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Robert Downey Jr. Is Experiencing Another Career Resurgence

By Allyson Johnson | Celebrity | July 18, 2023 |

By Allyson Johnson | Celebrity | July 18, 2023 |


Robert Downey Jr. has been acting since he was a child. His father, Robert Downey Sr., was a fringe, DIY director, and his son and then-wife often acted in his films, from Pound (1970) to Greaser’s Palace (1972). Downey Jr.’s career has been long and tumultuous, marked by incredible lows followed by subsequent, incredible highs. His struggle with addiction and the ensuing fallout, which included jail time and being essentially blacklisted by Hollywood and deemed uninsurable by studios, became part of what made his mega success and casting in Iron Man such a Cinderella story. There was a real, certified comeback, and it was for a role he couldn’t have been better suited for. While we might critique the MCU these days, there’s no denying the star power that Downey brought to Tony Stark. This was his career renaissance after a very public meltdown.

However, with that revitalization of his career came a lack of creative output. The first Iron Man marked the start of what would be over a decade of mostly Marvel films in which he played the same character. While he was always a major highlight (his performance single-handedly makes Tony an empathetic character in Captain America: Civil War), it never felt as if he was realizing his full potential. Other roles in films such as The Judge and Due Date failed to capture the same charisma, while Sherlock Holmes allowed his and Jude Law’s chemistry to soar but still never permitted him to fully stretch his acting muscles. While he earned an Oscar nomination for his comedic work in Tropic Thunder — notable considering how infrequently The Academy awards comedies — it’s divisive at best and offensive at worst. The less said about Dolittle, the better.

It’s been five years since Downey last acted on screen, and because of the hit-or-miss work he’s done for the past 15 years, it’s easy to forget why his presence has been sorely missed. Before he snagged the Iron Man role, he was going through a quieter career resurgence in the early to mid-2000s, although the earlier years of that era were marred by his addiction.

He kicked off the decade with the terrific Wonder Boys (2000), playing a supporting role alongside Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, and Frances McDormand as a sexually ambiguous literary agent. He was slinky and smarmy yet played beautifully off Douglas. These slightly troubled or morally gray characters would continue to pop up as Downey found an affinity for playing weasels. This is best represented in Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) as Harry Lockhart, a would-be thief who finds himself mistaken for an actor and descends further into L.A.’s underbelly as he works with a private investigator. He’s the antithesis of an action hero.

Working with auteurs agreed with him, with films like A Scanner Darkly (2006) by Richard Linklater and Zodiac (2007) by David Fincher showcasing his lasting appeal, even in smaller roles. In both, he’s firmly in the supporting actor category. Yet in the latter, when his character disappears from the film, you miss his presence immensely. Again, both characters play with the intricacies of the human condition, an element he excels at, which is why when he tries to play more cleanly virtuous characters, such as his character in The Judge, they don’t land as well. Similarly, he’s egregiously off-putting when playing broad jerks, making Due Date an exhausting watch, in part due to this.

But it’s not just the 2000s that awarded him fascinating roles. This is part of why his career slump (in terms of choosing quality roles — clearly his wallet isn’t hurting) is so endlessly frustrating. He starred in the middling Less Than Zero in the ’80s, a role that would oddly mirror some of his later struggles with addiction, and his performance is raw and the film undeserving of it. He played Charlie Chaplin in a toothless biopic and received a deserved Oscar nomination for it in the ’90s, following it up with interesting parts in films such as Hearts and Souls, Only You, and Home for the Holidays.

All of this is what makes his upcoming performance in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer so exciting. With it, and his upcoming project in another supporting role in The Sympathizer (co-created by Park Chan-wook), he’s demonstrated a reinvigorated eye for quality work. And, by focusing on supporting work, it hopefully means that he’s more interested in interesting characters and acting opportunities rather than trying to further capitalize on his stardom.

Downey has always been a star, but his Tony Stark worked so well because of his innate humanism and vulnerability, a forgotten aspect in some of his lesser work. The best Downey performances are the ones where he allows chips in the armor, rather than focusing too steadfastly on the need to present a leading man worth billions. It’s early to tell, but hopefully, Oppenheimer and The Sympathizer are signifiers that the actor is returning to the type of acting that made him such an engaging presence in the first place.