When it comes to looking at actors’ career choices, it’s hard to resist the urge to become a backseat driver. Instead of threatening us with terrible movies, can’t Adam Sandler make more good ones? Should Florence Pugh, fresh off her first Oscar nomination, really be signing up for the first of what could be several Marvel movies? Is Dane DeHaan alive after contracting Tulip Fever? In truth, we have as much right to tell an actor which roles to play as we would to tell Lionel Messi how to approach the game of soccer; but the impulse to Monday morning quarterback typically comes from a place of admiration. People reflect on a movie star’s career choices because they care, or they think the actor’s übertalented, or they think the actor’s weird—or, more likely, a combination of all three things.
So, far be it from me to tell Robert Downey Jr. what he ought to be doing with his life. He’s just spent the past 11 years as the leading man of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the monolithic franchise that, for better or worse, has changed blockbuster filmmaking and taken over popular culture. When Downey helped kick-start the MCU with 2008’s Iron Man, the actor was considered a risky proposition given his past substance use disorder; that concern helps explain why he took the role for a (comparatively) modest $500,000 paycheck. Fast-forward to 2020, and Downey is practically synonymous with Tony Stark, his Marvel checks came in amounts of tens of millions, and he’s among the most identifiable stars on the planet.
He also has one of the most promising and surprisingly open schedules an A-lister’s been afforded in recent memory. After Avengers: Endgame, which—spoiler alert for the highest-grossing movie of all time—closed the book on Tony Stark’s arc in the franchise, Downey has the kind of movie-star clout that will allow him to do anything he so chooses. (Though like Hotel California, when one enters the MCU they can’t ever seem to escape; there’s already rumors Downey will appear in Black Widow.) Downey hadn’t appeared in a non-Marvel movie since 2014’s one-two punch of Chef and The Judge—neither of which measures up to the peak of Downey’s pre-MCU powers. The Chef appearance was also less a performance and more of a “thank you” cameo for writer-director Jon Favreau, who campaigned for Downey to star in Iron Man—which Favreau also directed—and was hugely influential in reigniting his career.
Eleven years is a very long time for an actor to mostly dedicate to one movie franchise. To do my best Zach Kram impression for a second, 11 of the 19 films Downey has appeared in since Iron Man’s release have been part of the MCU. This isn’t exactly Ellen Pompeo committing to a 16-season-plus stay in a Grey’s Anatomy wormhole, but it’s still pretty extreme—and it’s legitimately wild to think that some people could grow up during this period of Marvel dominance and associate Downey only with Tony Stark.
The character was undoubtedly elevated by the innate charisma Downey imbued the role with, but Downey’s compelling onscreen presence—a mix of that infectious charisma and intimations of a tortured soul—has been a through line for the finest roles in the actor’s career. Before he was Tony Stark, Robert Downey Jr. was Charlie Chaplin; he was Harry Lockhart; he was a guy trying to solve the Zodiac killings; he was the dude playing the dude disguised as another dude. Downey also moonlighted as Sherlock Holmes for two movies. (His Sherlock loved back-alley brawls, for some reason.)
But in 2020, Downey is ready to add another iconic role to his sterling résumé by playing [squints] John Dolittle, the guy who can talk to animals? This sounds like one of the parody movie trailers from Tropic Thunder, but it’s somehow true. There are no words to do the latest Dolittle adaptation, simply titled Dolittle, justice; I can only point you in the direction of this garish, very real trailer in which Downey’s Dolittle tells an anxious gorilla (voiced by Oscar winner Rami Malek) that it’s OK to be scared and rides an ostrich like it’s his own personal Uber.
No need to check the Rotten Tomatoes score, the Dumpuary release date speaks for itself—and if that’s not enough, there are the awkward character posters of Downey posing with a CGI companion. What the fuck? is a perfectly acceptable response. So is why?
You can see how this role might be appealing from a certain point of view; call me a dodo’s advocate. With the right approach, playing someone who relates better to animals—burdened as he is with the gift of understanding them, while no one else can—than to other people fits into Downey’s “charismatic yet tortured soul” wheelhouse. He could make a really good, contemplative Dolittle with a little bit of pathos. But Dolittle isn’t that type of movie; Dolittle is more interested in creating wacky, mindless CGI high jinks. Our good doctor gives a dragon an enema. I’ll say this: Even the Eddie Murphy–led Dr. Dolittle franchise didn’t go that far off the rails, and we got—yes, really—five of those movies.
Much like watching Eddie Murphy interact with a flatulent bear, it’s disappointing to see an actor as talented as Downey transition from a decade-plus helming a blockbuster franchise to trying to create another—though I don’t need to see box office projections to surmise that Dolittle won’t even hold a candle to Thor: The Dark World. Money aside, Downey is entitled to his reasons for taking on the project—namely, per a joint interview with his wife and producing partner Susan Downey, that Dolittle would be something their kids could enjoy. But selfishly, now that he’s finally done with Marvel, it would be nice to see the old Robert Downey Jr. again. Where is the actor who netted Oscar nominations for playing Charlie Chaplin and the Daniel Day-Lewis of blackface? (A friendly reminder that Tropic Thunder, and Downey, walked a ridiculous tightrope.)
The good news is that Downey isn’t locked into much after Dolittle. He’s hosting a YouTube docu-series about artificial intelligence, a gig that feels like a tacit acknowledgment that everyone thinks he actually is Tony Stark. Other than that, he’s going to appear in a Jamie Foxx–directed comedy about—wait, what?—NBA All-Star Weekend, and rumors continue to persist about a third Sherlock Holmes movie reuniting Downey with costar Jude Law. None of these commitments, however, should create a Marvel-esque vacuum, tying the actor to a single franchise for a full New York Jets postseason drought (in other words, a decade). There’s still room for the Kiss Kiss Bang Bangs and Good Night, and Good Lucks of the world in Downey’s future. And perhaps, thanks to his decade-plus association with the MCU, people who would otherwise skip these sorts of films will be inclined to seek them out because Downey’s name is attached.
But that can only happen if the actor is so willing. Chris Evans celebrated his newfound freedom from Marvel by becoming a rich asshole in comfy-looking knitwear for Rian Johnson. Scarlett Johansson just snagged Oscar nominations for two different movies—and that was before her Marvel swansong in May. With Dolittle, Robert Downey Jr. jumped right back into the blockbuster sandbox. Is there a point when someone who’s made an absurd amount of money from the MCU, and who’s still technically chasing an elusive Oscar, should begin to prioritize art over commerce? I hope so. But that’s his prerogative; it’s not my place to tell an incredibly accomplished actor what he should do with his time. I’m just a blogger. He is Iron Man.