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Robert Downey Jr’s brutal Marvel dig at the Baftas wasn’t ungrateful – he’s earned it

Robert Downey Jr accepting the award for Best Supporting Actor at the 2024 Baftas (BBC)
Robert Downey Jr accepting the award for Best Supporting Actor at the 2024 Baftas (BBC)

Talk about biting the hand that feeds. On stage at the Baftas ceremony on Sunday, Robert Downey Jr chose the moment he won Best Supporting Actor to puckishly sink his teeth into the palm of his former employer. The 58-year-old actor was accepting the award for his performance as nefarious politician Lewis Strauss in Oppenheimer but, over the past decade, he’s become best known for playing cocky playboy-turned-superhero Tony Stark in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). In remarks that were presumably pre-planned, he took aim at his Marvel past while giving the audience “the entirety of my life in 30 seconds”. “I played a guy named Tony in the MCU for about 12 years,” he said, matter-of-factly. “Recently, [Oppenheimer director Christopher Nolan] suggested I attempt an understated approach as a last-ditch effort to perhaps resurrect my dwindling credibility.” Was it a jibe? Either way, it’s hard to dispute the sentiment. Once an actor celebrated for his prodigious and innate talent, Downey Jr has been haemorrhaging artistic legitimacy since first putting on the red-and-yellow metal armour in 2008.

Before his career was cratered by the MCU, Downey was one of the industry’s most exciting talents. He came close to an Oscar for the 1993 biopic Chaplin and was nominated again for the 2008 comedy Tropic Thunder. He thrived on the fizzy repartee of neo-noir Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and brought off-beat levity to David Fincher’s dark serial killer drama Zodiac. In recent years, though, this version of Downey Jr seemed to disappear – until Nolan picked up the phone. But with that said... it’s not as simple as Marvel bad, Oppenheimer good.

Several things can be true at once. Like the fact that Marvel films can be formulaic and undeserving of serious critical legitimacy and that Downey Jr’s performance as Stark – charismatic, amusing and (for most of his 10 appearances) genuinely tuned in – has been culturally seismic. It’s true that the franchise suffocated his career, allowing no room for more complex or challenging side projects. (Between 2012 and November 2022, the only non-MCU films he appeared in were the insipid legal drama The Judge, Jon Favreau’s culinary indie Chef, and dismal children’s reboot Dolittle.) But it’s also true that Downey Jr made vast amounts of money from the role (nearly half a billion dollars, if reports are to be believed), and that there was no gun to his head forcing him to persevere with it. You could argue that Marvel had a right to expect more fealty from its talisman. The Bafta speech wasn’t even the first time that Downey Jr has slighted the MCU: in an interview last year, he speculated about his acting muscles having “atrophied” after so long in the Marvel machine. He was, however, only saying what everybody in the room was thinking. If Downey Jr wants to take shots at his former franchise, it might be a tad impolite – but he’s completely within his rights to do it.

When Downey Jr was first cast as Iron Man, it was a gamble on the studio’s part: only a few years previously, the actor had been a Hollywood cautionary tale, beset by legal problems and a devastating drug addiction that had rendered him all but uninsurable. After getting clean and rebuilding his reputation, Downey Jr was still a risky choice for a mainstream, child-friendly blockbuster like Iron Man. It was a gamble that paid off, of course, for all involved. But it’s not like there wasn’t a cost – to Downey’s own creative integrity. The child of radical avant-garde filmmaker Robert Downey Sr (Putney Swope), Downey came from a background of real artistic authenticity; that he would go on to become the face of the commercial mainstream is one of cinema’s great ironies. Of course he’s aware of his diminishing critical reputation. The only surprise is that it took him so long to commit to a project like Oppenheimer.

To some extent, Downey Jr’s comments also testify to the precarious position the formerly monolithic superhero franchise now finds itself in. Just a few years ago, throwing shade at Marvel Studios was a major no-no: when Martin Scorsese infamously likened superhero films to rollercoaster rides, for instance, Marvel fans reacted like the Goodfellas filmmaker had personally spat at Stan Lee’s grandmother. Now, though – encouraged, perhaps, by the declining box office numbers and worsening reviews for recent MCU entries – Downey and others have started taking shots at Marvel with relative abandon.

What’s more, Downey is far from the first serious actor to criticise his own forays into the mainstream. Sir Alec Guinness, for example, was publicly disparaging of his work on Star Wars, describing the iconic sci-fi film as “simple stuff for all ages”, and George Lucas’s dialogue as “pretty ropey”. Robert Pattinson said he would have “mindlessly hated” the Twilight franchise had he not been in it himself.

Robert Downey Jr in ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ (Marvel Studios)
Robert Downey Jr in ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ (Marvel Studios)

To their credit, Downey Jr and Guinness at least delivered the goods on screen, despite any creative reservations – this is not always the case. Madame Web star Dakota Johnson has been the talk of social media in recent weeks, thanks to her palpable, sarcastic indifference to the film she’s promoting and the superhero genre at large. In one of the more damning digs, Johnson referred to the film as being “like if AI had made your boyfriend’s favourite movie” during a hosting gig on Saturday Night Live. It’s easy to see why Johnson might think she’s better than the film – the reviews of Madame Web have been absolutely eviscerating. But while Johnson’s almost laughably disengaged performance may have preserved her own cultural cool, it didn’t help the film. Downey Jr, on the other hand, only ever elevated the Marvel films, regardless of the shoddiness of the project. (Iron Man 2 is probably the franchise’s nadir, through no fault of his.) And this, ultimately, is what he should be judged upon – the work itself.

No matter how many awards are lavished on Oppenheimer, or how loudly Downey Jr disparages his Marvel past, it will always be Iron Man that defines his career. And he’s right – there is scant credibility in this. But it’s better he acknowledges this fact than try to pretend these films are something they’re not. It’s a statement of intent: Downey Jr has already had one miraculous career comeback. Now, it seems, he’s ready to do it again.