Make the Case: 5 Essential Robert Downey Jr. Movies
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Make the Case lists choices chronologically, rather than in any order of quality. Picks reflect film acting roles only. If the actor in question also directed the movie, that’s purely a coincidence, and it plays no part in the film’s inclusion.
When the first part of Marvel’s Infinity War comes out next year, I hope everyone’s ready to watch Tony Stark die. Barring that, I would almost be willing to bet money that he won’t make it through part two. It’s the only logical culmination of a universe and story that began ten years ago with the 2008 film Iron Man. It wasn’t just the beginning of one of the most impressive comebacks in recent film history. It also jump-started a cinematic universe that continues to thrive to this day.
Whether or not the Marvel Cinematic Universe is going to continue to be successful once people like Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans have moved on, is obviously something that remains to be seen. I’m pretty confident that it will, but who can really say. Marvel, Kevin Feige, and Disney certainly seem ready to try. There are Marvel movies slated to come out for the next eighty or ninety years, so it would seem. Robert Downey Jr. probably won’t be part of that, but the success of his first Iron Man is one of the main reasons why we are all still here, and still paying attention to these releases. Marvel has put out several good-to-amazing films since 2008. Obviously, those movies have contributed to the momentum that ensures Infinity War isn’t going to be received like Justice League.
Yet it all started with Downey and Iron Man. If it had failed, we probably wouldn’t be talking about Infinity War today. Supported by a compelling backstory, an appealing, imperfect hero in Tony Stark, a great villain (Jeff Bridges), a good director (Jon Favreau), and the promise of a larger story that would eventually include a far-reaching ensemble of heroes and villains, Iron Man was a perfect introduction to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. At the core of that thought, you have Robert Downey Jr. Although slightly overshadowed by a growing cast of good guys, his Iron Man/Tony Stark remains one of the most important, and one of the most fascinating, characters in this universe.
Since surviving the free-for-all into substance abuse that turned him into a nightmarish parody of a walking tabloid headline, Downey has remained busy. His Iron Man has become one of the most successful, long-running superheroes in film history. If Tony does fall at Thanos’ meaty, bejeweled hands during Infinity War, his death will have an impact on audiences and future films alike. Although Downey has largely stuck to playing superheroes and supernaturally-intelligent detectives since coming back from the brink, the same brilliant actor is still very much there. You can find examples of that all throughout the 80s and 90s, even as Downey’s career, and quality of roles, suffered. I wouldn’t be surprised if he adds a few more high notes, when he is finally tired of playing a billionaire manic depressive with more tech than he knows what to do with, to one of the most unpredictable, largely fascinating bodies of work in recent memory.
Back to School (1986)
To be sure, throughout the 1980s, there are many strong examples of the kind of actor Robert Downey Jr. would eventually become. His pacing and energy can be found in movies like Weird Science and The Pick-Up Artist, and it can even be glimpsed in things like his brief stint on Saturday Night Live. The Rodney Dangerfield vehicle Back to School is a long-time favorite film of mine. While Rodney is definitely at the center of that, Downey’s likable, righteous, and slightly manic charisma gives his character a far more memorable appearance than sidekicks to main characters (in this case, Keith Gordon as the son of Rodney’s character) usually receive. There is nothing special about Downey’s character, but Downey nonetheless shows a capacity, and perhaps a tendency, to completely steal our attention away from the characters we’re supposed to focus on. Considering Downey was sharing screen time with an icon of distinctive personality like Dangerfield, this is a sizable accomplishment for an actor who was around twenty years old, at the time Back to School was filmed.
Also, it’s pretty easy to see Downey’s Derek Lutz character as a young prototype for Tony Stark. In Back to School, watch the scene where Downey stands up to some bullies. The odds are completely against him, and he does not give even a single fuck.
Although this sprawling, occasionally a-little-too-self-important biopic tends to gloss over the fact that, well, Charlie Chaplin was kind of a selfish, predatory douchebag, Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as Chaplin is likely to shake your cynicism about the actual man. The movie itself reeks at times of pandering, to both Chaplin’s complicated legacy, and the awards’ season that would arrive in due course. The great, nearly-impossible trick of Chaplin is that none of these thoughts ever get close to the fact that Downey transforms into Chaplin in the best way imaginable. The movie endeavors to cover the span of Chaplin’s 88 years on earth. The challenge for any actor to cover all of that, without turning into a weird parody, or just flat-out failing to convey what the character/person needs to convey from one decade to the next.
