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The Hero’s Journey: Starring Robert Downey Jr.

The Hero’s Journey: Starring Robert Downey Jr.







Iron Man- “Is this it?”

Doctor Strange- “If I tell you, it won’t happen.”

A Call to Adventure

“Iron Man” came out 11 years ago today.

Yes. You’ve been going to the movies for the past decade watching a studio put out superhero films all largely weaved around one main character: Tony Stark.

Casting Iron

Robert Downey Jr. first made an impression on my retina in Richard Attenborough’s 1992 biopic “Chaplin”. He was funny, he was athletic, he was not afraid to make fun of himself, and was also sensitive to human emotions and pain.

In the imaginary world of “Idyllic Oscar Wins” I’ll never forgive Al Pacino for beating Downey Jr. at the 1993 Academy Awards in the best lead actor category for his role in Scent of a Woman (1992). But if it had to be anybody, best be Al.

Downey Jr. went from his memorable role in the L.A. drug drama “Less than Zero” (1987) to the heights of Hollywood recognition before turning 30. He would also work in television and win an Emmy for his work in Ally McBeal. Never one for courtroom dramas (or comedies) I found myself watching it. Why? I wanted to see the charismatic actor from Chaplin again. And he could sing too. But that was somewhat short-lived. He was fired from the show after stories of substance abuse, arrest, later rehab, and a rocky road back into the mainstream.

Arguably no big titles from that time gave Downey Jr. a commanding lead. I’ll vouch for his performance in “A Scanner Darkly” (2006) any day, but he was a supporting character. So when it announced that Downey Jr. was going to play the lead in Marvel’s Iron Man, I was psyched.

I am Iron Man

Who or what is Iron Man? Not a comic book icon that could’ve rivaled Superman or Batman in name recognition last century (that is until this one). A Stan Lee Marvel Comics signature hero, a product of the Cold War, an intelligence that evolved from the military industrial complex, a baby boomer alpha male who got girls, bank, and a Jesus complex.

Why is Iron Man the superhero of this age? Why does this romanticized weapons manufacturer with high levels of arrogance, anxiety, and a drinking problem; come out as the savior of mankind?

Peace in our time

Iron Man is the superhero that pacifies our fears of technological warfare in the wrong hands, artificial intelligence gone awry, and alien invaders. Humanity has found its ultimate deterrent in the mind and body of Tony Stark.

With his visual 3-D mind maps he can walk around and observe his own thoughts. He can create and perceive the brain of artificial intelligence as it functions in real-time, project crime scene reconstructions, test out theories with variables included, etc. Tony Stark makes science fiction real with the twist, turn, and sleight of hand. It is movie magic come true.

And that’s as real as the audience needs it to be.

His “supermind” welds a sense of sleepless duty in preventing apocalyptic war with the challenge of bringing into existence whatever device imaginable is necessary for peace. Tony isn’t a passive scientist in the lab either. He literally puts his body into his own inventions (that’s what saved his life in the first place). He commands the machinery to attach itself to his body. Stark doesn’t just take risks, he even seems driven by a thanatic secret wish, a fear hiding in a desire that ends in sacrifice.

A theme that runs throughout the Avengers and underscored in Endgame.

I don’t want to talk about New York

After the first Avengers movie, Tony saves the day by intercepting a nuclear missile heading for Manhattan by pushing it through a wormhole. Not before making one last call to love interest Pepper Potts as he expects not to survive the blast. We are inside the Iron Man suit as he experiences this. As if looking into the eye-line in the helmet, witnessing the expressions of a middle-aged man with groomed facial hair surrounded by shapes of light in a dark empty space.

The blast strikes both the enemy and the savior. His body is thrown back to earth but he doesn’t crash into the ground thanks to the Hulk.

On the ground, Iron Man resurrects. And goes for shawarma afterwards with his friends. But he suffers constant panic attacks in Iron Man 3 with just the mention of “New York”.

A Sense of Sacrifice

Tony Stark is not alone.

After killing Thanos in the first Act of Endgame, Thor the  god of thunder has lost his purpose and now wakes up to play video games, drink beer, and eat beyond his body’s content. What happened to his drive? Gone. Until a new call to adventure arrives.

Black Widow. Why is it that the only Avenger that dies (up until the very end of Endgame) is the woman? (Also, she didn’t even get her own movie). Natasha Romanoff’s past was explored in the Captain America films and the flashbacks of “Age of Ultron”. It’s even sadder that her sacrifice, it seems, matched the blueprint she had of her life. She “had nobody” because of her training as a professional assassin. Her drive was strong enough to fight off and defeat Hawkeye. Thus becoming the sacrifice that delivers the “Soul Stone”.

In some ways, it’s heartbreaking and antithetical to think that the character who most wanted to live in a house near a lake and tend to his garden is Thanos the villain.

The Endgame

Tony’s call to adventure in the last chapter of the MCU happens five years after Thanos’ snapped his fingers.

Stark is now a father. He ended the playboy party life and has settled down with Pepper in an ordinary nice wooden house by the lake. He is understandably reluctant when his fellow surviving Avengers suggest that the way to undo Thanos’ half-of-all-life wipeout is by pulling off a “Time Heist” ala “Back to the Future”.

Side note: Not to be picky but, you forgot to mention Chris Reeve’s Superman (1978). Turning back time by flying around the earth? Remember? Anyways…

Why would Tony ever give up this new found life for such a fragile promise?

Stark eventually responds, he can’t help himself after successfully figuring out how to get his team back to that point in time. Iron Man crosses the threshold with his wit, moves past the point of no return by traveling in time, and comes back with the “elixir” to inevitably face his antagonist. The stones united under his command to create the new world. The price? His life. Not before saying goodbye to his old man, the kid (Spider Man), and Pepper.

Was the ordinary world worth abandoning for this hero? Time to watch the movie again.

Iron Messiah

While Rotten Tomatoes, IMDB and other ratings websites go through the roof right now on Avengers Endgame (Tomatometer currently stands at 95% & the movie has a 9.0 rating on IMDB) , it will be a matter of time to determine if the movie as a standalone can be enjoyed this much and not just as the final chapter of Phase 3 of the MCU.

Will the first Iron Man age even better? Personally, I think it will. Why? For the simple reason that it’s a really good movie, period. Whether a universe was later spun around it or not.

Iron Man was Robert Downey Jr.’s big comeback and it paid off big time. Not only did Tony Stark model how to resurrect the world, Downey Jr. modeled a career resurgence. It almost seems as if the character was written with Robert in mind.

In the 20th century it was hard to imagine a world without Superman. Can centennials imagine a world without Iron Man? Who could ever fill Robert Downey Jr.’s shoes? What answers will Tony Stark give this world?

MCU Phase 4 begins now.

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