Most people would agree that if any actor were responsible for the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it would have to be Robert Downey Jr. He was only the one at the head of the ship in Iron Man, the movie that kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Yet Downey himself, who has had more than one brush with humility, has downplayed his success in the MCU — the person most directly responsible for the franchise’s world dominance.
Marvel producer Kevin Feige, who took the long view. He very smartly laid the groundwork for characters so that they could interact with each other and create the juggernaut known as The Avengers.
Yet one could also argue that if Downey hadn’t been there in the first place, none of this would have happened. We’ll take a look at how superhero movies and Downey both went through rough patches before they complemented each other perfectly.
Superhero movies only recently consumed the world
As ubiquitous as superhero movies are now, it’s easy to forget that once upon a time, they only came along maybe once a decade. This is how Hollywood thought of superhero movies until the MCU came along.
The 1930s through the 1960s: Superman and Batman are created. Hollywood said, “Wow, you’re crazy. Superhero movies would break our bank and the effects are impossible. That stuff is only for serials and TV.”
The 1970s through the 1980s: Richard Donner’s Superman is released in 1978. Hollywood said: “Wow, that movie made a lot of money! Ah, it’s probably a fluke. We’ll keep going with Supes, but that’s pretty much it.”
The late 1980s through the late 1990s: Tim Burton’s Batman comes out in 1989: “Wow, that movie made a LOT of money too! Keep going with the dark knight, and look into whether we can do anybody else. Are those Marvel guys viable, maybe?
The late 90s through 2008: X-Men and Spider-Man kick-start the genre, and DC revives Batman. Hollywood says. “Wow, the Marvel characters really stepped up to the plate. Let’s ramp it up! Let that Christopher Nolan kid do whatever he wants as long as every other movie is Batman.”
2008 to the present: The MCU starts. Hollywood says: “Wow. Downey really sells it. Maybe these characters can cross: Superhero movies every two months!”
Downey isn’t as confident as Tony Stark – or is he?
It may seem strange to think so now, but when Marvel was casting Iron Man, Downey was far from an easy sell. He had once been the hot “next big thing,” leading up to an Oscar nomination for the film Chaplin before he was 30.
Then came the nightmarish tabloid headlines that kept recurring. By the mid-2000s, the actor was still trying to emerge from the shadow of multiple drug charges that had landed him in prison. Studios conceded the man was talented, but for insurance reasons alone, they were hesitant to take a chance on him.
In a 2016 interview with Howard Stern, Downey said, “Right before Iron Man and the screen test for that, there was part of me saying ‘My worldview has to change if I want to really have a shot.’ If I’m not on my side for this going my way, why should anybody else be?”
Essentially, Downey reasoned, he had to be like Tony Stark – a man who puts on a cocky, confident front but who is massively insecure behind closed doors.
“I haven’t really done it since, but for that one instant, I had to psych myself (that) there nobody else on Earth had a chance … I was just thinking, that was me, and I am in this situation,” he said.
Wrapping up Marvel
Once he got the part, and the movie was a major success, that was when Downey allowed himself to say. “I got to be the front man in a band that was going to make it in the hall of fame no matter what.”
Now Avengers: Endgame is the second most successful movie of all time in the US, after only a month in theaters. Downey may not think he deserves great credit, but others are only too happy to give it to him.
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the MCU would not exist without Robert Downey Jr.,” Feige told the Toronto Sun last year.