In defence of Don Cheadle's Emmy nomination for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier
Cheadle's cameo earning an awards nod has raised eyebrows – but isn't it time we celebrated his contribution to the MCU?
It wouldn't be an awards nomination roll-out without a little controversy, so of course the reveal of yesterday's Emmy nods was greeted with the usual outpourings of joy – big cheers for genre shows like WandaVision no longer being ignored by awards bodies, and take note Golden Globes of all the love for Michaela Coel's stunning I May Destroy You – coupled with aggrieved fans lamenting the lack of recognition for their favourites – nothing for Steve McQueen's Small Axe, The Mandalorian's Pedro Pascal or Bridgerton's Phoebe Dynevor?
But the one nomination that dominated the discourse – the actor in question's name even trended on Twitter – was Don Cheadle's, in the running for best Guest Actor in a Drama for his appearance in the first episode of Disney Plus series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (incidentally, the only category in which the show was nominated). Even self-professed fans of Cheadle argued that his brief cameo in the series led by Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan didn't deserve this level of recognition or that the plaudits should've been directed elsewhere, with Carl Lumbly's turn as the tortured Isaiah Bradley being repeatedly singled out as worthy of nomination, if not the win.
Now if we put aside the fact that this isn't the first time that an actor with limited screen time in a project has been so recognised – Anthony Hopkins won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1993 after appearing in just 16 minutes of The Silence of the Lambs, Judi Dench picked up the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role in 1999 for her 8-minute appearance in Shakespeare in Love – and that Cheadle isn't even the only actor in this year's Emmy nominations to have got the nod for something of a nondescript cameo – Claire Foy is up for best Guest Actress in a Drama for the briefest reprisal of her role in The Crown – then yes, it's a little odd for Emmy voters to have picked this brief, exposition-heavy turn over countless other guest spots.
Even Cheadle himself seemed somewhat baffled by his nomination when the news broke on Thursday morning in the US.
But what if we considered his nomination in the context of his wider contribution to the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Like how certain actors or directors might win an Oscar for one project – Morgan Freeman's Best Supporting Actor win for 2005's Million Dollar Baby, or Martin Scorsese finally picking up the Best Director gong for 2006's The Departed – but we really know it's as recognition of their larger portfolio, an apology of sorts for all the awards they'd previously failed to win.
In short, isn't it time we celebrated Don Cheadle as James Rhodes?
It's all too easy to forget that Cheadle joined up as a replacement for an established star – stepping in for Terrence Howard, who'd played Rhodey in the first Iron Man film. He did, and continues to do, such a magnificent job that it's now difficult to conceive he wasn't part of the MCU from the off – his was the franchise's most fortuitous recasting, which given how imprinted Mark Ruffalo now is on the part of Bruce Banner is saying something.
The part of Rhodey would be tough for any actor. On paper, he might not seem a particularly interesting character – the rule-abiding straight man to Robert Downey, Jr's quip-happy maverick Tony Stark – but Cheadle delivered the goods, bringing his trademark quiet charisma and a sympathetic edge to the part, the same attributes that, lest we forget, earned him an Academy Award win for Best Actor for Hotel Rwanda in 2005, a Golden Globe for Showtime series House of Lies in 2013, and, yes, an Emmy nomination for another Showtime series, Black Monday, in 2019.
Rhodey could've faded into the background of the crowded Marvel universe, but in Cheadle's capable hands, he did anything but – he was not Stark's humourless sidekick, but the thoughtful counterpoint to his rebellious, sometimes irresponsible best friend. We liked James Rhodes, we cared about him, and we gasped when he fell from the sky in Captain America: Civil War, the victim of circumstance when hotter heads prevailed.
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In a recent interview with Rotten Tomatoes, Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige explained how the comic giant's streaming series like WandaVision and Loki are an opportunity to showcase "underutilised" characters and actors who "the audience fell in love with" despite "a relatively short amount of screen time in a handful" of MCU films.
It's no mistake then that Cheadle, as another standout supporting actor and character who was never given the screen time he deserved but who managed to shine regardless, is finally being rewarded with his own Disney Plus series in the form of the forthcoming Armor Wars, which will see Rhodey step up in the wake of Tony Stark's passing. Maybe come the 2023 or 2024 Emmy nominations we'll see Cheadle recognised again for his lead performance in that show – but until then, let's follow Marvel's example and recognise the hefty contribution that he's already made.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is streaming now on Disney Plus – you can sign up to Disney+ for £7.99 a month or £79.90 a year now.
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