Special Features – Why Iron Man doesn’t need Robert Downey Jr.

Luke Graham on why Iron Man doesn’t need Robert Downey Jr….

Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man

The last few weeks, nay months, movie magazines and film sites have been awash with punditry over the future of the Iron Man franchise and, more specifically, whether star Robert Downey Jr will continue with the role now that his contract is up.

With Iron Man 3 being, more or less, a critical and commercial success and Downey Jr’s contract still unresolved (while insiders say he’ll appear in The Avengers 2 and The Avengers 3, we don’t know if these will be minor cameos or central roles) I thought I’d put in my two cents, with a purposefully flame-baiting title of course.

And before you jump down to the comments and tell me how totally wrong I am, let me quickly answer my own facetious question:

Yes, the current version of the Iron Man character, as written, needs  Robert Downey Jr and yes, of course the Iron Man franchise needs Downey Jr, but it’s not always going to have him.

And that’s okay.

Because, even if he does receive his rumoured demand for a $100 million pay cheque, at some point Downey Jr isn’t going to want to be play this character any more, or he’s going to get too old to play it, or, worse, he injures himself in one of the many demanding stunts involved in a summer action blockbuster and fans of Iron Man and the Marvel movies need to accept that.

I know it’s hard guys.

I’ve seen a lot of comments on this website and around the internet along the lines of “Marvel needs to keep Robert” and “Marvel needs to give him all the money he wants.” But these comments ignore a deeper truth, and worse, ignore the wishes of the actor himself.

It’s not all about the money.

Robert Downey Jr as Iron ManFor one thing, Downey Jr doesn’t necessarily want to keep playing this part. One reason for this could be the fact that acting is hard.

Actually let’s examine that statement. Actors like to talk up how difficult and challenging their job is, as if it’s as challenging or as demanding as being a doctor or a soldier. Downey even delivered the same joke himself in Tropic Thunder, where he played the super-serious and totally unaware actor Kirk Lazarus.

Acting is not hard. Good acting is difficult. Great acting is hard. It’s demanding, challenging and draining. And while Robert has been delivering some great performances as Iron Man, there is always the possibility that trying to do more and more sequels will produce diminishing results and worse performances. Some might even say he has already been phoning in his performances: Luke Owen felt this way on re-examining The Avengers. Worst case scenario, we get a Johnny Depp/Jack Sparrow situation, where the actor not only phones in their performance, but their performance devolves into a parody of their character. You can make someone perform if you give them enough money, but you can’t make them perform well.

A deeper truth about acting, good, bad or whatever, is that it is emotionally and physically exhausting. Delivering a certain level of intensity in several takes of a single scene, over several scenes, over a few months of filing and acting, is very exhausting. Now imagine playing the same character in five movies over six or seven years, in the incredibly demanding environment of a summer blockbuster, with their complicated action scenes, difficult stunts and strict timetables. Not only is that exceptionally exhausting, but playing the same character can get really boring for a creative, artistic type.

You can throw as much money at that problem as you want, it won’t solve it.

Now, it’s clear that at some point we can’t or won’t have Robert playing as Iron Man. So perhaps the solution is to not have any more Iron Man.

Robert Downey Jr in Iron Man 3

From a narrative perspective, the three Iron Man films, plus The Avengers, have delivered a really great arc for Tony Stark: initially arrogant and selfish, by the end of Iron Man 3 he has reconciled his identity crisis and is a new man, accepting his responsibilities as not only a super hero but as a man. Would we want a fourth or fifth Iron Man film with Downey Jr to spoil that arc? It would be like bringing back Christian Bale as Batman despite the events of The Dark Knight Rises.

But while that might be the ideal situation, it is only idealistic. The character of Iron Man is now Marvel and Disney’s most bankable and valuable property, so more sequels are likely. Plus, the end of Iron Man 3 did state that “Tony Stark will return.”

