I recently spent a Sunday evening poring through punk artifacts in a local museum. I was reading everything on the placards, because I am never more a dad than when I'm in a museum, and I ended up learning a lot about the Ramones' lifestyle choices in the '70s.
"It's so interesting," I remarked to my companion, "that over the course of decades, these guys can go from this" — I gestured to the, well, everything — "to me being able to buy a Ramones shirt at Target. I mean, Robert Downey Jr. can wear a Ramones shirt in a Disney movie!"
It was only on the way home that I realized I could have said the exact same thing about Robert Downey Jr. himself. If I went back to the late '90s and tried to explain that Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man is a household name in the future, they wouldn't believe me. And who could blame them?
The intertwined comeback of both Robert Downey Jr. and Marvel Studios is a staggering achievement that resulted in the global pop-cultural dominance of the Marvel Cinematic Universe … and has set up some comebacks of its own.
In that context, the comeback — the return of an actor after a fallow or destructive period — sounds more dramatic than it really is. (But everything is accurately dramatic, I promise.) While to me there's a very clear distinction between Robert Downey Jr. in 20th-century cinema and 21st-century cinema, there's only been two years since 1983 that lacked his presence in the film. Actors are people, too; they don't just vanish.
Rather, it's more helpful to look at a comeback as a return to form and sometimes evolution of an actor, often but not always accompanied by a shift in the audience in terms of prestige or numbers. Matthew McConaughey's fabled McConaissance is a prestige comeback. After being established as a go-to guy for romantic comedies in the early aughts, McConaughey noticed the reputation was hampering his ability to get cast in different projects. He began turning them down, to the tune of a two-year hiatus from acting, but he returned to the big screen with Magic Mike, successfully parlaying that into a string of dramatic roles and an Oscar.
To say that Iron Man was Robert Downey Jr.'s comeback after successfully completing rehab and getting sober is incorrect. His first piece of work was the music video for Elton John's "I Want Love" in 2001, and his first film was 2003's The Singing Detective, after Mel Gibson (!) put up the money for his insurance bond (as studios were, understandably, nervous about hiring him). By the time he was cast as Tony Stark in 2006 and once the film was released two years later, in 2008, he'd already appeared in the experimental A Scanner Darkly, the Oscar-nominated Good Night, and Good Luck, and the widely acclaimed Zodiac. Downey and his team didn't exactly need Marvel Studios when they came calling—he'd already started to level out.
But Marvel Studios needed him.
We live in a post-Endgame world. Everyone has an opinion about Thor. There are middle schoolers who have only known a world in which the Marvel Cinematic Universe exists. (To me, this seems illegal, but nobody asked me if they could keep making younger people after me, so I guess my opinion doesn't matter here. Hmph!) It is easy to forget that Marvel Studios was once an underdog.
After being created in 1996, Marvel Studios' original plan was to package and license films using Marvel intellectual property; essentially, handle the bulk of preproduction, from personnel decisions to the script, before handing it off to a studio to film and distribute. This model resulted in successful films like Blade, X-Men, and Spider-Man.
Unfortunately, while these films were financially successful, Marvel didn't share in the wealth to the degree that they wanted. Only $62 million of the $3 billion in profit from the first two Spider-Man films went to Marvel, hardly the kind of return on investment that you want when you're trying to recover after declaring bankruptcy (which Marvel did in 1996).
In 2004, however, David Maisel was hired by Marvel Studios as its new chief operating officer on the strength of his plan to cut out the middleman by creating their own production studio. The first film produced along these new lines would be Iron Man, and it needed to work. Given the relative obscurity of the character, casting Tony Stark correctly was imperative.
Robert Downey Jr. was considered an offbeat choice at the time, but director Jon Favreau was insistent that the marriage of actor and material was perfect: Downey loved comics and had personal experiences that mirrored Tony's, lending a sense of realism to the film. It was a match made in heaven: Downey's talent and prestige would give the film every chance to succeed, and Marvel would give Downey an opportunity to connect with an audience that might not go out and see something like Zodiac.
We all know how the film turned out, so successful that not only was Marvel Studios saved, but it also turned into one of the most successful film studios in the world and a tentpole of Walt Disney Studios. And that audience? Ended up being one of the largest in the world, after over 20 films and 11 years.
Nowadays, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a perfect place to go for actors seeking to buttress a comeback with some mass appeal: James Spader got into mo-cap to portray Ultron in Age of Ultron, and Michelle Pfeiffer's turn as original Avenger Wasp in Ant-Man and the Wasp helped reinforce her late teens return to acting. In an age where culture is so nicheified that reading up on scandals often requires a cheat sheet of who's who, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is one of the last bastions of mass culture. There's no better — or bigger — audience to go to when you're trying to court the kind of mass appeal necessary for a comeback.