2. Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., Iron Man, 2008; The Incredible Hulk, 2008; Iron Man 2, 2010; The Avengers, 2012)
Iron Man was a character that non-comic book fans had probably heard of, but was definitely not in the upper echelon of public consciousness and the general public likely didn’t know all that much about him. Because of that fact, it was unknown whether an Iron Man solo movie would be all that financially successful compared to films with more well-known and established characters. For that reason, when the film was being kicked around in various studios throughout the 90’s and early aughts, the thinking was that an Iron Man movie would need to star an absolute A-list Hollywood draw to ensure people would see it, with Tom Cruise being the most commonly talked about name after Cruise expressed interest.
For that reason, when the movie was finally in development and Robert Downey Jr. was cast, it could have been seen as a bit of a risk. He was certainly recognizable, but after his stint in prison he was mostly starring in independent movies and was definitely not a huge box office draw. That being said, I don’t really remember too many people talking about the riskiness of this casting, and instead most of the talk was about how great a casting choice it was and how Downey was a great pick for the character and would most likely nail it.
And then when we saw the movie…well, to say that he “nailed it” would be an understatement. He didn’t just “nail it”- he created one of the most enjoyable, likable and memorable characters in all of film from the last decade.
It’s hard to quantify exactly what makes Downey’s Tony Stark such a joy to watch on screen. He is dripping with charisma, with the capacity of being absolutely hilarious but also able to be serious when the time calls for it. And throughout it all, he’s somehow very relatable and likable.
Regarding that last point – him being relatable and likable – think about how many obstacles are in the way of that. Everything about the character, on paper, is the opposite of relatable and likable. He’s a billionaire, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and is also extremely arrogant. His company develops weapons – not exactly the most noble of professions. The very first time we see him he’s bragging about how many models he’s slept with.
And yet, Downey is just such a joy to watch on screen, we can’t help but love him. He’s even able to have chemistry onscreen when he’s talking to his mute robots.Even right from the get go, when he’s talking about the models and displaying his newest weapon, his charisma makes us connect with him immediately. He is probably responsible for more laughs than any other character on this list, and the intentional humor and jokes in his films are really great. Probably my favorite moment is when he is testing out his jets for the first time, but he’s over calibrated them and is suddenly slammed into the wall (followed by the robots spraying their fire extinguishers). An absolutely brilliant and hilarious bit of physical comedy.
That being said, the character is still respectable enough that the slower and serious moments still make sense. When Tony is captured in Afghanistan, the movie shifts tones from being a mostly fun and humorous story into one that is treated much more seriously…and then he starts kicking ass in his prototype Iron Man armor and its awesome, and then he gets back to the States and its back to a lot of humor. This could potentially be a jarring tone shift, but the film handles it perfectly and we feel that it’s earned, and Downey’s performance is able to sell the humorous parts as well as the serious parts extremely well.
And even though the character is involved in so many humorous moments, we still think of him as very real and don’t lose respect for him, and perhaps more importantly, can still think of him as a badass. The moment in the first movie where he confronts three terrorists and they take children as hostages – only for Stark to use his pinpoint technology to fire at the terrorists’ heads and kill them without harming the children is awesome and elicited cheers from the theater.
One of the best selling points of the character, however, is his relationship with the female love interest. Downey’s chemistry with Gwyneth Paltrow, playing Pepper Potts, is fantastic, and for my money the best relationship portrayed onscreen between a hero and his love interest of any character on this list. In all fairness, most films don’t have a slightly older hero and thus aren’t able to cast an older and more mature Oscar-winning actress as the love interest, but regardless, the fact that his chemistry with the female lead is so incredible is a huge plus for the character. The decision to make her someone he has known for years as opposed to someone he has recently met and fallen for is a fantastic decision, but would have fallen flat if Downey and Paltrow didn’t have such fantastic chemistry. The two of them really sell the fact that they’ve known each other for years and have a deep friendship and respect for each other with enough of a romantic edge to make it immensely satisfying when they finally get together. There is a lot of genuine comedy in their scenes together and the jokes and quips they make towards each other are quite funny, but there’s still a very real and deep warmth to it that we can feel onscreen.
With all that being said, yeah, Iron Man 2 was pretty disappointing given the highs of the first movie (not a bad movie, to be sure, but definitely a letdown.) But Downey’s performance was still great despite some of the weird plot shenanigans he had to get himself into – and, ironically, the fact that we loved Stark’s character so much actually detracted from a lot of what the movie was trying to do to some degree. I’m pretty sure the movie wanted us to like James Rhodes, Black Widow, and Nick Fury, but we really didn’t like them at all in this movie because of the fact that we liked Tony so much (despite the questionable decisions he made throughout the course of the film) and were put off by the fact that these three characters behaved in such a superior and condescending manner to him. This is especially the case with Black Widow, who acts as a perfect Mary Sue-type character that we roll our eyes at her onscreen, and we get pissed off at Fury when he talks about how great Black Widow is and how she’s a much better agent than Stark would be blah blah blah. I mean, sure, looking at what Stark does in the film (getting drunk while in his armor, etc) they have a point, but RDJ is so great that we don’t really care. They act like the stuffy parents/teachers in an 80’s teen movie like Ferris Bueller or Fast Times at Ridgemont High – they may have a point, but we like the rambunctious protagonist and not them so we don’t care. The difference is, those movies didn’t try to get us to like or side with the stuffy “authority figures” while Iron Man 2 did, causing it to fall mostly flat. So yeah, even though Iron Man 2 was a letdown, I’m more or less willing to give the character himself a pass for it, since RDJ was still fantastic and it’s mostly the fault of the other characters and uneven plot elements that caused it to fall flat.
