When I reviewed the first issue of this series I said, "this comic reads like a concept from 1992, when the way to make a comic more interesting was to load a couple extra rocket launchers on a character's back." Little did I know how far Greg Pak and Leonardo Manco would take that concept.
In "War Machine" #5 we don't see just a few more rocket launchers on the back of James Rhodes's flying armor, we see a War Machine zooming through the sky with the 21st century equivalent of a high-tech Swiss army knife taken to Simon Bisley-esque extremes. By my count, Rhodes sports half a dozen machine guns, a few cannons, some kind of sonic array, and maybe even a corkscrew. The absurdity of the weapons becomes part of the charm of this comic, ultimately. While I feared, after the first issue, that it might become little more than an Iron-Man-as-Punisher riff, I now see that it fully embraces its own ridiculously explosive premise. Visually, it's more "Marshal Law" than it is "Legends of Armor-Plated Frank Castle."
Manco is a fascinating choice for this type of comic, because he can pull off the sensitive character moments and the big, ultra-violent action sequences, but he covers it all with a layer of grit and grime that makes it all seem sad and painful. This is an issue which opens up with Ares, the god of war, raging with glowing red eyes and decapitations occurring left and right. That's all on the opening page, by the way. And the comic escalates from there. The energy and deranged attention to detail Manco brings to each page makes the whole issue radiate with an uneasy sense of fantastic high-tech squalor. "War Machine" has a deeper core than the current Jeph Loeb/Ed McGuinness "Hulk" series, but it shares a similar over-the-top aesthetic. If it's slightly less goofy fun than "Hulk," it's also a bit more engaging because Greg Pak doesn't skimp on the layered conflict. A techno-virus is spreading throughout the world, infecting even a Greek god, and James Rhodes has only minutes to save a woman he once loved as his organs begin to fail.
Yeah, that's enough of a ticking clock to make everything seem amped up.
And all of that happens before a manned space satellite transforms into a giant robot and lands on Earth to lay a "Shaakoooom!" on the now-infected War Machine.
This issue makes previous War Machine stories seem like sensitive tea-time chit-chats.
The embrace of the absurdity and explosive grandeur doesn't leave much room for a logical or properly-paced finale here, but who needs thoughtful explanations when giant transforming robot space stations battle infected armored cyborgs and axe-wielding gods for fate of humanity? If you do, then a comic called "War Machine" may not be the one for you anyway.
"War Machine" is still far from a top-tier Marvel series, but this issue proves that it refuses to let itself be overlooked. It won't sit quietly in its little corner and play nice with whatever time it's given. No, Pak and Manco's "War Machine" will cry out for your attention with its explosions and big guns and ridiculously extreme plot twists, and, surprisingly, it might be worth a look.