My Son Finally Has a Hero Like Him in 'Avengers: Infinity War' (Guest Column)

Avengers Infinity War Don Cheadle - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment
Don Cheadle and Marvel Studios have taken great — and graceful — strides in representing disability.

[This story contains spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War.]

The haunting ending of Avengers: Infinity War gives audiences a lot to discuss. But one of the film’s most exhilarating aspects is how little it talks about what might draw stares in public: an Avenger with a disability.

James “Rhodey” Rhodes, aka War Machine (Don Cheadle), returns to action in this film after a paralyzing injury in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War. In the new Avengers movie, we first see him stand toe to toe with a hologram of Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) during a tense conversation about the fresh hell facing our heroes. Later, he commands the air defense above Wakanda with Falcon (Anthony Mackie) while flying into the fray like the combat pilot we know him to be.

Rhodes doesn’t flinch, and he doesn’t back away from a fight. Out of his armor, he wears high-tech orthotics — what my family calls “bot legs” — that help him move. There’s no ham-fisted hand-wringing over what he can do. There’s simply no question that he’s still an Avenger. A teammate. A hero.

With films such as Wonder Woman, Black Panther and A Wrinkle in Time spurring discourse about more inclusive storytelling, it’s refreshing to see a character with a disability contributing significantly to a worldwide blockbuster.

Unfortunately, it’s rare in a mainstream film to see a character whose disability is just a trait, such as skin or hair color, that doesn’t completely define the person. Too often, disabled characters become devices through which others find motivation and fulfillment — if they’re onscreen at all. A 2015 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that 53 million adults in the United States, or about 22 percent, have some type of disability, including physical and cognitive issues. But that same year, just 2.4 percent of characters who spoke or had names in the top-grossing 100 domestic films had disabilities, according to the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative at USC Annenberg’s School for Communication and Journalism.

This is an issue close to my heart. My 8-year-old son has spina bifida, a birth defect of the spinal cord that commonly causes some form of paralysis. He walks with the help of forearm crutches and leg braces similar to Rhodey’s — no blue lights on the sides courtesy of Stark Industries. He also uses a bright green wheelchair.

I’ve often said that how he moves is such a small part of who he is that at times I think walking is overrated. He’s more than his feet. But when you have a visible disability, you’re often on display. Other people, especially children, act awkward or curious, with questions like: Why does he have those? What happened to him? Are his legs broken? What’s wrong with him? (I try to be patient, but for that last one, I always say, “Nothing.”)

To be fair, comics have portrayed people with disabilities as heroes. Daredevil, gifted with a type of echolocation and other heightened senses after radioactive chemicals blinded him, dives right into the action. Oracle, the former Batgirl who uses a wheelchair after being shot in the spine, provides Batman and the Birds of Prey with invaluable backup thanks to her photographic memory and hacking skills. The telepathic genius Charles Xavier/Professor X also uses a wheelchair and has one of the most powerful minds in the Marvel Universe.

But none of those characters have gear similar to my son and other children and adults like him — and none is in a property as high-profile as an Avengers film. Seeing Rhodey alongside Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Captain America (Chris Evans), and the other heroes gives me goose bumps. It’s that huge.

The film doesn’t treat disability as something “other,” something not understood or to be pitied. Similar to the Oscar-winning The Shape of Water, it shows a disabled person valued for who he is, as he is — not categorized by what he can and can’t do.

With this character, the MCU has taken great — and graceful — strides in representing disability. The end of Civil War set this tone, where Rhodey learned to walk with his new orthotics. He asked for Tony (Robert Downey Jr.) to install some AC before he fell and acknowledged, “This is a bad beat.” He also noted that as a military pilot, he’d faced many risks, then got back on his feet again. He was still Rhodey, just moved differently, a point made subtly but clearly when he joked about how a FedEx deliveryman (Stan Lee) mangled Tony’s last name. 

In the lead-up to Avengers: Infinity War, some interviewers asked Cheadle about Rhodey’s injury, leaving Cheadle to answer, “When you have someone like Tony who is a master of tech … then you can walk again.”

Blissfully, the subject barely comes up in the film at all. At two hours and 29 minutes, Avengers: Infinity War covers a lot of ground at a fairly brisk pace, considering about 40 named characters among four to five different storylines. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have said they pared down anything that didn’t focus on the heroes’ conflict with Thanos (Josh Brolin), a zealot who thinks he’s saving the universe by wiping out half of its population.

This approach keeps Rhodey’s disability from being a big deal — why should it be? — and offers Cheadle a nuanced way to show his character’s maturity. In Civil War, Vision (Paul Bettany) was aiming for Falcon when he accidentally knocked Rhodey from the sky. When they meet again in Infinity War, Rhodes looks glad and even grateful to see his colleagues again. He greets Steve Rogers and the others warmly, even hugging Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Perhaps like Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), he knows they have more pressing matters. Banner says as much, when he urges Tony early in the film to call Steve, no matter how hard they fell out, because a threat this big needs everyone they can muster.

I like to think that Rhodey is like some people with disabilities who don’t spend near as much time thinking about them as other people think they do. It is what it is, and he’s on to other business.

My son recognized War Machine flying high in the film’s trailer instantly. Looking at a promotional photo of Rhodey alongside Steve and Natasha, my son pointed and said Rhodey has gear “like me.”

And after we sniffled our way past the film’s stunned and heartbroken heroes at the end, he told me, “I actually feel good that Rhodey is alive.”

Me too.

Valerie Kalfrin is an award-winning writer based based out of Florida. She can be found online here and on Twitter @valeriekalfrin.