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An Ode to Robert Downey Jr., the Real First Avenger

As made clear by ‘Avengers: Endgame,’ no one has shepherded the MCU quite like the man in Iron Man’s suit

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

I didn’t mean to have Avengers: Endgame spoiled for me, but it happened anyway. When a record-setting $1.2 billion worth of ticket buyers see a movie over a three-day period and you’re cruising Twitter for reactions about #PlayoffKawhi without any keywords muted, it’s inevitable that you’re going to accidentally see something—in my case, a story about an Avengers fan who had supposedly been hospitalized for uncontrollably crying. It didn’t take me long to figure out what that meant. I know that the series’ most beloved character—the one who has kept fans coming back time and time again through sheer force of charisma—has assembled for the last time. RIP, Happy Hogan. May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

OK, look: I know it’s Tony Stark who dies (and also that he’s not the only long-serving casualty of a movie more generally concerned with resurrections). Even if I hadn’t found this out, though. it’s not exactly a surprise. Tony’s climactic self-sacrifice is in line with the carefully mapped-out, payoff-oriented storytelling that is both the hallmark and the flaw of a multileveled franchise whose portrait of collective, collaborative do-goodery is, for some, indivisible from a kind of villainy. At a moment when pop culture conglomeration reigns supreme, the story of a supervillain consolidating absolute power through the methodical acquisition of valuable individual properties has some double-edged resonance: Thanos’s Infinity War mandate of “collect ’em all” has a ruthless logic mirrored in Marvel’s own methodology, which is, at its core, all about completism as a form of conquest.

If there is a common denominator among the 21 Marvel movies preceding Endgame, it’s their shared faith in a gleaming, intricate scheme of narrative engineering—the sheer pleasure of watching well-oiled mechanisms lock, spin, and drop into place. At this point, they resemble the output of a luxuriously subsidized assembly line like the one in place at Stark Industries, which, as much as its titanium-suited proprietor, has been a constant across the series, providing the characters with both a base of operations and an endless supply of high-end gadgets to supplement or in some cases stand in for actual superpowers. It’s not just that Iron Man was officially the first Avengers movie or that Tony Stark was unofficially the first Avenger (he can afford the copyright infringement suit if Captain America decides to file). It’s that the studio’s entire exhaustive, expansive experiment in serialized storytelling–as–brand extension has been built in his image: spectacular, technocratic showmanship with a glowing CGI orb where its heart should be.

“I came to realize that I had more to offer this world than just making things that blow up,” Tony tells a group of reporters in Iron Man, neatly summarizing the redemptive subtext of a movie that cheerfully makes a (super)hero out of a multibillionaire weapons manufacturer. The line also anticipates the larger arc of Stark’s character across the sequels and parallel adventures primed by Iron Man’s critical and box office success, which could be described as the journey from callow, flashy genius to lived-in wisdom—the acceptance of gravitas by a man who figuratively (and then literally) spends most of his time hovering above the fray. In the climax of The Avengers, it’s the formerly self-absorbed Tony who bravely intercepts a nuclear missile aimed at New York City and flies it into outer space (Iron Man doing his best Iron Giant impression); in the first scene of Age of Ultron, he hallucinates a tragic vision of his teammates lying dead in the wreckage. The internecine conflict of Captain America: Civil War is triggered by Tony’s guilty exertion of paternal control over the Avengers initiative; in Infinity War, he watches helplessly as his surrogate son Peter Parker disintegrates in his arms.

This is all heavy stuff, and it’s at once counteracted and complemented by Robert Downey Jr.’s natural buoyancy as an actor, his ability to float through scenes and even entire movies on a cushion of charisma. Back in 2008, Iron Man seemed like the culmination of the actor’s comeback, rather than the inception point of a megastardom that has made him one of the richest performers of all time. The $500,000 he was paid to play Tony Stark the first time around was a reflection of the then-real risk that went with casting an actor on the rebound from well-publicized substance use issues, even as the role of a hyperverbal, not-so-covertly-self-loathing extrovert fit his skill set perfectly.

One way to look at Downey’s interpretation of Stark is as splitting the difference between two of the most effective and influential comic book movie performances of all time: Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s original Batman. From his daddy issues to his savior complex to his tricked-out gear, it’s clear that the character of Tony Stark—both on the page and onscreen—riffs on the Bruce Wayne archetype, the well-monied crime fighter driven as much by personal obsession as respect for the law. Keaton’s nervy turn inverted the role by making the billionaire into a genuine eccentric, and Downey, whose late-’80s performances in films like Less Than Zero and True Believer borrowed some of Keaton’s springy rhythms, doubled (and tripled) down on that dynamic. What he borrowed from Nicholson, meanwhile, was the gleeful self-regard of an actor enjoying himself, his bemusement standing in stark (sorry) relief against the more stoic persona of Chris Evans’s Steve Rogers or the bewilderment of Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner.

In some ways, the most impressive of Downey’s MCU performances is his anguished, anxious work in Iron Man 3, which reunited him with a filmmaker who’d previously coaxed near-career-best-work out of him: Shane Black, whose sardonic, R-rated sensibility was ultimately contained by the Marvel machinery, but not without a fight. In this installment, Tony’s ratio of charm to mania had been thrown off by the near-death experience he had at the end of The Avengers, and Downey recycled some of the palpable nervous tension he employed in Black’s excellent neo-noir Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, another movie about a character driven to near despair by the desire to rescue somebody—the difference is that for Tony, the white-knight savior complex has a global dimension.

By contrast, Downey’s appearance in 2017’s strategically low-stakes Spider-Man: Homecoming leans into a kind of sly self-satire, with Tony’s mentorship of Tom Holland’s character coded as an allegory for the corporate passing of the torch. The way that Downey lords over a film about a different protagonist while ultimately (and generously) ceding the floor is as much about the way Homecoming is written and directed as his acting choices, but in scene after scene, he somehow finds the sweet spot between a dispassionate, metrics-driven CEO (as if measuring Peter’s potential worth as an Avenger) and Obi-Wan Kenobi. It shouldn’t be possible for a supporting performance to also be a star turn, but Downey revels in the contradiction.

The endgame of Endgame is the demise of the character who has, more than any other, served as the front man and the baseline for a set of movies that have rewritten the conventional wisdom about the production, distribution, exhibition, reception, and cultural resonance of Hollywood studio movies. I don’t think I’ll ever find movies as gleaming and calculatedly anodyne as Iron Man or The Avengers genuinely moving, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t an inherent power in watching actors age and develop along with their fictional alter egos, or that Downey’s achievement in creating, sustaining, and ultimately perfecting a character who means so much to so many isn’t impressive. It’s the stuff that icons are made of.

“Just don’t do anything I would do,” Tony tells Peter during one heart-to-heart in Homecoming. “And definitely don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.” On one level, he’s being a good mentor, but between the lines, it’s a bit of a well-earned boast for the character and the actor as well. Could anybody else have done what Downey’s done over the past 11 years? Probably not.