Whenever I look at Robert Downey Jr., all I can think of is Iron Man’s Tony Stark. He’s got the impeccable tailored suit, pearly-white teeth, and perfect goatee schtick going on. Is he self-deprecating? Sure. Wise-cracking? Yup. Quirky and irreverent? Yes and yes. While a 10-year run condensed to a single role can do that to any actor—and apparently make him millions in the process—wasn't Downey supposed to be one of the greatest actors of his generation and not the guy inside an iron suit?
Let’s think about this for a minute. Robert Downey Jr.’s entire journey towards stardom for was built on a Marvel-less potential. After a lead in Jim Toback’s The Pick-up Artist (1987) and a stint as the drug-muddled Julian in Less than Zero (1987), he was one of the most exciting talents of his generation. A cascade of movies followed where he flexed intellectual sarcasm, and an ability to upturn boring material. Sure, he underwent a publicized downfall from drug abuse during the 90s, but he was still talented enough to be welcomed back—due to the personal vouch by a once respected Mel Gibson—in order to reframe his celebrity.
At the age of 38, he was still very much on the path to a prestigious comeback: Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang, Good Night, and Good Luck, A Scanner Darkly and Zodiac showed his undeniable charisma within those big, adult dramas that Hollywoods barely makes anymore. But then came this multi-billion dollar corporation called Marvel, with a multi-year commitment to play Tony Stark. And while it’s clear it’s the role he was meant to play, and it means one of the most gifted talents of a generation spent most of his prime years as the engine behind a singular franchise. It’s a problem—though not necessarily a real problem—that’s unique to Marvel due to its rollout and success. DC seems to reboot its actors every couple years so it’s less of an issue there.
With Avengers: Endgame averaging a 97% percent Rotten Tomato score, many names big and small are looking to hop on the billion dollar bandwagon that Downey helped build. While it’s all well and good to celebrate the amazing feats Marvel brought to cinema goers alike, it’s fair that we start questioning what it’s actually doing for the careers of those sucked into the brand.
Robert Downey Jr.
Let’s be honest. Downey is 54, and it’s been 9 years since he’s starred in a decent non-Marvel movie, and even then, it was an entry in the blockbuster Sherlock Holmes series. He’s yet to play a halfway interesting non-Tony Stark lead character since Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005). Iron Man was perhaps the perfect role made into the perfect Downey parable: the up-ticking celebrity who falls down a wrong path, only to rise again. But a 10-year commitment to any one role can begin to have too much pull on any talent.
From 2008 to 2011, you couldn’t get a Downey role that strayed far from the Iron Man template: whip-smart, tender, talky, and voicey. And you couldn’t avoid the Stark-isms either, leaving us with mostly “isms”. As his time as Tony Stark likely comes to a close, the argument that Downey could have done more with his talent is beginning to set in—and whether or not he’ll always be known as Iron Man—is beginning to become the question.
Before Marvel movie total :25 Highlights: Charlie Bartlett (2007), Lucky You (2007), Zodiac (2007), Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005), Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), Chaplin (1992)
During Marvel movie Total: 8 Highlights: The Judge (2014), Sherlock Holmes (2009), Tropic Thunder (2008).
Career verdict: Wasted Lead Actor Oscar Potential
Don Cheadle is the guy capable of being quaint, affably silly, all while doing that thing Oscar winners do when they flex range. His Cheadle-ness began as a co-star to Denzel Washington in 1993. And from there, Cheadle ventured from victim and villain personas, like the pornstar turned salesman in Boogie Nights (1997), to the hotel manager sheltering refugees in Hotel Rwanda (2004)—a role that earned him an Oscar nom for best actor.
Meanwhile, his after-Marvel career seems to have confined that talent to the body of a middle management ass-kisser in Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes, aka War Machine from Iron Man 2 (2010). Since getting in bed with the Marvel machine and replacing Terrence Howard, he’s starred in just two films apart from lesser known television shows ( House of Lies and Black Monday). For an actor that was given a grand total of an hour to sign his contract, he’s beginning to feel indistinguishable from Rhodes—which isn’t a compliment.
Before Marvel movie total: 30 Highlights: Hotel Rwanda (2004), Crash (2004), Ocean’s Eleven (2001), Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)
During Marvel movie total: 2 Highlights: Miles Ahead (2015), The Guard (2011)
Career verdict: Wasted Supporting Actor Oscar Potential
In the space of on-screen heroes, Evans is the sole actor of Marvel-ish origins beginning with Fantastic 4 (2005), who somehow turned The Human Torch into the self-absorbed heartthrob with the sleeze of a Blind Date contestant. As if to push the superhero point home, he also played—with a knowing wink—a cocky action star actor in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Through all these roles, you believed he could be a star, even if it never became a thing. His blend of adorability, cockiness, and fitness could never push past the dominating Bradley Coopers and Leonardo DiCaprios of the world. And when it did, it was an indie flick ( Cellular) that kept his potential at a whisper.
