man a few times over the years, but got his own totally badass monochrome armor suit when the comic book speculator bubble demanded more spin-offs Tony Stark faked his own death.

Over the years, War Machine has played a dual role in the mythos of his more famous progenitor. On one hand, he’s an everyman who provides Iron Man with some firm moral grounding (a good thing when you’re a workaholic billionaire supergenius.) On the other hand, he can be a loose cannon, more willing to follow his gut than the cerebral Stark. The recasting of Don Cheadle as James Rhodes (bye bye, Terrence Howard) may indicate that he’ll be more the everyman moral compass: Cheadle’s spent most of this decade playing that kind of character. (Although check out Devil in a Blue Dress for evidence that he can do loose cannon just fine.)

Here’s some essential background to fill your days with War Machine enjoyment as we all wait for May to arrive:

War Machine, issues 1-25

The 1994-96 volume of War Machine is a surreal time capsule of pre-9/11 steroidal jingo that now plays like a PG-rated version of Rambo III-era Stallone. In the first story arc, War Machine goes to the (thankfully fictional) African country Imaya to solve an international incident. As this cover indicates, this was not an era that glorified soft power. As far as I can tell, the series was never collected into a trade paperback. However, if you’ve got five bucks and cab fare, I can give you my entire mint-condition collection.

U.S. War Machine

Coming out of Marvel’s R-rated MAX line-up, this series was written and drawn by Chuck Austen, better known for an insane run on X-Men (like, “Surprise, you’re the son of Satan!” insane.) A bleakly funny and totally weird take on the War Machine character, U.S. War Machine placed Rhodes in complex geopolitical, ethical, and racial contexts that Iron Man 2 is sure to avoid.

Marvel Vs. Capcom

There may be a strategy to playing Marvel Vs. Capcom, the mash-up series of video games which saw comic book icons face off against classic videogame characters (Wolverine vs. Mega Man, go!) But I only ever knew it as a seizure-inducing coin-op button masher, where literally any two-button combination would make your player fire all kinds of insane energy beams at your opponent. If you’re that kind of player, War Machine is probably the cheapest coolest character to play. Just check out this clip, where War machine uses seven kinds of anime beam blasters in less than a minute. (Warning: watch with sunglasses on.)

War Machine appeared in the original Marvel vs. Capcom, while Iron Man was absent. I take this as a tacit admission that I wasn’t the only person who once believed that War Machine was a more interesting character. What do you think, PopWatchers? Are you excited about the addition of a second Armored superhero? Are you worried that too many superheroes will cause a Batman Forever-esque creative implosion for the franchise? And let’s settle this once and for all: Is War Machine an awesome name, or a terrible name?

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures

Comments (32 total) Add your comment
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  • paige


  • Dave


  • ger

    I haven’t read comic books in years, but this post is so well written I might have to start again. Nice to see someone with an obvious passion write so clear-headedly.

  • Matt1

    Thanks Darren for a blog from someone who’s knowledgeable on the subject and thanks again for writing the first thing for EW in months that doesn’t involve motherf@#$ing twilight!!

  • jcarla

    I think I remember this first issue of the MAX War Machine came out on September 12, 2001. Which was unfortante since this issue had terrorists blowing up buldings and freeways.

  • Shaun

    Ok, totally left out the parts about War Machine being part of the Avengers/Force Works….

  • Snarf

    It’s a good name, but didn’t some Ultimate Fighting Champion actually change his name to War Machine, quit to do porn, then attack a bunch of people recently at some event? (I’m not making any of this up BTW)

  • DanB2666

    What no mention of War Machine the alien suit?

  • PeterBilt

    Whatever happened to Terrence Howard is quite unfortunate, I think he would have been perfect in this expanded role.

    • Cole9219

      He was a d*ck to everyone and wanted more money.

    • nich

      I agree. I really liked him as Rhodey.

    • Bobby’s Robot

      Don Cheadle makes any movie better just by being in it.

  • Christopher

    Great article, but how did it miss Tony’s alcoholism– which was why Rhodey suited up in the first place? (And Rhodey got spectacular headaches, because the system wasn’t synched for Rhodey.)

    Tony’s alcoholism is majorly indicated in the first film and will likely become worse and worse as the series progresses. Big thanks to Favreau for not trying to mash it into the first film.

    Can’t wait to see Cheadle as War Machine. Would have enjoyed Howard, too, but Cheadle will do as a replacement.

  • Terry

    Its a damm shame what they did to Howard!!! Although I love Cheadle’s work, Howard played Rhodey to the letter (even kinda resembles him is the comic).

    • Nerwen Aldarion

      No I’m glad they got rid of Howard, while was a good actor he is a lousy person. He threw tantrums on set, demanded to be paid more than Downey Jr etc. Choosing to bring on a professional was a good idea.

  • Nerwen Aldarion

    Love the poster, can’t wait to see the movie

  • Big D

    War Machine is awesome (name included). Don Cheadle is an upgrade over Terrence Howard.

  • June

    I don’t know about the name. When I first heard it I thought they were talking about a villain.

  • Nick Marino

    you missed the most essential of all War Machine issues!!!

    Iron Man #281-391. Awesome story and art, and the debut of the War Machine armor (not to mention Tony’s death and Rhodey’s take over of Stark Enterprises).

    • Nick Marino

      haha whoops i mean #281-291!

    • Lexie

      I totally agree; the run of Iron Man issues featuring Tony’s “death,” Rhodey taking over the company, and the subsequent fallout is completely essential. It’s collected in graphic novel form and reading it was the moment that I completely fell for Rhodey as a character.

      I’m waiting for the movie a little anxiously; I think the comic book character is a hell of a lot more interesting than the one we saw in the first movie, and I’m a little worried from the IM2 clips that I’ve seen that War Machine will be a bad guy. A) I love Rhodey and would rather see ONE MOVIE where he and Tony get to be friends before having their soul-destroying break up in movie #3, and B) it gives me worrying shades of Harry Osbourne and Spider-Man 3.

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