For over a decade, Robert Downey Jr. played Tony Stark aka Iron Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But just a few months after debuting as the character, Downey took on one of the most controversial roles of his career. He started the summer as a superhero and ended it as “a dude playing a dude disguised as another dude.”
Tropic Thunder exploded into theaters on Aug. 13, 2008. Amid mostly positive reviews, director Ben Stiller’s Hollywood satire courted controversy at every turn. Stiller plays an action hero whose career goes south after he plays a mentally challenged person. At the time, Stiller’s Simple Jack — one of Tropic Thunder‘s several movies-within-the-movie — carried the brunt of the criticism.
In hindsight, Downey’s role could be considered just as problematic. Yet, the actor still defends his work in Tropic Thunder.
Robert Downey Jr. is much more than just Tony Stark/Iron Man
Younger moviegoers would be somewhat justified in thinking of Downey solely as the fast-talking “genius billionaire playboy philanthropist.” After all, he played Iron Man not only in his own trilogy but in four Avengers movies, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Captain America: Civil War, and even a brief cameo in The Incredible Hulk.
Downey’s only been in a handful of non-Marvel films since then, including the disastrous Dolittle. But the actor has been in the spotlight since the mid-1980s. Following roles in films such as Weird Science, The Pick-Up Artist, and Less than Zero, Downey earned his first Oscar nomination for 1992’s Chaplin.
Even amid his personal struggles, the actor delivered several memorable turns, including supporting roles in Home for the Holidays and Wonder Boys. Then, soon before Iron Man, he starred in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang from Shane Black — who would later direct Iron Man 3 — and David Fincher’s Zodiac.
Why he defends his controversial turn in ‘Tropic Thunder’
With his star brighter than ever, Downey followed up Iron Man with the unlikeliest of roles. In Tropic Thunder, he plays an Australian actor who has his pigmentation altered for a Method performance as an African-American soldier. In essence, Downey wears blackface for nearly the film’s entire runtime. However, in a recent interview on The Joe Rogan Experience, he explained why he believes his performance isn’t offensive.
I started thinking, “This is a terrible idea. Wait a minute.” Then I thought … I get to hold up to nature the insane self-involved hypocrisy of artists and what they think they’re allowed to do on occasion, just my opinion. … And 90 percent of my black friends were like, “Dude, that was great.” I can’t disagree with [the other 10 percent], but I know where my heart was. I think that it’s never an excuse to do something that’s out of place and out of its time, but to me, it was putting a blasting cap on [the issue]. … Tropic Thunder is about how wrong [blackface] is. So I take exception.
To Downey’s point, Tropic Thunder never condones the actions or attitude of his Kirk Lazarus character. In the film, the other characters — especially Brandon T. Jackson’s Alpa Chino — constantly call out Lazarus’s behavior. By the end, Tropic Thunder really comments on the insecurity, hypocrisy, and identity crisis that plague people in the entertainment industry.
The risky role nearly earned Robert Downey Jr. an Oscar
Amazingly, not only did Downey’s Tropic Thunder performance not earn the ire of moviegoers or critics. It also accomplished what not even the MCU could: earning the actor an Academy Award nomination. The Oscars are notoriously biased against comedies in general, making the nod even sweeter for Downey.
Ultimately, he lost Best Supporting Actor trophy to Heath Ledger’s iconic performance in The Dark Knight. However, it’s incredible to think such a seemingly politically incorrect movie could have gotten that far. As Rogan and Downey discuss in the clip, Tropic Thunder — despite its clear satire — might not be made now at all, let along receive serious awards recognition.