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[Stop Button Lists] Robert Downey Jr., Nine Movies of the Megastar

Robert Downey Jr., filmography, 2008-13

I have been a Robert Downey Jr. fan since Soapdish. Looking to escape sounds of the Bulls playing the Los Angeles Lakers, my dad and I went to see Soapdish in the theater. I’d seen Downey in Weird Science and maybe Johnny Be Good, had wanted to go see Air America (but didn’t–and still haven’t seen it) and definitely knew him from the Pick-Up Artist. I watched a lot of 20th Century Fox movies and CBS/FOX Video loved playing the Pick-Up Artist preview on tapes.

After Chaplin, I waited for Downey’s movies. Heart and Souls, Short Cuts; I even saw Only You, something I’ve never forgiven myself for doing. After Only You, I fell off until One Night Stand. I’ve seen some of the interim movies since, including Home for the Holidays and Restoration. I saw Gingerbread Man, was mad at Downey’s terrible performance in U.S. Marshals, liked him in In Dreams and Wonder Boys. Then fell off until Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, even though I’ve meant to see Singing Detective.

So I’ve been a conscious Robert Downey Jr. fan since I was twelve years old. And I was thrilled when he signed on to do Iron Man. He’d just been awesome in Zodiac. It’s a shame he hasn’t stopped playing the Iron Man part, which actually seems based on his characterization of “The Pick-Up Artist” Jack Jerricho.

Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr. star in IRON MAN, directed by Jon Favreau for Paramount Pictures.
“Did anyone ever tell you that you have the face of a Botticelli and the body of a Dégas?” Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr. star in IRON MAN, directed by Jon Favreau for Paramount Pictures.

For his part, Downey has suggested he doesn’t want to do a film unless he gets paid a lot of money. He also doesn’t like poor people. He’s also still a great actor, even if people are starting to find Tony Stark a little much.

Beginning in 2008, with Iron Man and Tropic Thunder, Downey has entered the least artistically successful phase of his career. Maybe ever. I haven’t seen his eighties stuff in fifteen years plus. The two films are the division point. Iron Man or Tropic Thunder. The former plays on Downey’s ability to be likable regardless of the situation (I won’t get into the drugs but until this point in his career, they were extremely important to his career) and the latter showcases his ability to turn in a fantastic, impossible performance.

Iron Man made more than three times as much money as Tropic Thunder.

Now a potential box office draw as the dramatic equivalent of Johnny Depp (throw “serious” actor Downey in a franchise, it crosses over between kids and more discerning ticket buyers), Downey tested his popularity. Sherlock Holmes was a new franchise where Jude Law had been in bigger movies than the top-billed Downey. The Soloist was Downey trying for an Oscar in a drama. Holmes did well, Soloist did not.

Robert Downey Jr. and Zach Galifianakis star in DUE DATE, directed by Todd Phillips for Warner Bros.
You can tell by the suit. Robert Downey Jr. plays straight man to Zach Galifianakis in DUE DATE, directed by Todd Phillips for Warner Bros.

So Downey stopped trying Hollywood dramas. He went with a comedy (Due Date), it flopped, he corrected the course of his career. Did he hire Tom Cruise’s original manager or something?

Thanks to Downey, Disney has made a lot of money with the Marvel movies. Marvel has made a bunch of money. Warner Bros. could be happier, but Downey’s one of the biggest movie stars in the world; Sherlock Holmes 3 is inevitable.

What’s frustrating is his acting ability. It hasn’t gone anywhere. Sure, the Marvel movies don’t ask him to stretch, but he sold the silliness of the element discovery in Iron Man 2 and he and Gwyneth Paltrow’s chemistry in that series gives it a solid foundation the filmmakers seem entirely unconcerned with. It isn’t necessary for the box office, but Downey can’t help being really good.

Even in The Avengers, Downey was the one who sold the reality of the film (not just its contents, but its very existence) to the audience.

A scene from THE AVENGERS, directed by Joss Whedon for Walt Disney Pictures.
Tin can or not, Robert Downey Jr. cashed a check bigger than the rest of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes combined in THE AVENGERS, directed by Joss Whedon for Walt Disney Pictures.

When I first thought of this topic–Downey’s “road to super-star” films, I did the math to make sure I wouldn’t have to talk about The Judge. I also asked some friends what they thought about doing a post on this topic. I felt like I should make a list of Downey’s best films, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen any of the nineties films. Though you should see every film listed in the first two paragraphs as soon as possible.

For lack of a better term, Downey’s the one who creates Marvel’s reality distortion field. His presence makes it seem like it should be not just good, but worthwhile.

