Dear Robert Downey Jr.,
It’s been 10 years—going on 11—since you simultaneously joined and launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Iron Man was novel, bold, snarky, and immersive, and it makes sense that you gravitated toward it. In 2008, you were one of the most exciting actors to watch. You had 25 years of work under your belt as the Robert Downey Jr. who had collaborated with all-time directors like Robert Altman (Short Cuts, The Gingerbread Man), Oliver Stone (Natural Born Killers), Norman Jewison (Only You), Steven Soderbergh (Eros), Richard Linklater (A Scanner Darkly), David Fincher (Zodiac), and your avant-garde father, Robert Downey Sr. (America¸Too Much Son, and more). You were the Robert Downey Jr. responsible for two unforgettable greats in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Good Night, and Good Luck. in the same year. Even when the result of your films left ample room for improvement, at least you were taking on challenging roles and working with ambitious folks (e.g. Chaplin, In Dreams, Firstborn). Hell, you were even in the original Hail Caesar! That’s what that is, right?
Yet here we are in 2019 and things are very different. To younger generations, information about the first quarter century of your career is considered news. They probably don’t know that you spent a year as a Saturday Night Live cast member in the mid-80s, or that you were in and out of prison and court-ordered rehab for a few years before miraculously kicking a heroin and cocaine addiction in the early aughts. That’s how wholly you have transformed into Tony Stark/Iron Man, how deeply your on-screen persona has been burnt into pop culture’s retinas. Of course, this isn’t just a generational thing. There are millions of adults who know all about your past and still prefer you as billionaire superhero above all. MCU is a hit across demographic and generational gaps. And you are among its elite, if not the most highly regarded of them all, because you introduced us to the MCU as it is today—a witty, wealthy, star-studded, high-octane web of enigmatic personalities kicking ass with revolutionary technology and superhuman skills. But while most movie consumers are comfortable with static roles, I am not.
I am not a fan of the MCU, but that’s not my point. Only a sliver of my motivations here come from reflecting on the artistic quality (or lack thereof) in most MCU movies. They are what they are, and I’ve come to terms with that. Not to mention, you’re a terrific Tony Stark. But any truly great actor who settles for the same role—regardless of the role’s merit—for 10 years is a loss in my book. Such a loss is compounded by the fact that you took on another franchise in Sherlock Holmes the year after entering the MCU. Yes, I know you’ve done a few non-Marvel films here and there over the past decade. But I’ve yet to meet anyone (cinephile or not) who stans for The Judge or Due Date, and teaming up with two-time Iron Man director Jon Favreau for Chef is hardly considered branching out.
By the time Avengers: Endgame comes out in 2019, the past 11, post-Iron Man years of your career will be comprised of 16 films, nine of which are MCU installations, two of which are Sherlock Holmes installations, and five of which are something else. Of those five, I already mentioned the three risk-free ones above. The other two are Tropic Thunder, which is one of the best and riskiest roles of your career, and The Soloist, both of which came out less than a year after Iron Man, meaning that they were filmed before or around the same time as Iron Man. This most likely means that those roles were not taken with the demanding craze of the MCU in mind—the same craze that, on paper, seems to direct your every move. Looking ahead, it’s not like your upcoming couple of years looks too inspired either. As of now, you’re set for a third Sherlock Holmes and a reboot of Doctor Dolittle in 2020, and whichever comes out first will be the only non-Stark role you will have had in six years.
However, there is a faint light at the end of the Marvel tunnel. In an interview with Good Morning America, Chris Evans said that Avengers: Endgame would be the last film on your contract with Marvel. Plus, you’re slated for two upcoming films without release dates, one written and directed by Jamie Foxx and the other by Richard Linklater. Hearing that news is like hearing the crisp, refreshing sound a page makes when you flip it to find the start of a new chapter. That’s all I’m asking for. Turn the page, man. In a 2014 interview with Deadline, you talk about capitalizing on your genes and getting behind the director’s chair when you “get to that next cycle.” Even better. Really mix it up. Dip into that bizarre Downey directorial nature or do something unapologetically different. Set the big plastic toys down, get out from in front of those green screens, work on a 7- or 8-figure budget, brave the dark of the lesser known filmmaker, give life to a new character, and please don’t devote the next decade of your career to a Tony Stark imitation version of Dr. Dolittle. You light up the screens you live in with your electric originality when you take on new roles. The non-blockbuster world of film misses that. I mean, it’s not like you sold your soul to Marvel or anything… right?