It is very clear that Robert Downey Jr. (RDJ) is Tony Stark. He owns that character and that persona in a way that I don’t think anyone will be able to top. It would be stupid of me to say that there will never be an Iron Man reboot – because I know that there will be, but I think it will be virtually impossible to fill these shoes. It has made me ask the question, is this the best comic hero portrayal ever?
Most of what I know about Tony Stark comes from reading Iron Man and the Avengers as a kid. And I always imagined him to be a pompous, privileged but heroic character willing to sacrifice it all for the greater good. Put simply, he is a guy that would always be there when it mattered most. He was probably the most “interesting” character in the Avengers comics (though Captain America was pretty interesting too). So when Robert Downey Jr. was cast for the part, I knew it was going to be good. Iron Man 1 was better than I imagined. His performance was incredible from start to finish and that last line, “I am Iron Man,” was a hall of fame moment.
Comic hero casting seems like a difficult form of casting. There are established characters with specific audience expectations and at best, it is hit and miss – and more often than not it misses. Christian Bale redeemed the entire Batman franchise, which had strayed into complete disaster. Christopher Reeves remains an American icon as Superman, and Henry Cavill has done a good job at creating a new Superman persona after the failure of Brandon Routh. Toby Maguire was a terrible Spider-man, and Andrew Garfield is better but still leaves a lot to be desired as Peter Parker. Chris Evans captures the “goodness” of Steve Rodgers, but really doesn’t help us see the inner struggle of a man caught in the wrong time – which defined Rodgers in the comics. I think a young Ed Harris (think Right Stuff) would have been awesome as Captain America. I actually think both Eric Bana and Edward Norton brought something interesting to Bruce Banner. Some of the X-Men are spot on, like Kelsey Grammer as Beast, and some leave you scratching your head like James Marsden as Cyclops. Let’s not even talk about Ryan Reynolds as Hal Jordan / Green Lantern.
The top 3 performances IMHO, which I think most people will agree with are: Christopher Reeves Superman, Christian Bale’s Batman and RDJ’s Iron Man. Each one of these guys understood what the hero was all about, what their inner struggles were and brought that all to the screen. In the case of Bale, I think there are similarities to Bruce Wayne, but I do think he had to work very hard to bring out some of the fear and self-doubt. Reeves made us feel like he was truly “super” – and managed to make Clark Kent feel anything but. I don’t know if Reeves helped us see what it was like to be an alien, but his performance defined what a comic book hero brought to the big screen is all about.
It’s hard to argue who is the best, but I believe RDJ is. It is almost unfair because I think that RDJ and Tony Stark have so many similar qualities, it was such a natural fit. Once he was asked, “What do you do to prepare to play a role.” And he replied, “get up and eat an omelet.” It definitely seemed that natural watching him as Stark. Iron Man as a comic was no where near as popular as Spider-man, and yet it has done just as well, if not better, than Spider-man in the box office – and I think that’s because they nailed the casting with Robert Downey Jr.
To be clear, I don’t believe that Iron Man is the best comic franchise. I believe that that Christopher Nolan’s re-imagined Batman is the best franchise, and I believe that The Dark Knight is the best comic movie ever made. But I do think that RDJ is the best comic hero performance because he did the best job of bringing that specific character to the big screen.
Everybody always touts his performance as Charlie Chaplin, or as Sherlock Holmes or Kirk Lazarus (Tropic Thunder), but what about his role as Ian in Weird Science? What about as the nerdy backup QB Leo in Johnny Be Good? Has everyone forgotten Derek Lutz, the slacker roommate in Back to School? That’s the RDJ I know. All of those arrogant yet nerdy guys, with their angst filled irreverence and biting sarcasm, laid the groundwork for Tony Stark, the wealthy and grown up version of those characters.
What do you think? Is RDJ at the top?