Look at Iron Man, Downey’s got issues with father figure Jeff Bridges failing him. Or Iron Man 2, Downey’s got issues with his father’s nemesis, played by Mickey Rourke (can you imagine the eighties Hollywood stories they could’ve shared?), while one of his same-aged peers is after him. Plus, it’s Sam Rockwell as that guy. Oh, and he’s got a brewing romance with his assistant, who sort of runs his life and company. The Iron Man movies always have a strong enough dramatic cast to make a synopsis–an artfully written one–sound like a great mainstream drama. They just happen to be superhero movies. And those dramatic plots usually fail miserably amid comic book nonsense. But the movies are still good.

Robert Downey Jr. stars in IRON MAN 3, directed by Shane Black for Walt Disney Pictures.
“You’ve been in my life so long, I can’t remember anything else.” Wait, wrong movie. Robert Downey Jr. sits with his box office golden boy in IRON MAN 3, directed by Shane Black for Walt Disney Pictures.

Why? Because Downey.

The Sherlock Holmes movies are a little different, of course, because Downey’s not playing the same kind of jerk. He’s playing a more lovable jerk; maybe the third one is still potential just because Downey’s rocking the jerk persona in public now too.

No matter how many movies Downey makes for Marvel, no matter how much money he makes for them, he’s never going to be as good as he was in Chaplin in any of them. He’s not even going to be as good as he was in Heart and Souls. Hopefully he’ll always be better than he was in U.S. Marshals, because I’m probably going to see all of those movies eventually.

Because I really do want to see a rematch between Julian and Rip; I just know, with Downey’s range these days, it’s not worth the price of a movie ticket.

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Iron Man (2008, Jon Favreau)

Iron Man is a qualified success. Robert Downey Jr. is fantastic throughout–the movie’s greatest strength is how much screen time he gets–and Jon Favreau does really well with the Iron Man scenes and the action scenes in general (he does terrible with almost everything else). But, while it also moderately succeeds as a romantic comedy–Downey and Gwyneth Paltrow’s performances in their absurdly written scenes are great–it fails dramatically. There’s no friendship between Downey and Terrence Howard (the movie doesn’t even need him) and here’s no father (figure) and son relationship between Downey and Jeff Bridges. Bridges is necessary to the movie, from a plot standpoint, and he’s far better are turning in a solid performance in a poorly sketched role than Howard. It also fails as any kind of commentary about war profiteering or weapons manufacturing. It pays lip service to the idea of Downey rushing off to save people… but he only gets around to it once. (Hey, it’s kind of like Rambo… except Stallone doesn’t wimp out of showing suffering).

Basically, it’s all about enjoying Downey’s performance and the Iron Man sequences. Downey’s got a gift for comedy and, even though Favreau can’t frame a comedy shot, he does get the tone right. Favreau’s best part is actually the Afghanistan sequence, which seems like it goes on too long, but then when he can never match it, it’s clear it was too short. Shaun Toub makes an impossible character work really well in that sequence.

The movie’s also something of a narrative mess, with the ending more appropriate for a less serious film. The end’s supposed to be goofy and fun, which Downey can do, but the movie doesn’t set itself up for that kind of conclusion. (I won’t mention the asinine post-credit “teaser,” which is embarrassing).

The special effects are mostly good. There’s some really bad CG and a few of the flying sequences are boring, but they’re solid. Favreau tends to get way too excited during action scenes and shoot in close-up (for budget reasons?) and it’s hard to tell what’s going on. He lifts some of the action directly from Robocop and Robocop 2, but it looks good and no one’s ever going to accuse Favreau of originality or innovation, so it’s harmless.

There are some major hiccups–the movie is occasionally way too long, like when Paltrow is off in the poorly directed industrial thriller with Bridges, or Ramin Djawadi’s warm to frozen score or Leslie Bibb’s terrible performance. She’s supposed to be playing a Vanity Fair reporter, but she doesn’t even seem suited for Soap Opera Digest. And Favreau’s filling the movie with cameos–including himself–kind of make it seem like Casino Royale, not a real movie.

But for what it is–a timid but reasonably self-aware attempt at a “real” superhero movie–it’s decent, even if Favreau’s lack of a visual tone for the movie is somewhat alarming. Mostly, it’s just really nice Downey will have some career security for a bit.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jon Favreau; written by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway based on the Marvel Comics character created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Don Heck and Jack Kirby; director of photography, Matthew Libatique; edited by Dan Lebental; music by Ramin Djawadi; production designer, J. Michael Riva; produced by Avi Arad and Kevin Feige; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark), Terrence Howard (Jim Rhodes), Jeff Bridges (Obadiah Stane), Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts), Leslie Bibb (Christine Everhart), Shaun Toub (Yinsen), Faran Tahir (Raza), Sayed Badreya (Abu Bakaar) and Clark Gregg (Agent Phil Coulson).


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