20 April 2018 6795 Views

The Inimitable Genius of Robert Downey Junior

by James Murphy

Movie Viral Hall of Heroes /Profiles in Power. ROBERT DOWNEY JUNIOR. 

With INFINITY WAR just one WEEK away from release, it is time to sing the praises of the actor at the front and centre of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe.

Dear Readers: sit back, soak up that sunshine and scroll down as I remind you, not that you’d forgotten, of quite how and why, Robert Downey Jr is such a big star, great actor and all round, real/reel world super-hero..

Once upon a time, a long time ago. Ish. Well, Christmas, 1992, I think. A young 12 year old with a precocious (nice precocious, mind; still innocent, respectful, endearing: intellectual, vulnerable, charming..ok enough, sorry..where was I?)..ok starting again. 12 year old me. Lil James. I happened to see a brilliant biopic called CHAPLIN.

I was enthralled. It’s an underrated gem of a film from the late, great, Sir Richard Attenborough. Covers an epic scale of history, via a look at the unique talent, life and love of Charlie Chaplin. Selling points? Romantic recapturing of Cinema-craft in its early guises. Glimpses of music hall / vaudeville; some political provocation and objective glance at complex private lives, without taking sides or preaching. Topped off with a beautifully brooding yet somehow still upbeat embrace of the march of mortality and tentacles of time on all of us, including Charlie. GREAT score from John Barry, inc a riff on the song, ‘Smile’. Watch it. Buy it. Download it. Now!


But what REALLY stood out about CHAPLIN was the genius of its lead, a young Robert Downey Junior. He convinced as the young and the old iterations of the character and indeed was FUNNIER in the recreations of the silent comedy than Chaplin himself.

Downey had been around of course as an actor and I had seen him in everything from Weird Science to SoapDish. I’d heard of LESS THAN ZERO, too. But CHAPLIN was the game changer. This was his raw talent, skill and star power emerging for all to see. Even though I was only 12 (had I mentioned that?). I knew, then: Downey = star and consummate actor and a name to watch.

Thespus. Garrick. Olivier. Brando. Nicholson/Pacino/DeNiro/Duvall. Downey Junior belonged in that pantheon. I just KNEW. And to be fair, i was well informed on my actor-ish stuff. Comes from having been been privileged to see lots of Theatre, c/o a lovely Mom and living in Surrey near the pre West End run Theatre hub of Thorndike, Yvonne Arnaud et al.

So I was sure Downey would win an Oscar that year (despite tough competition from Denzel’s Malcolm X), though it went to Pacino for Scent of a Woman (Al should have won for Godfather 2, years previously, instead but anyway..). So I was wrong about the Oscars. But dammit was I RIGHT about Downey’s longevity and talent.

Fast forward a few years. Late 90s-early to mid 2000s. If you like the kind of guaranteed franchise film fun we enjoy as a given today: it was a wilderness period. Worthy but dull. Therefore: a number of leading men were missing a chance to showcase their talent to the masses, alongside weightier work. Even the most pompous of critics acknowledged that deficit.

One name that KEPT coming up? Yep. You guessed it. Robert Downey Junior! ‘If only he could get a franchise to his name’ etc was a recurring cry in the trade papers. They KNEW he had the charm, talent and work ethic. It was really just about luck and market forces that he had not (then) found a role to propel him to the kind of regularised commercial clout he now enjoys.

It is worth checking out his work from that post CHAPLIN, pre IRON MAN phase. He makes a GREAT villain in a number of movies. To the extent that I do wonder if, once freed from (though hopefully not departing entirely) the Marvel treadmill, Downey may play a few more ‘baddies’. Whether he does so or not? You have a solid back catalogue of him playing proper nasty and convingingly so!


Remember that Tony Stark is, in some senses, a quasi villain turned hero. So if you like that side to Downey onscreen? Check out: Director Neil Jordan’s IN DREAMS (also starring Annette Bening). Also, US MARSHALS (sorta sequel to THE FUGITIVE, with Tommy Lee Jones).

The films might not be distinguished or even very good? Yet Downey stands out, nonetheless in both, and makes them worth a watch, especially when paired with fellow talented actors. He goes really well against Jones’ Sam Gerard; at once embracing and mocking the implied mentor / protégé dynamic and you see that Jones senses a fellow talent in the room. TLJ meets RDJ.

It just ‘works’, whatever the film’s quality. Jones is a notoriously hard to please, tough task-master (cf: with Jim Carrey on the set of BATMAN FOREVER). But you can see there is some spark of mutual affinity and respect between him and Downey in US MARSHALS.


But villainy isn’t for everyone and of course, nobody likes seeing Iron Man play the baddie. For sheer charm and versatility? You can always check out some old episodes of ALLY MCBEAL. Think SEX AND THE CITY. Just without the sex stuff or the lovely Carrie Bradshaw/’SJP’.

