Robert Downey Jr.: biggest movie star on the planet — who’da thunk it?

If anyone had asked you, a decade ago, to predict who would be the biggest star of 2010, you might have said Jim Carrey. Or Tom Hanks. Or Tom Cruise. They headlined the biggest movies of 2000, after all (respectively, Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas — yes, that was the biggest movie of 2000 — Cast Away and Mission: Impossible 2.) Today, though, Carrey can’t even get his arthouse gay prison movie released (that would be I Love You Phillip Morris… though you can preorder the Region 2 DVD already). Hanks is producing historical war epics for cable TV (that would be The Pacific). And Cruise’s new attempt at clawing his way back to superstardom is looking pretty desperate (that would be Knight and Day).

You probably wouldn’t have guessed that Robert Downey Jr. would be the biggest movie star on Earth in 2010. When he was on the radar at all in 2000, it was, sadly, for landing in rehab — or prison. But he clawed his way back the hard way, paying his dues with a stint on TV (Ally McBeal) and in small films that let him be his own deadpan, snarky self (Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, A Scanner Darkly, Charlie Bartlett).
And then came a little movie called Iron Man. In 2008, it earned $585 million worldwide and, in an uncommon confluence of audience and critical love, garnered glowing reviews. Why? It wasn’t the guaranteed global popularity of comic book action movies that made the film a hit with all audiences: it was Downey. As I said at the time:

The funny stuff? It’s all Downey and the easygoing, reflexive snark that is his trademark. Which isn’t to say that he’s not a vital part of the whole self-respecting sincerity of Iron Man: his snark is, as it always is, his way of armoring a character with deep and intriguing flaws against having to acknowledge those flaws. … Downey exudes a sense of effortlessness, as if he were just making it all up as he goes.

Downey was so much the reason that Iron Man worked as well as it did that the film felt like it was just waiting for him to return whenever he wasn’t onscreen… and that includes the scenes in which Downey disappears into the Iron Man armor. They should have called the movie Tony Stark.

And now Iron Man 2 is upon us. The film has already opened overseas: it’s earned more than $100 million in five days, including $12.2 million in the U.K. alone this past weekend, far better than the debut of the first film. (The sterling figures haven’t been released yet, but I’ll update that figure as soon as they are. UPDATE: £7.7 million.) And we won’t be able to escape Downey at the multiplex — as if we’d want to — in coming months: he’s got a slew of projects coming down the line, including a Sherlock Holmes sequel.

And that’s before we get to The Avengers and Iron Man 3

I’m off to see Iron Man 2 tonight. I can’t wait. Oh, I don’t really care much about the battles or the FX or any of that, even though that’s usually the kind of stuff I love just fine. I just can’t wait to see Robert Downey Jr. in action again.

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