The Triumphant Comeback of Robert Downey Jr.

As many people are aware, Robert Downey Jr. has had a tumultuous life and career. Despite garnering a significant amount of celebrity in his younger years, a variety of drug use related incidents occurred during that time. Interestingly enough, those incidents have now shaped and created the star image that Downey portrays today. In a world where society watches their every move, celebrities must always be vigilant about the way they act and what star image they project. Robert Downey Jr. is an excellent example of how hard work and perseverance can truly turn someone’s life and star image around as long as they are willing to take another chance.

Downey’s drug problems started at a young age “when his dad, a director of underground films, introduced him to pot before the age of nine.”[1] As time wore on, his heavy use of drugs began to affect his career during the late 1980s to the early 2000s. It seemed as though he could no longer keep up with the demands of Hollywood. Instead, he was more preoccupied with finding his next high. Although he had been quickly making a name for himself around Hollywood, that all changed dramatically by the late 1990s. Unfortunately, during this time, “Downey was less famous for his acting than for his glassy-eyed mug shots, splashed over the tabloids after some misdemeanor involving drugs or guns or both.”1 Social media was obviously not present during this time, but gossip magazines, newspapers, and tabloids were the most prominent source of information on celebrities. This kind of negative publicity really did a number on his star image and personal life. Downey’s actions, as well as the ever-present tabloid stories, created a poor reputation for him, which eventually led to studios and filmmakers wanting nothing to do with him. His consistent drug abuse ultimately landed him in prison but, according to Downey, it was possibly the best thing that could have happened to him. His time in prison “not only [afforded] him a helpful glimpse of his professional mortality, it put him in touch with the bedrock truth, aged him like leather, lending his work, which has always been prized, a new depth.”[2] So, even with all the hardships he went through in his career and life, his biggest failures were directly responsible for his biggest successes and that is the basis of this examination of his current star image and career.

For most of the early 2000s, Downey was not very active in the world of Hollywood film and television. He was in and out of jail and rehabilitation centers and could not seem to find his footing. But, it wasn’t until 2008 that his career moved towards a more positive and exciting chapter. His first major role after returning to the spotlight was in Marvel’s Iron Man, where he was cast as the billionaire playboy, Tony Stark. The role did not come easy, to say the least. The production company was hesitant “because here was a big movie, with so much riding on it—the first solo feature from Marvel Studios, which would build a roster around lesser-known superheroes—and here was an actor with a troubled history.”2 But, once Downey did a screen test for the role, everyone knew that they had finally found their Iron Man.

Many people who are familiar with Robert Downey Jr. and Tony Stark are aware of the fact that Stark tends to mirror Downey and vice versa. To most, they seem to be almost the same person. Before Downey was given the role of a lifetime, “he already owned the Stark character, a hard-drinking, out-of-control outsider whose swagger camouflages a lifetime of regret and superficial living.”[3] So, for him, the role was not a stretch by any means. Stark’s history from the comics is so closely related to Downey’s early life and career mainly because both of them were “led, by [their] arrogance, down the wrong path.”2 The way in which he portrays not only himself, but also Stark, is extremely likeable and charismatic, though. Downey has the ability to draw people in and make them feel like they know him. As well, there are several lines from the film that seem to have a double meaning, as in it describes Stark and Downey. For example, at the very end of the movie, when Stark is attending a press conference regarding the recent events he’s been involved in, he initially tries to deny the rumors floating around. He even says “I’m just not the hero type. Clearly. With this laundry list of character defects, all the mistakes I’ve made, largely public.”[4] It’s clear that this line is describing the character and the actor. Downey’s mistakes have been publicized since the very beginning and it’s almost like this quote was added to reference the studio’s initial reluctance in hiring Downey for such an important role, due to his previous “character defects” and “public mistakes.” Although there are a lot of similarities between the two, he’s honest about his past and his issues, in a way that Stark isn’t (for the most part). But their personas are very similar and “familiar: debonair, insouciant, and lovably arrogant, in a faintly bemused kind of way.”4 Despite the prominent, albeit charming, arrogance, Downey’s performance as Tony Stark/Iron Man has skyrocketed his career and it doesn’t seem like it’s stopping anytime soon. The significant amount of positive publicity that’s surrounded Downey since he landed the role of Stark has improved his star image greatly. Pair this with his exciting and cool demeanor and you get an extremely likeable actor who cannot wait to share his films and characters with the world.

