LOS ANGELES — Robert Downey Jr. was filming U.S. Marshals in Chicago in 1997 as the Bulls were on the cusp of winning their fifth NBA championship. The actor recalls being mesmerized watching the games as eventual MVP Michael Jordan willed his team to victory.
“It was like, wow, that guy believes that is what Michael Jordan does,” says Downey of Jordan’s desire to carry the load. “Now, I’m not comparing myself to Michael Jordan. But I’m comparing the experience as something to aspire to.”
Franchise-making is what Downey does for a living, and his skills will be spotlighted again Friday when Iron Man 3 opens nationwide, with him playing the title role and Iron Man’s alter ego, Tony Stark. Very different arena, but just as public. This time, Downey is asking for the ball.
“It’s nice,” says the actor, 48, leaning back and flashing his trademark cheeky grin. “I like it when the stakes are high. I love the responsibility.”
The stakes are indeed lofty as Downey will carry the superhero load alone again. Last year’s The Avengers, which brought together every Marvel Comics star from Iron Man to The Hulk, earned critical acclaim and took in $1.5 billion in worldwide box office. Now, Disney-owned Marvel Studios is heading back to solo stories with Thor: The Dark World (Nov. 8) and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014).
It’s Downey’s immediate task in Iron Man 3 to remind audiences that solo superheroes are just as appealing as the supergroup.
“The idea of getting Robert Downey the ball in the fourth quarter is a good one,” says director Shane Black. “He feels like there’s such a tall order to fill here, critically and (at the) box office. There are big shoes to fill. To Robert, that’s a great challenge. He certainly can, more than any actor I know, carry a movie solely on his shoulders.”
With an impressive international opening of $198 million last week, it appears as if Iron Man 3 is up for the task, and might even challenge The Avengers‘ $207 million domestic opening from last year. It’s not surprising, since Downey’s portrayal of fast-talking billionaire Stark started the Marvel hot streak with 2008’s Iron Man. The film rocketed the second-string comic hero to superstar status and made the eventual Avengers film a reality.
“For us and this cinematic universe that we’ve built, it all started with Iron Man and Robert,” says Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios.
Before that, Downey was known for his untapped potential and his tabloid-chronicled substance abuse, which got him arrested and written out of the TV series Ally McBeal in 2001. But after getting clean in 2002, his work with Black on 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang caught the attention of director Jon Favreau, who took a chance on Downey for Iron Man.
“I love it, love it,” Downey says, beaming at that thought of once being a question mark. “I love history, particularly when it’s behind me.
“I like the question marks, because they need to be answered definitively,” he adds. “I wouldn’t wish that on anybody. People know when they are up against it. And they know when they went through the wrong door. And life is funny, and the cosmos is a very interesting and complex place.”
Going through the right door at last, Downey would find success in the Sherlock Holmes franchise and then return with Favreau for 2010’s Iron Man 2. Downey calls it his “toughest movie,” because he and Favreau had to deal with a tight deadline, superhero universe-building, and advancing plotlines to set the stage for The Avengers.
“We were dealing with a whole lot of factors, and we just ran out of time. That was the problem. Absolutely,” says Downey, who still puts up a spirited defense of the final product. “Scene for scene, it’s as good as the original movie,” he says, also pointing out the impressive box-office take ($633 million).
But in his third solo installment, Downey has reunited with Black and zeroed in on perfecting the product.
“Often, he’d look at the lines for the day and say, ‘They are funny, but can we get them even funnier?’ ” Black says. “We’d adjourn back to his trailer and scribble with pen and paper. Some of the best lines of the movie were written maybe an hour before we shot. That’s an exciting way to make a movie.”
The North Carolina production presented its own challenge, particularly since the winter scenes took place at the height of summer.
“I’ve never been in more disquieting conditions, never worked in more heat,” Downey says. “I mean, when we were shooting our winter scene, the snow was melting off the roof as fast as we could pump it up there. And I’m wearing five layers.”
Ironically, it took an ankle injury during a routine stunt to keep the set from wilting. Downey files this under the “everything happens for a reason” category.
“It was a very uncomfortable 105 seconds,” he says of the injury. “But truth be told, it was exactly what the project needed.”
There was little choice but to delay during the height of the Southern summer. Cast and crew rested. And everyone was prepped to shoot key scenes with the film’s villain, The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley).
“It gave everyone else an opportunity, not that they asked for it, to have a nice extended summer vacation. The drag was we had to come back in October to finish the movie,” Downey says. “But we came back, and it was like we started the movie again in Miami with Sir Ben. And he so knocked it out of the park that it kind of carried us to the end of the shoot.”
Newcomer Ty Simpkins, 11, also joins the Iron Man team as a science geek who befriends Tony Stark. Downey insisted that the paternal relationship never dissolve into sappiness.
“At one point, I do call him a derogatory name, which was never in the script,” he says. “My point was if you have any sentimentality before (the end), then you’ve blown the tag. Besides, I love avoiding sentimentality.”
It’s not the case when talking about son Exton, 1, with his wife of eight years, Susan, a producer. Downey admits to being besotted by the child.
“That’s what’s so great about kids — they are right in front of you,” he says. “They are absolutely self-centric but completely dependent. And they are kind of witty and self-evolved. They are learning more in the course of an hour than we are in a month. I’m watching him learn quicker than I can.”
He even cops to getting his hands dirty in the diaper-changing department.
“Dude, I love a diaper change. Once you have changed one diaper successfully, you can never forget how.”
New fatherhood has not dimmed his passion for new movie projects. In June, he begins The Judge with Robert Duvall. They play a father-son team in the murder mystery, which he calls a “major departure.” There is also increased speculation about whether Downey will return to further Iron Man adventures, especially now that his current contract is complete.
While he will likely return in the next Avengers (currently being written by Joss Whedon), Feige sees the character eventually becoming like James Bond, continuing for decades.
“I cannot produce them for another 40 years, and I don’t think Robert can star in them for that long. So at some point, the torch will be passed,” Feige says. “But I certainly hope he’ll be playing the character for many years to come.”
Downey will not be drawn into the discussion on his return.
“I’ve been living with a nice, practical Jewish girl from Chicago for a long time,” he says of his wife. “And she says that there’s no reason to talk about something I don’t know the answer to. And I can only regret acting like I knew an answer to something I don’t.”
He does concede that Marvel Studios could achieve the seeming impossible, such as replacing someone as beloved as Downey in the role. “But I’d like to think they are more clever when they are in business with me.”
But there are new stories and even some unfinished business. Perhaps Downey could make an Iron Man movie in which his residence does not get destroyed — a continuing theme that takes on new levels in the Iron Man 3 when his Malibu, Calif., mansion explodes into the sea.
“To defy expectations, the next time it can’t be a residence,” Downey vows. “We’ve gone as far as we can go with this thing.”
He pauses for a moment.
“But then again, I don’t want to commit. People do like to see things blow up.”
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