For example: I get that we all love Leonardo DiCaprio, but remember J. Edgar? Remember how fucking badly that went for him on just about every level? To reiterate, tackling a character for multiple generations is a challenge and a half.
Downey is one of the few film actors in the history of his medium to pull all of that off. Not a huge surprise that he was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award. The surprise to this day is that he didn’t win. This was the year in which Al Pacino finally got the Oscar he should have won for Dog Day Afternoon. Anyway, Downey’s commitments to Iron Man and The Avengers may keep him from ever winning an Oscar. Honestly, with a legacy of performances like Chaplin, awards are even more of a waste of attention and consideration than the norm.
Wonder Boys (2000)
Due to his own shitty behavior with drugs and alcohol, Downey’s career, roundabout after Chaplin, became a chaotic tabloid punchline. It would last for such a large portion of Downey’s life, the assumption about his private life became part of a collective pop culture conscience. Downey was still a few years off from hitting rock bottom, by the time he appeared in 2000’s Wonder Boys, but this film might just be the best thing he did during his most turbulent years. Although Downey worked at a decently steady pace, even at the height of his problems, the quality of his work is unpredictable to the extreme. The films themselves range from forgettable to dreck that amazingly doesn’t continue to haunt Downey to this day.
Wonder Boys gave Downey a small role, but it was nonetheless a pivotal one. This isn’t just in terms of the story, or the relationship of his character to Michael Douglas’ harried, tired writer. Downey continues to standout in things like the Infinity War trailer because the energy he brings to anything he does is entirely his own. It isn’t just a matter of fast quips, or small bursts of seemingly messy movement. Many of Robert Downey Jr.’s best characters are appealing because they are brilliant, self-aware of just how terrible they can be, and deeply curious for absolutely everything going on around them. Downey fuses those traits with singular touches, and those things tend to create some of his best characters. The hot mess in Wonder Boys that is Terry Crabtree is a prime example.
Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005)
The comeback for Robert Downey Jr. arguably began with Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. Between this and Iron Man 3, it is clearly a good thing when Downey and director Shane Black collaborate with one another. Within three years of Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, which lets Downey run amok as an east coast career criminal who gets suckered into a noir nightmare in Los Angeles, Iron Man would be released. The three years between this film and Iron Man offer some fascinating roles and performances, including a pivotal character in the highly underrated 2005 film Game 6.
There’s also the 2006 Tim Allen masterpiece remake of The Shaggy Dog. However, we’ve all done a pretty good job of pretending someone else had to share the screen with a dog voiced by the shit sculpture that is Tim. Why stop now?
Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is funny for a lot of reasons. One reason comes down to the chemistry between Val Kilmer and Downey. Kilmer is good on his own, and there was a time when he was occasionally a good actor, but a lot of this movie’s appeal hinges on Downey. Even when the movie gets wonderfully ridiculous, his likable, determined, kind of dim character stays oddly believable.
One of David Fincher’s best films has been oddly forgotten, over the decade that has passed since the film’s release. That’s too bad. Zodiac is tense, bleak, and ultimately beautiful. The film also offers grounded, powerful, generally low-key performances from a standout ensemble—including Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, John Carroll Lynch, Chloë Sevigny, Brian Cox, Elias Koteas, and Phillip Baker Hall (among others). Anyone who thinks Robert Downey Jr. simply reacts with sharp eye and a quick witticism should watch, or perhaps rewatch, his work in Zodiac. The troublemaker/iconoclast element that appeals to Downey as an actor is very much present here. Yet it is realized as something much darker than just about anything else he has ever done.
Watching Robert Downey Jr. play Paul Avery, a key player in the coverage/investigation on the infamous Zodiac Killer, is watching an exercise in human degradation. I’m not saying Downey plays the character with cruelty, or that the character goes through degrading things. Watching him in the film, we see the consequences that are presented to those who come into close contact with The Zodiac Killer, and survive—if only for the time being. Downey collapses in a way that is so slow, so painfully vivid, it wouldn’t surprise me if the work involved took a year or two off of Downey’s life. Let’s hope not.
He is still in the middle of a comeback. Whether or not he survives the wrath of Thanos in Infinity War remains to be seen. I hope he does. I don’t think he will, but I’m too emotionally attached to the character at this point. Regardless, I can’t speak for anyone else, but I am most certainly curious to see what Robert Downey Jr. is going to do, when he finally walks away from Tony and the suit.