Downey’s next leading role in 2008 came in the form of a film a bit unorthodox but ultimately led to the second Oscar nomination of his career. This film was Tropic Thunder, which also starred Ben Stiller and Jack Black. While this film is significantly different from other things he’s done, “according to Downey, the role [in Tropic Thunder] was the ‘cathartic experience of my creative life […].’”3 Downey was cast as the “dude playing a dude, disguised as another dude,”[5] otherwise known as Kirk Lazarus. Lazarus, an Australian who undergoes surgery to artificially dye his skin black, is described as a confused method actor. He believes that he has to change how he looks so he can continue to get roles and portray them at their best. The character is, “in essence, a parody of Robert Downey Jr. himself. He’s an incredibly talented Hollywood actor and a man with a troubled past.”[6] While there isn’t a large selection of quotes from Lazarus that could describe Downey, there is one that stands out. When he talks about a previous role, he mentions that he was found “in an alley in Burbank trying to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere in an old refrigerator box.”5 This seems like something a drug-addled person might do and is probably in relation to Downey’s own history with drugs. Downey is the type of actor who consistently uses method acting for his films, which is evident in Chaplin (1992), Iron Man (and all of the sequels), Tropic Thunder, and Due Date (2010). He’s a very dedicated person who feels as though assuming the role of the character is the best way to make a film great. Although Tropic Thunder may not be as popular in comparison to his other films at this time, it truly was a great stepping-stone for him in the path of a career comeback. It gave him a chance to put his name out there, along with Iron Man, to show the world that he wasn’t done yet.

The next film on the Downey Jr. blockbuster line-up is Sherlock Holmes (2009), directed by Guy Ritchie. Downey, of course, plays the title character, alongside fellow actors Jude Law and Rachel McAdams. In a way, Holmes seems to be similar to not only Downey, but also Tony Stark. Holmes has even been described as “Tony Stark with an English accent.”1 Downey was a great fit for this role, mostly because he “[was] well known for his ‘Robertisms’–those moments of razor sharp wit and lightening-like improvs”[7] that are eerily similar to those of the classic Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is an iconic character that has been portrayed by many different names, but Downey’s portrayal seems to be a bit more unique. Holmes’ unmatchable intelligence is obviously shown in this film, but Downey, unlike other actors, seems to be able to channel the grittier parts of the character much easier. This is mostly due to his own history of drug abuse, prison time, and especially his witty and dark sense of humor. It’s plain to see that “character and actor share certain traits. Like Holmes with his cocaine habit, Mr. Downey has been buffeted by many internal vicissitudes, including a long spell of drug addiction.”[8] Although, unlike Holmes, Downey has found ways to get himself clean, by using a regimen of therapy, nutrition and fitness, as well as the learning the Chinese martial art of wing chun.8

Just like the previous two films analyzed, there are lines in Sherlock Holmes that seem to closely relate to Downey’s own life. When Holmes is without a case for a while, he gets a bit of cabin fever. John Watson, his close friend and partner, does his best to get Holmes out of his rut. When Watson refers to Holmes’ lack of cases, Holmes desperately says “my mind rebels at stagnation! Give me problems! Give me work! The sooner the better.”[9] In a way, one could presume that this is how Downey felt when he was just starting his comeback in 2008. Though Holmes seems like an exaggerated version of Downey, it definitely appears that Downey pulled aspects of his own life into portraying the iconic character. He, like Holmes, “has a mind so active it seems to run ahead of itself. He craves constant stimuli, partly for his own intellectual nourishment and partly, you suspect, to keep his demons at bay. His conversation flits from topic to topic in a manner that suggests he pursues his work as intensely, and intently, as Holmes pursues his.”8 It’s difficult to know for sure how someone truly is, but Downey seems to be the type of person who prefers to share his life—to an extent—in hopes that he can make other people smile, laugh, cry, and more. He’s someone who likes to do things to their fullest and create memorable characters not only for his audience, but for himself. By portraying such brilliant roles like Tony Stark, Kirk Lazarus, and Sherlock Holmes, Downey is able to show us the actor he was always meant to be—with a little detour thrown in for good measure. Although he’s done so much already, it’s hard to believe that he’s anywhere near stopping.

