There is nobody more associated with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) than its first leading man, Robert Downey Jr. Downey took the risk of starring in a comic book movie when comic book movies were not a sure thing.
After a sterling start to his career with films like 1992’s “Chaplin” and 1993’s “Heart and Souls,” Downey fell into a pit of personal problems that made him a risky hire. That’s when Marvel came calling.
“I needed a job. Bad,” he says. “I really believed in (director Jon) Favreau and (Marvel Studios chief Kevin) Feige. I believed in Marvel Comics and it was a time when, even from my perspective, we were doing counter-programming for the DC movies and they were supposed to be the cool ones. It’s always weird when you’re part of anything mildly historical because you lose perspective on it. It has been amazing to just get caught up in it. The two things I thought they did really well were the casting of the actors and the directors.”
Downey’s Tony Stark became the face of this Marvel movie revolution. He has played Iron Man in eight films leading up to “Avengers: Infinity War.” His smart and sharp portrayal of Stark came to become a kind of Downey shorthand, representing his charisma, intelligence and artistic qualities. Downey has bounced back completely. He is, by far, the biggest name among the big names in “Infinity War.”
His fellow actors laud how Downey shared so much with them on set. “He’s been a great leading man,” says Benedict Cumberbatch. “He’s been so generous sharing all the things that comes with his status. It’s pure generosity just to build that collegiality.”
There is talk that Downey’s time with Marvel may be coming to an end. Director Joe Russo says he doesn’t know anything about it but pooh-poohs any talk of recasting Downey’s iconic role. “I don’t think there’s anyone who can take over Iron Man from Robert. I don’t know if the audience would accept it,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anyone who can be Tony Stark like Robert can be,” executive producer Trinh Tran adds. Indeed, no one can fill that armor like Downey.
But Russo looks at Downey’s future in the MCU with a meaningful perspective: “For anything to have value, it has to come to an end. You can’t play a character forever. I’m sure there’s a lot of other things he wants to do with his career. He loves playing the character. We’ll see.”
The 53-year-old Downey himself can see the parallel others observe between Stark’s growth and his own. “Sometimes you just try and follow that golden thread of where all of these projects and creatives are coming together and see the giant ball of string where all this comes together,” he says. “As one of the first people on the field, part of my job was to adjust and say, that’s where this should go and this is how it corresponds to my arc. At the start of this I was in my 40s, I’m now in my 50s and so even if you just look being “young” and then looking at middle age, your values tend to change, and Tony’s like that, I hope.”
Thus Robert Downey Jr. approaches the biggest Marvel movie of all as the progenitor of the very first Marvel movie. Iron Man has a lot of company now. He looks at what he’s doing and is impressed, with or without repulsor rays. He understands what “Infinity War” means to everyone and what went into it. “We might be making the movies, but we’re also fans and critics of our own work,” he says. “We’re always trying to make it better, but I think this time, we might have nailed it.”