Iron Man’s Tony Stark might greet this declaration with a smirk, a wink, and feigned confusion — “what, that’s news?” — but it’s safe to call it official: Robert Downey Jr. is the world’s favorite movie star.
Iron Man 3 became the second biggest opening-weekend earner in American history, with $175 million, and it’s already made $680 million worldwide. Looks like all that traveling paid off; Downey spent weeks before the movie’s release touring the world, greeted by screaming fans in China, Korea, and Germany, among many other countries. They couldn’t get enough of the guy. Luckily, he’s been on the cover of magazines across the world, from GQ and Entertainment Weekly in the States to Empire in the U.K. and even Men’s Health in Russia.
It’s amazing what can happen in five years’ time.
Back in 2007, Marvel took a chance on the talented but famously troubled 42-year-old actor who had struggled for years in the public eye with substance abuse, run-ins with the law, and as many relapses as hit movies. His early career was a triumph — Brat Packer, brief run on SNL, and an Oscar nom for playing Charlie Chaplin — but after years on the downswing, he was starting to get only a smattering of critical acclaim once again.
The small studio was attempting to launch its first real franchise without the help of majors such as Fox and Sony, and the B-level Iron Man — the scientist with the metal suit — was the character chosen. It was risky all around, uncertainty surrounding both actor and vehicle, but the world took a spark to Downey’s natural charisma, and a star was reborn.
The movie, released in 2008, was a runaway hit, taking in $585 million worldwide. Later that year, the success continued: Downey received an Oscar nomination for his scene-stealing meta-actor role in Tropic Thunder.
Things kept on getting better, too, as 2009’s Sherlock Holmes turned Downey into the rare actor to serve as the lead actor in concurrently running box office–winning franchises. Both movies in that quirky detective saga have scored over half a billion dollars.
The big money continued rolling in; 2010 saw the second Iron Man movie suck in $623 million worldwide, and even his non-franchise movie, the Zach Galifianakis-co-starring road comedy Due Date, made over $200 million.
Sure, 2012’s The Avengers was an ensemble movie, and there were some big, legitimate stars alongside Downey; plenty of screen time went to Chris Evans and Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Hiddleston, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, and Jeremy Renner. But neither Thor or Captain America made anywhere close to what either Iron Man film took in, and this past weekend proves that Downey is the center of the Marvel Universe.
The do-no-wrong streak that the now-48-year-old actor has been riding has served as a mirror image to the decline of the onetime champion, Tom Cruise. The 50-year-old megastar’s struggles have been well chronicled, from his personal turmoil — the couch-jumping, the Scientology tell-alls, the divorce — to the monumental box office slump.
Before he scored a modest No. 1 opener with the sci-fi action film Oblivion in April — and $37 million is quite modest for a $120 million film — Cruise had been in a seemingly endless slump. This past winter, Paramount hoped to launch a new book-to-film franchise with Cruise starring as the tough-as-nails detective Jack Reacher, but that fell somewhat flat, with just a $15 million opening in the U.S. and $80 million domestic total; only the international gross of $136 million saved it from failure.
Nothing could save last summer’s stinker Rock of Ages, though, as despite an all-star cast (co-starring Alec Baldwin, Julianne Hough, and Bryan Cranston, among others), it made just $59 million worldwide.
Only Cruise’s long-running franchise Mission Impossible is succeeding, with $694 million for the most recent film, back in December 2011.
Really, it’s not even close. Sure, Downey has been riding some franchises, but they’re franchises that he built himself; Cruise has been unable to do the same. Don’t count him out just yet, as he’s been a star for a whole quarter century. But right now, even Cruise pales in comparison to the Iron Man himself.
The other potential rival to the throne, Johnny Depp, has fared better of late, but not even he can boast Downey’s hot streak. He has teamed with Disney to make the $1 billion-earning films Alice in Wonderland in 2010 and the final Pirates of the Caribbean in 2011, but expected hits like The Tourist with Angelina Jolie, Hunter S. Thompson pic The Rum Diaries, and creepy TV reboot Dark Shadows all fell flat. Perhaps he’ll relaunch his star with this summer’s The Lone Ranger, in which he plays Tonto, but the jury is out on that one.
Where Downey goes from here is the big question; in that GQ interview, he indicated that he was itching to get back to smaller, more independent fare. He’s producing an adaptation of Pinocchio, which is certainly no superhero film (despite the magic, trusty sidekick and interlude inside a whale), and while he looks likely for the Avengers sequel, there may be no more solo Tony Stark adventures, at least with him in the suit.
Try imagining someone else as Iron Man: that violent shock to your system is proof positive that Downey right now is irreplaceable.
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