For such a popular and dynamic actor, Downey spends a significant amount of time on social media. While he uses Twitter and Instagram, his Facebook is consistently more active. Referring back to his charming arrogance, Downey’s biography section on Twitter simply reads “You know who I am.”[10] And he’s right. The odds of someone being unfamiliar with him are slim. He’s been able to make a huge name for himself despite his earlier shortcomings and only perpetuates it with his social media posts. Facebook is obviously his account of choice and most of his posts consist of fan-made art related to his characters (and other Marvel superheros), as well as personal videos, trailers for other Marvel movies, several “Robertisms,” and plenty of jokes to go around. Publicity is a very important aspect of a celebrity’s star image. Richard Dyer, a film studies academic, states that “the importance of publicity is that, in its apparent or actual escape from the image that Hollywood is trying to promote, it seems more ‘authentic.’”[11] In our world today, it seems that social media is one of the biggest platforms for publicity. It allows fans to feel as if they are closer to their favorite celebrities and creates a sense of authenticity that we otherwise wouldn’t get from Hollywood. Thankfully for Downey, he knows how to work social media and his own publicity in his favor—not that he needs much help at this point, though.

Robert Downey Jr.’s cultural significance is a bit of a difficult subject. He represents the A-list stars of Hollywood—in 2015, he was the world’s highest paid actor for the third consecutive year[12]—but still feels accessible and real, in comparison to other stars. Out of anything, he shows struggling people in any field, but especially in entertainment, that sometimes second chances do come along and if they do the right thing with them, they can be successful. But not only that, he’s changed the course of Hollywood film. Of course, there are plenty of other actors who have gone through similar hardships—drugs seem to run rampant in the business—but he’s shown the most well rounded comeback in a very long time. And because of that, he’s revived the superhero genre. Downey is so directly involved with many Marvel related events and films that he’s been partly responsible for it’s popularity. People were originally drawn to the idea of superhero movies because of him and he’s been instrumental in how his character has been portrayed. Social media is so important in Hollywood now and Downey is great at perpetuating his characters in that way. For many people, Downey has become the face of Marvel and when the day comes that he’s no longer Iron Man, it’ll be sad day in Hollywood.

Robert Downey Jr. is a unique individual who truly deserves all of the good fortune he’s been receiving. He’s aware of the mistakes he made when he was younger but has turned himself into an admirable, wonderful person who just wants to entertain people. He is someone who has become special to many people and it’s plain to see why. What is also important to realize is that in “the movies he’s made since regaining his freedom, […] the best of them play as retellings of his own story: death and rebirth, a journey through a nighttime world, redemption.”2 With such a dynamic persona, it’s safe to say that Downey will continue to amuse, touch, and inspire people for years to come.


[1] Chotiner, Isaac. “The Robert Downey Jr. Rehab Program.” New Republic 244, no. 7 (May 13, 2013): 5-6. Business Source Elite, EBSCOhost. Accessed November 23, 2016.

[2] Cohen, Rich. “Robert Downey Jr.’s Epic Saga: Addiction, Family Life, and The Judge.” HWD (Hollywood). September 23, 2014. Accessed November 23, 2016.

[3] Rodrick, Stephen. “Robert Downey Jr.’s Cosmic Punishment.” Men’s Journal. October 17, 2012. Accessed December 05, 2016.

[4] Iron Man. Directed by Jon Favreau. Produced by Avi Arad and Kevin Feige. By Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum, and Matthew Holloway. Performed by Robert Downey Jr, Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges, and Gwyneth Paltrow. United States: Marvel Studios / Paramount Pictures, 2008. DVD.

[5] Tropic Thunder. Directed by Ben Stiller. Produced by Ben Stiller, Stuart Cornfeld, and Eric McLeod. Screenplay by Ben Stiller, Justin Theroux, and Etan Cohen. Performed by Robert Downey Jr, Ben Stiller, and Jack Black. United States: DreamWorks Pictures / Paramount Pictures / Universal Pictures, 2008. DVD.

[6] Tyler, Josh. “Editorial: Robert Downey Jr. Deserves An Oscar For Tropic Thunder.” CINEMABLEND. 2008. Accessed December 07, 2016.

[7] Stewart, Anna. “Robert Downey Jr.” Daily Variety, October 29, 2008, A15. General OneFile. Accessed November 23, 2016.

[8] Lyall, Sarah. “Is That You, Sherlock?” The New York Times. January 21, 2009. Accessed December 05, 2016.

[9] Sherlock Holmes. Directed by Guy Ritchie. Produced by Susan Downey, Joel Silver, Lionel Wigram, and Dan Lin. Screenplay by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, and Simon Winberg. Performed by Robert Downey Jr, Jude Law, and Rachel McAdams. United States: Warner Bros. Pictures, 2009. DVD.

[10] Downey Jr., Robert, Accessed December 08, 2016.

[11] Dyer, Richard. “Stars as Specific Images.” In Stars, 60-62. British Film Institute, 1979.

[12] Khatchatourian, Maane. “Robert Downey Jr. Is the World’s Highest Paid Actor.” Variety. August 05, 2015. Accessed December 08, 2016.