Will Robert Downey Jr.’s Film Career Flop Now That He’s Done With the MCU?

Last weekend Robert Downey Jr. did something every actor does once in a while, but that he hadn’t done in quite awhile — he starred in a movie that flopped hard. Indeed, Dolittle flopped so hard that people are questioning whether he has any box office clout if he’s not Iron Man

To be fair, the star system that has ruled Hollywood for many decades seems to be on its way out. Whereas stars like Tom Cruise, Arnold Schwarzenegger or Julia Roberts used to be able to sell movies based on their names alone, in recent years that has proven not to be the case.

The Intellectual Properties — the MCU, Harry Potter, Fast &  Furious, etc — are the selling points, not the people in them.

‘Dolittle’ was in trouble long before it opened

Robert Downey Jr on the red carpet
Robert Downey Jr. | Tibrina Hobson/FilmMagic

Production troubles aplenty dogged Dolittle for months, resulting in a reported $175 million budget. That kind of cost is all well and good if you’re Disney and Marvel, but that budget is so enormous that only a gargantuan hit would have made money for Universal. They got the opposite. 

Stephen Gaghan co-wrote and directed the movie, and he seemed an odd choice for a family film given that his previous credits included the gritty dramas Traffic and Syriana.

For a variety of reasons, production of the movie spiraled out of control, necessitating extensive reshoots and release date shuffles. When the movie finally landed in January, that was a bad sign itself, because January is known as a dumping ground for misbegotten movies studios don’t know how to handle. 

Ironically, this was history repeating itself. A 1967 musical version of the movie, called Doctor Dolittle, ran into comical problems even before the cameras rolled.

That movie lost a ton of money for its studio, 20th Century Fox, and in a weird quirk of fate, the day Dolittle opened was also the day Disney announced it would drop the Fox name and just call that division 20th Century. Dolittle just couldn’t catch a break. 

Why did ‘Dolittle’ bomb?

When Dolittle opened, it managed to gross $29 million in its opening weekend, guaranteeing that this story would once again lose a lot of money for its studio. Universal seemingly crossed its fingers and hoped Downey would stem the bleeding somewhat, but this movie is awash in red ink. 

This is not to suggest that it was Downey’s fault that Dolittle stiffed. However, not a few people have questioned his judgment in choosing this as his first post-Marvel project. While Downey has arguably the highest pedigree among any of the main Marvel stars, that doesn’t mean his name is a draw all by itself. 

Forbes box office analyst Scott Mendelson wrote in his post-mortem of the movie, “There’s a lot that went wrong with Dolittle, but chief among them was spending MCU money (and giving Downey Jr. an MCU paycheck) for playing anyone other than Iron Man.”

Does this mean Robert Downey Jr. retreats to Marvel now?

Dolittle laid such a giant egg that some people are wondering if it will inadvertently hatch Downey’s return to the seemingly bulletproof MCU. It will strain credibility if it does, since Tony Stark is dead.

No, that’s not stopping Scarlett Johansson and Black Widow, (for which Downey is rumored to make an appearance),  but a full-fledged return would cheapen Tony’s emotional farewell. It would only strengthen the notion already running through the Marvel movies that death is meaningless and there are no real stakes. 

Downey will bounce back from Dolittle’s failure, Marvel or no Marvel. He bounced back from drug addiction and a prison sentence in real life. He can handle a flop. He’s lucky that one of his upcoming movies is Sherlock Holmes 3. Downey just needs to make sure the next time he tries to talk to the animals, they turn out not to be turkeys.