Stop killing off characters of color to give white characters something to feel


Marvel’s superheroes are at war with each other. Again.

In case you haven’t been paying attention to the comics, Marvel’s in the midst of yet another crossover event: Civil War II, a massive battle between the world’s heroes over whether or not it’s appropriate to seek justice against supervillains before they commit crimes.

On one side, you have Carol Danvers (codename Captain Marvel), the intergalactic protector of the earth, who believes in preventing crimes before they happen. On the other, you’ve got Tony Stark (codename Iron Man), arguing that using visions of the future to hunt down criminals who haven’t technically done anything wrong yet is morally suspect.

Caught between them is James Rhodes (codename War Machine), one of Marvel’s most high-profile black superheroes. He’s Captain Marvel’s boyfriend, Iron Man’s best friend, and the first major character to die as a result of Civil War II.

As the first issue of Civil War II unfolds, it’s explained that Rhodes died during a preemptive fight against a planetary threat that the Avengers intended to prevent before it actually began. Rhodes’s death becomes the event that splits the world’s superheroes apart, effectively trigging the new civil war that Marvel’s hoping will lead to a dramatic boost in comic book sales.

As far as comic book premises go, Civil War II is pretty standard issue. The book’s supposed to be a commentary about the dangers of an excessively authoritarian police force (superheroes) overstepping their bounds and hurting innocent people in the process.

While it’s unclear whether the series will ultimately find a fresh angle to explore that point (see Minority Report), some fans are calling Marvel out for inadvertently playing into a larger conversation about the ways in which characters of color are used and abused to give white characters something to feel.

In a recent interview with Comic Book Resources, Marvel’s editor-in-chief Axel Alonso explained that Brian Michael Bendis, Civil War II‘s author, made the decision to kill Rhodes because his death would have the strongest emotional impact on Captain Marvel and Iron Man.

Tom Brevoort, Marvel’s executive editor echoed the idea to Newsarama, acknowledging that there were pointed internal discussions about the decision to kill a prominent black character during Marvel’s recent staff retreat.

“It seems like it’s always the black hero who dies in these kind of stories,” Brevoort said. “But at least in this instance I feel like we stand on decent ground saying if there had to be a death, it should be Rhodey because of his relationship with the characters, not because of the color of his skin or his lack of prominence in the Marvel Universe.”

Both Alono and Brevoort are right. There is a logic at work that justifies Rhodes’ death. The problem, though, is that that logic is sort of racist.

While War Machine’s death does fit neatly into a story about the perils of cavalier heroism, justifying that choice based on the reactions it will evoke from two white characters lessens the narrative weight he carries on his own. Rhodes isn’t given a voice to articulate his feelings about Civil War II‘s central issue—instead, he’s used as a catalyst and, in a way, as an object.

Rhodes is traditionally depicted as Tony Stark’s world-weary sidekick and best friend. He wears an older, differently weaponized version of Stark’s armor and acts as the voice of reason in response to Iron Man’s brash ideas. In previous comic books, War Machine has been given a fair amount of back story and enough personal character arcs to give readers a chance to really understand who James Rhodes is, independent of Tony Stark. Civil War II, though, treats him more like his cinematic counterpart, played by Don Cheadle.

The trailers leading up to the Captain America: Civil War movie implied that the specific reason why Captain America and Iron Man were fighting was because one of the Avengers might have died. In the months leading up to its release, nearly every ad for the film featured a powerful shot of an unmasked War Machine cradled by Iron Man on the battlefield, apparently dead or at least severely hurt.

Rhodes doesn’t die in the movie, but he does end up paralyzed from the waist down. Here, too, his suffering becomes an opportunity for Stark to express how he feels. While it isn’t explicitly stated on-screen, it’s suggested that the character’s been benched from superhero duties for the foreseeable future.

Contextually, there is both a rhyme and reason to the violence that War Machine experiences in both Marvel’s comic books and its movies, but to casual consumers, his fates read somewhat differently.

Like all comic book events, Civil War II is meant to draw in new readers looking for an entry point to a series, which will ideally lead to them buying other books or perhaps even movie tickets. Civil War II welcomes those newcomers with the message that stories about black pain and death are important when they give white people something to care about—not because those stories are worth telling on their own merit.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin