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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Tue, May 04, 2010 3:40pm

Enjoy it! I’m hoping to see it this weekend.


Tue, May 04, 2010 3:49pm

I agree, Iron Man should just be called Tony Stark, the movie is great, all of it ,but as I told my friend right after coming out of the theater, I kept suffering when he was not on screen. The same movie with a different actor would have probably been mediocre at best!

Tue, May 04, 2010 3:51pm

They should have called the movie Tony Stark.

Yeah, I thought it was telling that the first posters for Iron Man 2 show Downey in the armor, but without the helmet. The filmmakers know who the audience is coming to see.

And, from the Moviehole article:


“I’m working with Alfonso Cauron on this 3D Space movie about people trying to fix the hubble telescope. It’s been really inspiring talking to Cauron – he lives in London, but he’s originally from Mexico City, and there’s a little bit of a language barrier but he’s a brilliant guy and a thoughtful guy”.

It’s Cuaron, first of all. But more to the point: Downey in a fictionalized version of Hubble 3D? I’m so there.

Der Bruno Stroszek
Der Bruno Stroszek
Tue, May 04, 2010 5:06pm

Downey Jr and Cuaron? And Cuaron’s doing sci-fi again? I might just explode with joy.

Tue, May 04, 2010 6:37pm

I think it was Drew Barrymore who once said that if RDJ was a girl, people would just say that skanky ould whore. If he was a girl he wouldn’t have been given the same chances. A lot of people have been very patient and forgiving towards him. Don’t get me wrong – with his upbringing and past, he’s done an amazing thing and long may his sobriety continue. I’m very pleased to see him back on our screens. Fuck it, I’m Iron Man made me laugh out loud.

Gives me hope for Lindsay Lohan.

Tue, May 04, 2010 6:42pm

Well, I hope Robert is saving his money. The examples you provided of how the mighty have fallen prove how fleeting fame is… and fame is how actors make big bucks.

Tue, May 04, 2010 7:46pm

This absolutely delights me. I’ve been a fan since “Soapdish” and I was sad to see him throw his career down the drain. I’m just glad he got another chance. This seems to be one of those gotta-cheer-for-em moments when incandescent talent just makes itself felt in spite of long odds. I just hope he is able to keep his head on straight through the “super-star” experience.

Tue, May 04, 2010 7:51pm

And check out IMDB: this post is listed on the News Desk on Downey’s page.

As is an upcoming project called “Poe” – if he’s going to play EAP, I am soooo there. That’s “The Raven” trailer I want to see!

Tue, May 04, 2010 8:18pm

OMG. The Grinch live-action was 10 years ago?!?! Where the hell did the 2000s go?!

Tonio Kruger
Tue, May 04, 2010 10:28pm

I think it was Drew Barrymore who once said that if RDJ was a girl, people would just say that skanky ould whore.

And if Ms. Barrymore wasn’t part of a famous acting family, it’s doubtful that she would have got some of the chances she has gotten. Or to put it another way, there are undoubtedly a lot of talented unknowns in the Screen Actors Guild who would kill to have some of the opportunities Ms. Barrymore has had. So let’s have some perspective, please.

Especially since being a man did little to save John Barrymore–one of Drew’s ancestors–from an ignoble end. Indeed, John Barrymore’s fate is proof positive that one doesn’t always bounce back from a life of substance abuse. (Of course, the substance Barrymore abused was alcohol but still…And, of course, said substance was illegal during at least a decade of John Barrymore’s life…)

Der Bruno Stroszek
Der Bruno Stroszek
Wed, May 05, 2010 2:53am

I’d be quite surprised if Drew Barrymore did say that, partly because it doesn’t seem to be her thing to even implicitly criticise other actors, and partly because, of course, she did come back from being her generation’s most famous drug-and-alcohol casualty.

Wed, May 05, 2010 6:28am

Maybe a lot of people had called Barrymore a variety of insulting names while she was off the wagon.

Wed, May 05, 2010 10:27am

I like RDJ a whole lot, but he rarely impresses me as an ACTOR. Most of his roles are simply RDJ playing RDJ in the guise of _____. I thought he was fantastic in Tropic Thunder, though.
Truth be told, I’m rarely interested in ANY movie star. I care far more about the movies themselves and the stories therein than the actors involved.
I would never go see a movie simply because a certain actor is in it. Baffles me that so many people seem to do this.

Thu, May 06, 2010 1:39am

I’ve watched RDJ since the 80’s through good and bad performances. I usually like him when his character is the underdog.

I’m not adjusting too well to this new leading man superhero RDJ. Women swoon? Tony Stark is weird looking to me. He looks like a cheesy character from an Austin Powers movie.

Not to end on a negative Debbie Downer note: I hope he enjoys his new found fame and doesn’t fall off the wagon. We all should get such second chances.

Thu, May 06, 2010 4:46am

^ I think all that bad behaviour shows in his face.

I can’t remember the exact Drew quote but she has a valid point, which is that society judges women who drink, do drugs and sleep around in a different way to men who do the same. Of course, RDJ is extraordinarily charismatic, charming, handsome, vulnerable AND talented which is probably why people have a lot of time for him.

Thu, May 06, 2010 7:30am

I funniest bit of your original review is that he WAS making Iron Man up as he went along. The movie was essentially improv.

I still liked 2 a bunch. But Tony seems more manic. Not quite so effortless.