Downey basically made the McBeal brand reach its summit, alongside Calista Flockhart. When he left that show? It limped to a finish. Simple as that. Their costly loss. A solid gain for Cinema, though. WONDER BOYS hapens round this time and Downey yet again just lights up that screen. But check him out there in Ally McBeal, all the same. You’ll get some early ‘2000s’ nostalgia.



There’s more, of course, before we get to the IRON MAN glory days. THE SINGING DETECTIVE was, I always felt, a somewhat redundant adaptation of Dennis Potter’s work, given how definitive the British television version had been.


And yet? RDJ just brings something new to it: vulnerable, curious, creative and mostly just in selective twitches / looks. You follow his every gesture as the bridge between the dire reality of the writer and the equally convincing pulp musical fantasy world he inhabits.

A few still slightly ‘arthouse’ / obscure yet still standout roles followed before we get to the great Tony Stark. Certain directors just ‘got’ how to stretch/harness/mobilise the Downey talent in the run-up to Iron man.

Mel Gibson bonded with him big time (makes sense: both are geniuses with a very Irish, Joycean, stream of consciousness articulacy). A lifelong loyalty was forged, from AIR AMERICA (1990) onwards.

Mel truly championed Downey’s talent in the wilderness years. Robert never forgot that. Notice, carefully: all about the work; no faux apologia or chest beating / self flagellating ‘mea culpa’ here.  Two geniuses. Helping each other out at a creative level.

Sadly their mooted version of HAMLET never happened. . But Mel was busy making some little art film about Jesus that did ok business called ‘Passion of the Christ‘. ‘Ascension‘ is on its way soon (Jesus = the original shared universe; superhero franchise; the ‘Avengers’ call themselves ‘Apostles‘).

Just do Richard III instead? RDJ was in the great Ian Mckellen film version back in 1996; could easily take the ‘crown’ and play the title villain himself, on stage/screen, with Mel as director? Braveheart meets Bosworth Field. When an actor is too old for Hamlet yet too young for Lear; Richard is a natural ‘third’ way. And if Mel still too busy to take the helm? Robert: you got this. Direct it ‘yerself. AND star! Just a thought.

Speaking of cool actors turned Directors? George Clooney, with GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK elicited another strong RDJ turn on the road to IRON MAN, whilst retaining a nice ensemble vibe.

It’s political stuff but Clooney, much like Downey, makes a point of provoking questions, without giving didactic or sanctimonious answers. The film is really about freedom to think, discuss, express. Making conclusions is not the job of the actors/directors or even writers. That’s for the audience, if they so choose. That shared vision is all up there, on-screen. In crisp black and white. Atmospheric perfection.

In an alternative dimension: Clooney got a decent script as Batman and faced a Joker played by Downey. Trust me. I’ve been there. It was a great movie. Sadly unavailable in the real world. But great, all the same.

In this universe though? Well Clooney and Downey a great double act and both convince as white collar professionals in a manner many actors would envy. Clooney’s Dr Ross from ER would have a great night out with Tony Stark.

So there you have it: CLOONEY! GIBSON! DOWNEY! All cool, handsome, intellectual. Irish. They’re copying me, obviously. 😉 

Seriously, though. A great actor AND movie star requires a certain conviction. You must BELIEVE them, completely. Be it in a comic book fantasy or a gritty hard hitting grown up biopic. Downey nails that. Everytime. Any genre.

Lots of actors don a pair of specs and stroke their face to look intense / professional. That does not cut it, though, when compared to Downey. You buy him as an eccentric; an academic;investigator, whatever. Even as a man covered in, well, fur? Yep. That little curiosity of a film with lovely Nicole Kidman. FUR. Worth a watch!


Unrelated note: how come nobody has paired Nicole with Gwyneth ‘Pepper Potts’ Paltrow? On film, AND in real life? a lifestyle initiative or something?

Seriously: Nicole does a great ‘paahhhsssttta’ and Gwynnieee can bring Quinoa. Quinoa Pasta. At my house? I have Sienna Miller coming along, too. Just sayin’, like. Anytime 😉

Ok. Ok. That’s ‘just your fantasy, James..but would make an interesting fashion design challenge’ (so said the great Bruce Oldfield, at tea, a few years back). 

Back on topic..ah yes. Robert Downey Junior.

See also David Fincher’s ZODIAC (featuring fellow Marvel alumnus Mark Ruffalo) and Shane Black’s KISS KISS BANG BANG (hilarious pairing of the then soon to be Iron Man Downey with a then previously recently Batman Val Kilmer).