In a pre-Marvel life, Evans might have found his “It” zone by scratching and crawling his way to the top, but it’s easy to assume that the scheduling demands of the eight-year stint as Captain America (2011-2019) put that discovery on hold. Playing the multi-million dollar embodiment an American symbol older than the actor himself doesn’t come with a stardom built on self-discovery. And there’s no telling if Evans can give us another stellar movie like Snowpiercer without audiences thinking of Steve Rogers.
Before Marvel movie total: 15
Highlights: Scott Pilgrim vs The World (2010), Sunshine (2007), Cellular (2004)
During Marvel movie total: 6
Highlights: Gifted (2017), Snowpiercer (2013), The Iceman (2012)
Career verdict: On track for continued stardom
Chris Hemsworth was in a grand total of three movies before taking on the god of thunder known as Thor. So, in effect, he was an untested slab of blonde beef before becoming part of the machine. Without Thor (2011), his on-screen sexiness might have been a case of false god worship. Even today, he could be mistaken for a crossfit guy who walks with a shirt opened to the middle of his chest. But due to the agreeable humour of Thor, he’s fast tracked his way to becoming the 10th highest paid actor according to Forbes, and a professional with a half decent resume that includes the Formula One drama Rush (2013) and Bad Times at the El Royale (2018).
Sure, the same issues with Evans’ stardom apply to Hemsworth, but given his after-Marvel track record, it’s hard to make the argument that he’ll struggle to find his niche, even if we still see Thor.
Before Marvel movie total: 3
Highlights: Ca$h (2010), A Perfect Getaway (2009), Star Trek (2009)
During Marvel movie total: 10
Highlights: Bad Times at the El Royale (2018), Rush (2013), Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
Career verdict: Significantly improved
Mark Ruffalo is what you’d call an indie idol—the glum dude with the cuddly face that screams poor life choices with a broken heart. Even as he bounced around prestige films such as Zodiac (2007) and Collateral (2004), he stood at the edges of superstar status. While you can claim that he’s found a higher place with the nuanced, funny, but disheveled Hulk in The Avengers (2012), he still shares that screen time with an entire visual-effects team. So yes, he’s yet another star who classes up the MCU joint with hard fought stardum, but Ruffolo has balanced his Marvel duties with Oscar-worthy roles in Foxcatcher and Spotlight that still stand strong.
Before Marvel movie total: 38
Highlights: Shutter Island (2010), , Zodiac (2007), You Can Count on Me (2000)
During Marvel movie total: 7
Highlights: Spotlight (2015), Foxcatcher (2014), Infinitely Polar Bear (2014)
Career verdict: No impact, except to his bank account
As far as acting chops, pre-Marvel Johansson was already a pretty big star. You’d look to her sympathetic and kind characters, like in the case of the cult classic, Lost in Translation or Chris Nolan’s underrated The Prestige.
But check out Johansson now, and you’ll spot how much the rugged Russian spy in Iron Man 2’s Black Widow rubbed off on her catalogue. She’s more in control—in both appearance and actions. And it’ll only take a single viewing of the icy thriller Under the Skin to pinpoint the surprising and deliberate shift in her physicality and prowess that even extends to an AI voice in Spike Jonze’s Her. While she’s had her fare stint of actiony duds ( Ghost in the Shell and Lucy), her rep built from the Marvel machine has turned her into a bonafide physical actress.
Before Marvel movie total: 17
Highlights: The Other Boleyn Girl (2008), The Black Dahlia (2006), Lost in Translation (2003)
During Marvel movie total: 9
Highlights: Lucy (2014), Her (2013), Under the Skin (2013)
Career: Continued A-lister status
Without question, she’s the most talented Olsen sister. And whether you call that achievement her personal complex or not, she’s worked hard to overcome the perception of being the third-wheel in the shadow the famed Olsen twins. Her biggest breakout by far was her role in Martha Marcy May Marlene—a demanding lead about a woman who escapes a cult—earning her a film critics award.
And while she’s spent the early part of her career honing her craft between clever independent movies and everyday blockbusters like Godzilla (2014), there’s no signs of Marvel loosening its grip around her talents and time. As an actress playing one of the more powerful MCU characters in Scarlet Witch, she has at least three movies left on her contract. Adding to that, there’s also that newly announced Disney series coined Vision and Scarlet Witch , that’s set to take up even more of her schedule. Like several talents before her, it’s the same question of whether we’ll lose out by Olsen focusing on a role that may consume prestigious possibilities.
