The Marvel Cinematic Universe is brimming with stories of redemption, but Robert Downey Jr.'s behind-the-scenes journey might just be the greatest one of them all. I still remember the moment I found out Downey had been cast in the role of Tony Stark. As a comic fan, it seemed to me like the most pitch-perfect casting imaginable. There was no better actor for the role, but when "Iron Man" was released in 2008, he was anything but a sure bet. Despite being undeniably talented, there was a point when Downey was more infamous than famous.
Having spent much of the '90s and a bit of the early aughts mired in controversy due to his ongoing struggles with drug addiction, Downey was a persona non grata in Hollywood, one whose habits had made him uninsurable. The actor cleaned up sometime in 2003, but anyone who's battled addiction will tell you that just because you get clean doesn't mean people are going to see you any differently.
As someone who once did my fair share of damage, but has now been in recovery for quite a few years, experience has shown me that trust takes very little time to break and requires infinitely more to be rebuilt. Yet screenwriter Shane Black offered Downey "a lifeline" when he cast him in his 2005 film, "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," a movie the actor was still referring to as a favorite as recently as 2020. The thing is, Black would soon need some help as well, and Downey's rather meteoric rise after being cast as Tony Stark enabled the actor to return the favor. "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" is a beloved film these days and rightfully so, but how did a box office bomb wind up bringing both Downey Jr. and Black into the MCU?
'It Ended Up Being My Calling Card To Iron Man'
Black spent a considerable amount of time working on the script for "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," which also served as his directorial debut. He was already a well-known screenwriter, having written films such as "Lethal Weapon" and "The Long Kiss Goodnight," but he'd been out of the spotlight for a long while, and told The Hollywood Reporter in 2016 that he had trouble finding interest in the script. In the end, producer Joel Silver managed to put together a budget of $15 million, and his right hand, Susan Levin, happened to be dating her future husband Robert Downey Jr. at the time. The movie's small budget wasn't a problem for Downey, who was considered unhirable back then. Despite this, the actor's "perfect" line readings led Black to take a chance on him.
Downey's excellent performance in the film, which also featured unforgettable turns from Val Kilmer and Michelle Monaghan, earned him much-deserved attention, and for the first time in a while, that attention was about his onscreen achievements. Downey acknowledges that it was his role in "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" that had "Iron Man" director Jon Favreau going to bat for him with Marvel, saying, "It ended up being my calling card to Iron Man." The studio wasn't exactly eager to give Downey the opportunity.
Regardless of his fantastic performance in Black's movie, Marvel was still reluctant to hire Downey, but thankfully, Favreau wouldn't take no for an answer. Honestly, when I initially heard of the casting, I felt Downey's past made him uniquely suited to play Tony Stark, who had his own battles with alcoholism in Marvel Comics. The films may have chosen not to explore this, but Tony was in need of redemption, much like Robert Downey Jr.
'He Was Also A Lifeline For Me'
Critics may have loved "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," but the film bombed in 2005, leaving Black in a pretty dark place. Much like Downey had once done, the director lost himself in excess for a time. He decided to get sober in 2008, admitting that "one significant change took care of all the problems." Black was working as a script doctor when Downey called him in 2010 about directing "Iron Man 3." He told The Independent in 2018:
"He was also a lifeline for me. No doubt. He called me out of the blue. I was doing rewrite work on a movie called 'Battle: Los Angeles' and was struggling with a spec script. His phone call put me on a level where I was suddenly working with a lot of money, a lot of great people again. Just like that. He had the faith to offer that to me and I gave everything to that picture."
"Iron Man 3" might be a divisive Marvel Cinematic Universe entry — personally I love it — but you can feel how much care went into that movie. It was a success both critically and commercially, majorly revitalizing Black's career in the process. The director followed up the MCU film with "The Nice Guys" in 2016 and "The Predator" in 2018.
The Beginning Of A Beautiful Friendship
It's not that wild to assert that without Robert Downey Jr., the Marvel Cinematic Universe might not exist. "Iron Man" and "The Incredible Hulk" released the same year, and despite having an inarguably gifted lead in Edward Norton, only one of those films launched the MCU as we know it. It's impossible to imagine anyone else embodying the character of Tony Stark the way that Downey has or that another actor could've made the audience root for him so completely no matter what. The actor needed a chance to prove himself and that fresh start began with "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," and Shane Black's faith in him.
It's truly beautiful that Downey was able to offer a newly-sober Black a helping hand, much like the director had offered to him at such a pivotal moment in his life. Addiction isn't a foe to be vanquished like Thanos — if only it were. It's something one has to find a way to accept and live with every single day. I'd be lying if I said that even after all this time, it's not still often an uphill battle, but I do find comfort in the knowledge that much like me, all Downey and Black can do is take it one day at a time.
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