Will Robert Downey Jr.’s ‘Dolittle’ Be the First Big Flop of 2020?

For more than a decade, Robert Downey Jr. has been one of the biggest movie stars in the world. As Tony Stark/Iron Man in 2008’s Iron Man, he served as the foundation upon which the Marvel Cinematic Universe was built. So when Avengers: Endgame brought an end to his run as the character, fans found it hard to say goodbye to the Avengers star.

From 2008 to 2019, he appeared as Tony Stark in no fewer than 10 films. Downey’s exit leaves a huge hole in the MCU, but it also gives the two-time Oscar-nominated actor the opportunity to pursue other challenges. Unfortunately, Dolittle — Downey’s first post-Marvel gig — isn’t exactly a sure thing.

Robert Downey Jr. speaks onstage
Robert Downey Jr. speaks onstage | Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Rainforest Fund

Robert Downey Jr.’s non-Marvel projects

Before we get to Dolittle, let’s reflect on Downey’s career for a moment. Prior to Iron Man, he delivered memorable performances in films like Chaplin and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. But it was Marvel Studios who gave him the platform to superstardom. And Downey has wisely made his Marvel work a priority, earning millions for his part in building the MCU.

The downside of that devotion, however, is that he has almost exclusively played Tony Stark in the last decade. Since 2010, Downey’s only other lead roles have been the Todd Phillips comedy Due Date, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, and mid-budget family drama The Judge, which he also produced.

Of those three, only the Sherlock Holmes sequel can be considered a runaway hit. On a reported budget of $125 million, A Game of Shadows earned $543 million worldwide in 2011. That total even beat the 2009 original’s $524 million global take. But Dolittle is the first Downey-led blockbuster since then in which he won’t slip into Iron Man’s iconic armor.

‘Dolittle’ has to do a lot to turn a profit

Audiences might still be reeling from Tony Stark’s MCU exit. But the question remains: will they come out to see Downey talk to the animals? Universal — which notably just lost a fortune to digital animals — is positioning the film as family-friendly spectacle.

Yet, today’s kids probably have little to no familiarity with the source material. Dolittle is based on a series of 1920s children’s books by Hugh Lofting. His work has been adapted several times over the years, most famously into an Oscar-winning 1967 musical starring Rex Harrison and a 1998 Eddie Murphy comedy.

With a strong reliance on visual effects, Dolittle also carries a hefty $175 million price tag. Director Stephen Gaghan — better known as the screenwriter behind Traffic and Syriana, the latter of which he also directed — has never handled such a huge project. Plus, there’s that dubious January release date, typically a month where studios dump their lesser releases.

What else does the actor have in the queue?

Of course, perhaps Gaghan and Downey can turn Dolittle into a surprise smash. After all, no one suspected Downey and director Guy Ritchie could successfully dust off the Sherlock Holmes character for modern audiences. Maybe Downey’s Dolittle will lead to a similar big-screen resurgence.

Even if it doesn’t connect with moviegoers, Downey has plenty of other projects on his plate. He, of course, will finally reprise his role for the already-announced Sherlock Holmes 3. According to his IMDB profile, he is also set to appear in sports dramedy All-Star Weekend opposite writer/director Jamie Foxx. Then he has an untitled biopic about con man John Brinkley in the works.

We’re still not sure if Dolittle will live up to Universal’s hopes or Downey’s reputation. But if there’s one thing the actor has taught us time and again, it’s never to count him out. Now and forever, he is Iron Man, but we can’t wait to see what else he has up his sleeve.

Dolittle hits theaters on Jan. 17, 2020.