By Anthony Breznican
April 11, 2019 at 03:00 PM EDT
© Marvel Studios 2018
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Everyone knows someone like James “Rhodey” Rhodes. He’s the dependable one. The stalwart. The non-squeaky wheel who gets the job done, drama free. As the Marvel Cinematic Universe reaches its climax in Avengers: Endgame, it’s time he got his due.

Don Cheadle’s lieutenant colonel has essentially the same super-ability as his friend Tony Stark — a high-tech, flying suit of armor — but he proves that heroes are defined by more than just power.

Iron Man is a troublemaker. War Machine, despite his moniker, is a peacekeeper.

With Stark lost in space at the start of Endgame, and Rhodes still recovering from an injury in Civil War that left him unable to walk on his own, he’s finding a new place among Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.

“I think that’s a good way to define him,” Cheadle says. “He’s now solidly one of The Avengers, and they are trying to pick up the pieces after the last movie. I think they’re all trying to figure out what they’re supposed to do, or who they are, or how they fit, or what they are. It’s a strain on the whole group.”

For the first time, Rhodes sees himself as part of the team.

“There’s definitely more of a feeling of belonging with them,” Cheadle says. “He’s not so much straddling one foot in the military. He’s much more on the side of The Avengers than he was prior.”

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I’ll go easy on you, Don. It’s a little tricky because so much of the movie is secret.
DON CHEADLE: To both of us.

Is it still pretty secret to you?
Yeah, you just sort of get your part, and some explanation about what came before, and what goes after and kind of how things fit in. But it was still a pretty malleable process while we were shooting it, you know? We knew that things were going to be changing, even after they told us what it was going to be.

Do you mean you’re shooting things and they’re still faking you out?
No, they’re kind of like, “This folds into this, and then it’s coming out of this, but we may change that, and we may get rid of this whole sequence.”

Sounds confusing.
You’re kind of like, “Okay guys, just tell me what to do, and please don’t make me look stupid when it comes out.” You just don’t know.

Was it different on this one compared to the previous ones? Is there more secrecy this time?
I think yes, there is. It’s trying obviously to come to a culmination of 22 movies, and God knows how many storylines and all these actors really come into our biggest fight with our biggest foe.

Rhodes has changed a lot since you first played him in Iron Man 2. He’s now following his own conscience and his own instincts, rather than following orders.
Well, the world has changed for him. The world has changed for everybody. Once space opened up, and once Thanos came into play, there’s a whole new stratum of rules. As we saw in the last one, the [heroes] are basically thumbing their nose at the “authority” structure that exists and saying, “We’re the new authorities and we’re going to do what we think is right, because we’re facing something that no one was prepared for.”

Rhodes always seems to me to be a realist. Even when he’s been dealing with Tony. He’s the thing that tethers him to reality and now he’s got to deal with the fantastic, like aliens and talking raccoons, and this guy who comes with his magical gems. How does that register on Rhodes?
He’s definitely got some “what-the-eff-is-happening” [attitude,] more than maybe the rest of them do, given his background. But it’s a trial by fire, and he’s quickly adapted to what [the threat] is, rather than what he wishes it were.

From the clips we’ve seen, it seems like he’s a little more suspicious and distrusting than he used to be. Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel shows up and your character’s like, “Where have you been this whole time?”
Absolutely. Well, you never know who’s going to turn. He’s saying, “We’ve been putting in all this work, and we’ve lost people that are close to us and you don’t even know these people. Yeah, you’re going to come in and tell us how we’re supposed to do this now.” There’s a fair bit of … I don’t know if suspicion is the word, but he’s definitely circumspect about who this new person is and why should they listen to her.

Years back there was talk of a War Machine movie. I know you mentioned it and [Black Panther co-screenwriter] Joe Robert Cole was working on it. Do you have any idea what kind of story that would have been?
No. We kicked it around a bit. There was definitely going to be a lot of tension between his job as a military man and his allegiances to the code that he swore an oath to uphold, versus the changing world. I think they probably would have run afoul of each other a little bit, but I don’t know if he would have been a straight fugitive, or if he would have become decommissioned. But there was definitely going to be some tension between those two worlds.

Part of the thrill of these Avengers movies is seeing all your favorite characters together in scenes interacting and playing off each other. But also, man, what a line up of actors.
I think when that kind of thing hit home the most was when we did that big photo for the 10 year anniversary. Everybody was there. Just seeing everybody running around who wanted their picture taken with everybody else. Everybody was just as big a fan as everyone else. “Oh is that Laurence Fishburne over there? Oh man, it’s Michael Douglas. Wow, there’s …” That’s when you really felt like, “Wow, we’re part of something special.”

Does it have an impact on how you work? Do people feel competitive to keep up with each other?
The most gratifying part of it is that there’s not a lot of ego-tripping on the set. Everybody feels like we’re the little fish and that the project is the big fish. No one’s trying to grandstand or step out in front of anybody else. Everyone’s really respectful and we’re all probably overcompensating because nobody wants to be perceived as a person who’s doing that in that group.

No upstaging?
It’s kind of hard in that group to be like that. You’ve got seven people here with Oscars. Nobody can show off. Everybody’s just trying to be a team player, and that’s good to see because if it was the opposite it would just have been an insufferable experience, every single one of them.

For more on Avengers: Endgame, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly on stands Friday. You can buy all six covers, or purchase your individual favorites: Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow, Thor, Hulk, and Ronin. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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