KISS KISS BANG BANG is among Downey’s funniest work. Topped only by his send up of method acting in TROPIC THUNDER. And then right back to hard hitting realism /drama via hints of heart-warming, Capraesque hope (cf: THE SOLOIST; beautiful work there).

But one role brings ALL those talents together. Yep. We got there, eventually, saving best for last..

..And so we end and begin at once with IRON MAN. Ending the retrospective tribute. Beginning a return to my main point. That’s what the Marvel movie brand is to me. A constant new beginning rebirth vibe of life and opportunity. Escapism, but based in a well of fundamental and profound human feeling that could not be more ‘real’.

That magic begins, ends and keeps beginning, again, with Tony Stark. Downey = THE star of the ‘MCU’ (Marvel Cinematic Universe). Yes, it’s an ensemble effort and there is a joy in the ultimate mash-up that is INFINITY WARChrisses Pratt and Hemsworth a delight to see onscreen, especially. Cumberbatch? Well you just want to give him a hug.


But this is Downey’s baby, because but for IRON MAN, there simply is NO ‘MCU’. And frankly, but for Director Jon Favreau’s genius casting of RDJ  as Tony Stark, there would not have been a franchise of such distinction for this particular Marvel comics’ hero.

The IRON MAN series is a delight. Part 1 is a definitive model of the ‘origin’ story done right. One can feel the energy of its career renaissance offscreen permeating the moral of redemption in the movie itself. I stick it on anytime I need a boost. Part 2? Underrated and great fun. The third film is divisive due to its metatextual manipulations of Marvel mythology; but it’s still a blast.

ALL kids LOVE these films (trust me, I was a teacher and a quick Tony Stark impression gets better results, instantly). Business-people, politicians, tech gurus, ethical defence systems manufacturers: one and all ‘get’ the charm of an Iron Man style pitch (trust me: I have worked with all those types, too). Enough about me. Back to RDJ..Oh yes..Iron Man..the glory days!

There is an unbeatable Spencer Tracy/ Katherine Hepburn dynamic between Downey’s Stark and Paltrow’s Pepper Potts in the Iron Man films. In turn, that enhances the first Avengers film. THAT closing image of two people building a new house and life together never fails to both tug at and warm my heartstrings.

No dialogue, just body language. Brilliant. I love that tableau scene. The women I know and love understand my point, I think? If not, I can explain. In detail. Over tea. Yep. Ok, back on topic. Again..

..Other MCU movies come and go but even they at their best try and work in a Stark reference just to keep us all happy. Use him as much and as well as possible and the films simply do better. SPIDER MAN: HOMECOMING, a case in point: Stark as mentor to Spidey; (oh and thanks for bringing back Pepper!).

So, whatever happens in INFINITY WAR (do NOT kill Tony or Pepper; I am still in mourning for Han Solo as it is 😉), we know that it is every bit as much the Tony Stark /Robert Downey Junior show as it as a super-hero ensemble piece.

Moving forwards? Downey is committed to a version of DOCTOR DOLITTLE, currently shooting. Let’s hope he keeps the period costume look from that because we want SHERLOCK HOLMES 3, asap! Guy Ritchie needs a post King Arthur hit and Downey’s Holmes is just as much fun and has every bit as much charming longevity as his Tony Stark. Guy(s): if you’re stuck, I’ll write it in a coffee break 😉

Other, more challenging parts cannot be ruled out. THE JUDGE showed how versatile RDJ can be, yet again. The scenes with Robert Duvall and Vera Farmiga were touching and raw, proper ‘grown up’ stuff. Bravo!

And I suspect he will stick with Marvel indefinitely; albeit in reduced cameo roles??

IRON MAN 4 might follow in time; same way Harrison Ford sometimes returns to old beloved parts to cheer us all up. And then there is the mooted PERRY MASON film/ television revival. Downey bought the rights, I think? ‘Sounds a bit random but maybe there is some commercial model behind it? Both he and his beloved wife, the Producer, Susan Downey are shrewd enough. Maybe it’s a new shared universe? Downey’s Perry Mason. With Mark Ruffalo as Columbo? Stranger things have happened.

You can be sure of one thing though. Whatever Robert Downey Junior does, it will be great. And backed up by his innate talent, solid (but honest and unpretentious) work ethic and an empire of good-will; helping assorted charitable causes along the way.

All packaged in that indefinable measure of old school movie star charm. 

RDJ:   Legend. Transcendent Talent. Survivor. Inspiration. A true ‘marvel’.

Long may he Reign! 


AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR is released next week (APRIL 27TH). It will be great.  James Murphy cannot wait to see it and give a glowing review.

Most movies referred to in this piece should be available on DVD/ Blu-Ray/for digital download (keep it legal though; NO piracy!).








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