Before Marvel movie total: 8 Highlights: Kill Your Darlings (2013), Liberal Arts (2012), Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)
During Marvel movie total: 4
Highlights: I Saw the Light (2015), Ingrid Goes West (2017), Wind River (2017)
Career verdict: On the bubble
Pratt began as a stereotypical team player. Rarely the star, but always noticeable in that “he made me laugh” sorta way. At first, pre-Marvel Pratt began minor: A bad boyfriend in the cult classic Jennifer’s Body (2009) or an elite soldier in Zero Dark Thirty (2012). Regardless of the role, he was often called on for his comedic instincts; ultimately leading to an impressive television run with Parks and Recreation (2009- 2015). And then he got jacked. After the pickup by Marvel as the gun-touting space pirate Star-Lord though, his funny action guy image was solidified; think the western film The Magnificent Seven, Jurassic World or Jem and the Holograms (2015). While Passengers was a mediocre outlier for Pratt, he’s in that space that if you squint hard you can see a young Harrison Ford. Given the few emotional moments that demonstrate the range of Pratt, it would be a shame if his continual ties with Star Lord tied him down.
Before Marvel movie total: 15 Highlights: Kill Your Darlings (2013), Liberal Arts (2012), Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)
During Marvel movie total: 6 Highlights: Her (2013), Zero Dark Thirty (2013), Moneyball (2012)
Career verdict: Trending towards A-lister
Granted, with only two films under Hiddleston’s belt prior to the mythological trickster known as Thor’s (2011) Loki, his career is on a steady rise. Since signing up for Marvel, his talent has been most notably associated with a role as the decades old rock ’n’ roll vampire Adam, in Only Lovers Left Alive. And in nine years after becoming brother to Thor, he’s had enough of a cinematic palette to star in 11 half decent movies since 2011—a damn good average.
While it’s true that Tom will be tied up in absolute Marvel-ness with his new Disney series Loki, he’s charming and soulful enough as an English personality—proven by his after-Marvel track record—to still flex his talents with the coming obligations.
Before Marvel movie total: 2 Highlights: Archipelago (2010), Unrelated (2007)
During Marvel movie total: 4
Highlights: Kong: Skull Island (2017), Crimson Peak (2015), Midnight in Paris (2011)
Career verdict: No worries.
Paul Bettany is what you’d call a quiet talents. In all honesty, he’s got one of the better ranges of any actor in the business, bouncing from robots, to priests, to Star Wars villains. But he’s no Joaquin Phoenix either. Even as the forgettable android known as Vision from Avengers: Age of Ultron—occasional voice work doesn’t count—he’s never disappeared into any of his characters. And it was always the same British modesty, self-deprecation, and charm.
Before Marvel, he starred in a total of 16 movies which most notably included the classic romance, A Knight’s Tale , and the critically acclaimed financial drama Margin Call. Since dawning the purple, gold and green gettup however, he’s only starred in two films. With the continuity of his character through his new TV series, the Marvel Machine is looking to rob even more of his time, and subsequently, his quiet range.
Before Marvel movie total: 17 Highlights: Wimbledon (2004), A Knight’s Tale (2011), Dogville (2003)
During Marvel movie total: 4
Highlights: Journey’s End (2017), Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
Career verdict: Wasted character actor potential
It’s ironic how many times Jeremy Renner has iced others on screen. Whether it was a gun touting outlaw in The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, or serial killer in Dahmer , Jeremy’s natural talent for ruggedess had a shelf life well before playing the arrow-wielding assassin Hawkeye from The Avengers (2012).
In every action role Renner plays—whether Hawkeye or whoever he plays in the Mission Impossible series—he habitually gets stuck in Jeremy Renner land, which rarely does his talent any justice. He’s rarely had the opportunity to extend himself in those movies like he did in the 2005 drama 12 and Holding, which featured one of the few cinematic moments when Renner cried. As of The Avengers: Endgame, he’ll reach four films out of the standard six movie contract he originally signed up for. And it’s safe to say that we’ll see more Renner dividing his skills with a character who’s, frankly, less than a side dish character in the grand scheme of things. Just more movies like Wind River and less like Tag, please. Jeremy, you’re not that funny.
Before Marvel movie total: 14
Highlights: The Town (2010),The Hurt Locker (2008), 12 and Holding (2005)
During Marvel movie total: 9
Highlights: Wind River (2017) , Arrival (2016), The Bourne Legacy (2012), Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)
Career verdict: Still not quite an A-lister
This appeal of the superhero phenomenon clearly isn’t stopping anytime soon, and you can basically divide the winners and losers of this future into three separate categories:
The raffle winners: The talents who go from zero to 100 by signing the dotted line and embracing a lead. They’re the most uncertain of the bunch before Marvel—the Chrisesm really—whose potential is determined by the notoriety of a brand that isn’t theirs to keep forever.
Then you have the actors who class up the Marvel Universe. They’ve come with hard fought battle scars, and serve as both the donors of talent and beneficiaries of status. Think Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, and Tom Hiddleston.
The final combo to this equation are the stupidly good professionals who will voluntarily waste away to these million dollar roles. Robert Downey Jr. and Don Cheadle are prime examples of actors whose catalogues seemingly devolved due to their dedication.
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