With the release of both Captain America: Civil War in theaters and the first issue of the comic book series Civil War II in comic book stores this weekend, one thing became clear: for one particular Marvel superhero, it was a very, very bad weekend. Spoilers for Captain America: Civil War and Civil War II FCBD Special Edition follow.
If James Rhodes — A.K.A. “War Machine,” Tony Stark’s best friend and fellow Iron Man — has anything to smile about after the last weekend, it’s that he “only” got crippled in the third Captain America movie thanks to an errant shot from teammate the Vision; in the debut of the Civil War II comic book series the character is seemingly killed when Thanos — the cosmic villain who re-appears on Earth for unknown circumstances — punches through his armor.
To be fair, it’s not definitively stated that the comic book hero is killed; the punch seems to literally go through the back of the armor, according to Jim Cheung’s artwork, but such things are not necessarily as fatal in comic books as they would be in movies — or real life, for that matter. In January, however, Marvel publisher Dan Buckley told the New York Daily News that the storyline would include a high-profile hero’s demise. “The death is the marketing hook,” he admitted.
(She-Hulk, the Hulk’s cousin, could be another candidate for the Grim Reaper; in the issue, she takes a missile to the chest, although a character later says that she’s still alive; no such reassurance is given for War Machine, however.)
This one-two punch for the character is either an example of psychotic corporate synergy or an unfortunate mistake, but in either case, the effect is the same: Marvel sidelining one of its most high-profile African-American heroes in both comic and movies, with the intent of providing angst and motivation for the remaining white characters. This is, to put it mildly, not a good look.
The effect is felt more keenly in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where War Machine (Don Cheadle) was the first hero of color, and one of only two super-powered characters of color in the entire movie lineup before Civil War‘s introduction of the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman). Even if, as the movie goes on to suggest, Tony Stark’s technology can give Rhodes the ability to walk again — in comic book lore, Rhodes was temporarily a cyborg, which this might be a nod toward — there’s still an unfortunate implication that the MCU is capped at two active black heroes at any time, and for the Black Panther to step up, someone else needs to be taken off the table.
For Marvel’s comic book universe, the loss is arguably a lesser one — with characters like the Sam Wilson Captain America, Ms. Marvel, the Miles Morales Spider-Man and the Black Panther, the comic book Marvel Universe is far less white than its cinematic counterpart (although still significantly lacking when compared with white leads), with War Machine playing a far less prominent part in comics than movies, in addition to being arguably a failed lead, having anchored three separate series in the past six years, all of which were canceled within a year for low sales.
However, the comic book moment brings to mind an element of the original Civil War comic book series that drew ire from fans at the time of its 2006/2007 release: the death of Bill Foster, A.K.A. Goliath — the only character to actually die in the conflict between superheroes, and an African-American hero brought back from obscurity for the series seemingly with the sole purpose of being murdered and prompting recriminations between all involved in his death.
It’s a sad (and, almost certainly, accidental) fact that, no matter the medium or the plot, the most obvious victims of a Marvel Civil War happen to be black superheroes — an under-represented demographic in all other respects — especially when there are far more deserving white heroes primed for retirement. After all, would anyone really be that upset if Hawkeye was maimed, clearing the way for the fan-favorite younger comic book incarnation of the character to take over?
Captain America: Civil War is in theaters now, with the next issue of Civil War II — No. 0 — due in comic book stores May 18.