Does the man make the suit, or does the suit make the man?
That’s the question at the (electromagnetic) heart of Marvel’s “Iron Man 3,” which lands in theaters this weekend.
In the third installment of the popular superhero franchise, audiences will get to see Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, face his greatest foe yet in the form of the Mandarin (played by Ben Kingsley) as he grapples with that very issue.
But it’s something that applies just as well to Iron Man’s off-screen alter ego, Robert Downey Jr.
Does he make Iron Man, or did Iron Man make him?
To a lot of moviegoers, including notoriously difficult-to-please comic fans, Downey is Tony Stark the same way Harrison Ford is Han Solo.
It’s almost impossible to imagine another actor stepping into the gold and hot rod red armor or delivering the same snarky one-liners with all the necessary gusto and flare.
Back in 2008, though, that was hardly the case. The pairing of Downey — an actor whose career many thought had peaked in 1992 with his Academy Award-nominated turn as Charlie Chaplin — with the “Invincible Iron Man” — a second-tier superhero whose origin story was tied up in the Vietnam War — defied conventional wisdom.
Speaking with UK website The List in 2008, original “Iron Man” director Jon Favreau said, “Downey wasn't the most obvious choice but he understood what makes the character tick. He found a lot of his own life experience in Tony Stark.”
That includes a shared history of substance abuse. In the comics, Stark is a recovering alcoholic. In real life, Downey famously battled a drug addiction that saw him in and out of jail, rehab and even homelessness during the late ‘90s and early 2000s.
When he was cast in “Iron Man,” he was still struggling to rebuild his career with the help of longtime friends like Mel Gibson.
"I wasn't top of anyone's list to play Iron Man. It was the chance of a lifetime,” Downey once said of the role. Favreau later revealed that Marvel had actually been dead set against Downey, initially telling the director, "Under no circumstances are we prepared to hire him for any price."
Before Downey was cast, there had been several attempts to bring the “golden avenger” to the big screen with megastars like Nicolas Cage and Tom Cruise previously attached to star. Ultimately, though, it’s hard to believe another actor could have found the same kind of widespread success for one simple reason: Downey’s portrayal of the character is largely his own creation.
As any die-hard Iron Man fan can attest, the Tony Stark from the comics is in many ways a very different character, one mostly lacking the signature glibness and sense of humor Downey brought to the role. According to his “Iron Man” co-star Jeff Bridges, in fact, a lot of Downey’s dialogue from the 2008 film was actually improvised.
Since then, the comics have come to reflect Downey’s portrayal of the character, rewriting the billionaire playboy industrialist superhero as more Richard Branson than Howard Hughes.
In the meantime, Downey has become one of the top-earning actors in Hollywood.
But fans may not get many more opportunities to see Downey in the iconic role he helped originate.
After playing the character on five separate occasions (including a post-credits cameo in “The Incredible Hulk”), the 47-year-old Downey says he’s considering hanging up Iron Man’s bootjets and repulsor gauntlets for good.
"It would probably be the best thing in the world for me," he told Empire. "You know, ego ... but sometimes ego just has to be smashed. Let's see what happens. I take the audience very seriously — I feel bad when I see folks doing movies and the audience is like, 'Don't do that anymore.' I don't have to overstay my welcome."
With Downey in the process of renegotiating a contract with Marvel, though, there’s still hope of seeing him at least one or two more times.
"Let's just say that the only thing I ever let go of had claw marks in it,” said Downey. “There's a little bit of soul reclamation going on. I feel that the first time I played Tony, I did it best. Sorry! The affinity with Tony now is, how do you sustain something? I'm not stupid, I like to play ball, I love the company, I love the character, and the business side of things, I'm not (too) picky about that either."
A native of Utah Valley and a devoted cinephile, Jeff Peterson is currently studying humanities and history at Brigham Young University.