And really, as the Avengers movie started to approach, no one really cared or thought about Iron Man 2 at all and were excited at the prospect of seeing Tony Stark interact with these other superheroes.
During all the hype about the Avengers, one of the prospects we were excited about seeing was seeing all the different characters and their powers onscreen with their suits on, using their powers either against each other or with each other. But there were a lot of people (myself included) who while still being excited by seeing that, but were actually MORE excited by the prospects of seeing the characters interact with each other without their suits on, at the potential for banter and personal interactions.
Now, think back to the moments before you say the Avengers and think about which “character interactions” you were looking forward to seeing onscreen specifically. Were you excited to see Captain America interact with Bruce Banner? Were you excited to see Black Widow interact with Thor?
No, you weren’t. You wanted to see Tony Stark interact with Captain America, you wanted to see Tony Stark interact with Thor, and with all the others. You wanted to see what kind of quips he could come up with about them and their costumes, wanted to see him conflict with the more straight-laced characters and cut people down to size.
And when the movie came, it was fully realized. Stark’s interaction with a lot of the other characters is quite hilarious at times and very fitting. My favorite is his relationship with Bruce Banner. First off, the fact that everyone is walking on eggshells around Banner, and then Tony just makes a mockery of it by jokingly attempting to provoke him by poking him with sharp objects is hilarious…and even better, Banner thinks so too. A perfect little character moment. The fact that the two of them instantly become friends is also great. It makes perfect sense that these two scientific minds would click together, and RDJ and Ruffalo have great chemistry and we immediately buy that these guys would be apprehensive about everyone else on the ship and be relieved that they found one person they could be buddies with. Stark stands up for Banner when others confront him, and eventually this relationship pays off in the end as the Hulk is the one to save Stark’s life when he’s freefalling at the end.
His interaction with Thor is mostly limited, but all of us were waiting for him to mock the ridiculousness of Thor and Loki’s outfits and situation, and “What is this, Shakespeare in the park? Doth mother know you hath stolen her drapes?” didn’t disappoint. From a powers perspective, the moment where Thor attacks him with electricity and Tony discovers that this causes the suit to power up to 400% was pretty cool. (Pretty sure the science behind it doesn’t check out, but who cares?) We don’t see him interact much with Hawkeye, but he does get to call him “Legolas,” which I enjoyed. His interplay with Loki is also very funy, while at the same time his comments about how Loki is outmatched by complimenting the rest of the team also serves as a point of us learning that Stark has learned to greatly respect the other members of the team despite his conflicts with them earlier.
It would be very easy to have Iron Man be the comic relief in this movie, having him doing nothing but making wisecracks the whole time, have him basically be Chandler Bing with a super suit. But throughout it all we never think that, and he’s still arguably the main character in the piece (or at least, the first-billed and the one with the most screen time). There aren’t quite as many non-comedic pieces for the character, but he still pulls them off well. This is evidenced by his relationship with Captain America. Naturally, with Rogers’s strict code of ethics, he’s going to clash with the more freelance Stark and think he’s selfish and only out for himself. Their interplay on the ship reflects that, and as Rogers starts to insult Stark, RDJ does a great job showing Stark initially joking and letting his remarks roll off him and then slowly start to get legitimately pissed off by them as Rogers questions his heroism, and then delivers biting and serious insults back. And then in the end this relationship also gets some deal of closure, as Stark reveals he thinks that Rogers “lives up to the legend” and then proves Cap’s earlier comment (“You wouldn’t be the one to throw yourself on a grenade”) wrong by being the one to seemingly sacrifice himself by going through the portal to deposit the nuclear bomb in the enemy base.
One other point to mention is the fact that the movies continuously impress us visually with the various ways Stark is able to suit up or down, introducing new elements to this process with each movie. Iron Man 2 has the great suitcase scene, while the Avengers introduces us to both the awesome scene as the suit comes off him as he walks into Stark tower and then the scene in the end as he suits up in mid-air after being tossed out of the building. Throughout the three films the character’s other visual effects besides suiting up or down are also really great and believable and impressive onscreen.
All in all, Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Iron Man has transformed the character from a second-tier comic book hero into a character that is beloved the world over, and is well worth the number two spot on this list.
Normally in a list like this one would post the number one entry at the same time at the same time as #2 and maybe #3 because the suspense is gone, but I wanted to get these up as they took me a while to write and I hadn't made an update in some time. And come on, the suspense was already gone as soon as you started reading as to who #1 would be. I'll have my analysis of the quintessential superhero portrayal on film up sometime a bit later.