Now, it might just be me, but that turn of phrase is very similar to one used in the James Bond franchise, another action-adventure franchise known for constantly reinventing itself and recasting its lead actor. And in case you were watching the Iron Man films with your eyes closed, the franchise is heavily indebted to the James Bond films: from its tone to its narrative to the characterisation of the supporting the cast, the Iron Man films have borrowed a great deal from the James Bond aesthetic, especially from Sean Connery/Roger Moore period of those films. Even the closing credits montage of Iron Man 3 invoked a James Bond feel, for me at least.

Perhaps the next logical step is to pull a James Bond and recast the lead.

This could work for several reasons. The most obvious being that getting in a new actor would avoid the problem of stagnation outlined above. Also, a new actor with an original, or simply different, take on the character could introduce a new perspective. I love Downey Jr, but maybe a more serious take on the character might better suit certain storylines, like the classic ‘Demon in a Bottle’ story line from the comics. A more hard-line, sterner Stark would be needed to pull off something like ‘Civil War’. Perhaps a version of Stark that was funnier, without being mean or snarky, might better suit the ensemble Avengers pieces.

Plus, this is more of a personal complaint, but I don’t want to watch another Avengers movie where the characters are over-shadows by the larger-than-life Iron Man character, or the go of the actor behind it. Last year’s movie was in danger at some points of becoming Iron Man 2.5, plus some other guys. Maybe a new actor would rebalance things.

Recasting a character has worked before: it worked for James Bond, obviously, and it’s already been done four times with Batman. And Marvel has already done it before. Replacing Terrence Howard and Edward Norton with Don Cheadle and Mark Ruffalo worked out very well.

Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr in The AvengersOkay, partly they did that because the previous actors were difficult to work with or proved unsatisfactory in the role to some degree, but necessity is the mother of invention. Plus doing it would be the most “comic-booky” thing done in a Marvel comic book movie.

That might need a little more explanation.

I’ve always felt that the Marvel films represent a desire to make authentic comic book films: films that borrow the aesthetic and narrative devices from the comic book sources, to the point that it is almost like watching a comic book. It’s allowed then to ignore the double-edged sword of realism and instead make fun, entertaining films where a guy in a robot suit can fight another guy who breathes fire, without the need for that to make sense or for me to feel bad for enjoying it. That narrative freedom allows the film-makers to focus on crafting interesting and engaging characters. The best expression of that so far has been 2012’s The Avengers, where the interplay and dialogue between the characters was just as, if not more engaging, than the fights and action scenes.

One aesthetic/narrative device characteristic of comic books is that it doesn’t matter who the writer or artist is, to the extent of how the character is portrayed. Through symbolism, such as a character’s design or mannerisms, a character is recognisable regardless of how an artist makes them look or what a writer makes them sound like.

And that’s what I see changing an actor for a superhero film would be like, and how it would it work. It would be akin to changing the artist or writer: not a big deal, but one that brings a new and interesting angle to the character. It doesn’t matter what the actor looks like or how they act: if they are written with recognisable aspects of the character’s archetype, they could inhabit that role. Unlinking a character from the actor that plays them could create a wealth of opportunity for what that character does or what a film featuring them could be like.

The current version of Tony Stark could only really be played by Robert Downey Jr. He’s the only actor I can think of that can bring pathos and charm to a character that, as written, is arrogant, misogynistic and mean. And that’s fine. But the Marvel films should not be limited to one version of that character. A different actor would allow them to try different things, as well as prevent the actor from overshadowing the character they’re playing.

Obviously, if they were to replace Robert, they should keep him on as a producer or even as a writer (some of the best moments and lines of dialogue from all three films have came from his head) in order to maintain a level of charm and humour to the character. Perhaps a change in role, from in front of the camera to behind it, would be good for Downey Jr. The franchise needs Robert Downey Jr.

But it doesn’t necessarily need him to play Iron Man.

Luke Graham is a writer and works in newspaper production. If you enjoyed this review, follow him @LukeWGraham and check out his blog here.