Good as "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" was, it was underseen, and so yet again, didn't provide an immediate springboard to megastardom. But for once we're glad, because over the next few years, Downey Jr. took some interesting smaller roles in films like "Good Night and Good Luck," "A Guide to Recognising your Saints" and "A Scanner Darkly" that firmly established the sober RDJ as, if anything, superior, in terms of acting ability, to the less reliable earlier incarnation. There's a certain worldly wisdom that he brings to these parts, a sense of a life lived before and after and outside the frame of the films that the less mature version didn't have.
And during this period he again showed that the the amount of screen time his character was given didn't necessarily have a bearing on the impact he could have. This team-player side to his talents found a great vehicle in David Fincher's all-round terrific, low-key "Zodiac." Downey Jr. plays Paul Avery, the San Francisco Chronicle crime reporter who first leads the paper's investigation into the Zodiac killer. He also proves one of his more oblique victims, as obsession with the case leads to paranoia, alcoholism and drug dependency, before he quits the newspaper, and passes the baton of obsession to Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal). It's definitely an ensemble piece, with an odd, episodic structure (trying to mirror the real-life unfolding of events) that means that Avery is not ever the sole focus of our attention, but Downey Jr. owns the role, and gives a stellar portrait of a smart man whose intelligence turns in on itself in self-destructive fashion when faced with a problem he can't solve. And in terms of Downey Jr.'s career, the Fincher film really marks the end of the extended, extended "before" period, as the following year he would hit our screens as…
"Iron Man" (2008)
So if there was a theoretical Big Bang at the start of the Marvel Universe project, it happened in 2008 with Marvel Studios' very first independent feature, "Iron Man." The history of that property is a tale for another day, suffice to say it became an example of congruence and serendipity, with the studio dodging bullets like rights issues, scripting difficulties and Len Wiseman, to settle on Jon Favreau for the eventual director, and Robert Downey Jr. for the star. Himself not an obvious choice, Favreau was initially keen to get an unknown for the role of Tony Stark/Iron Man, but Downey Jr., apparently a fan of the comic, had some inkling of what the role could mean for him and convinced the director otherwise. He went after it full-bloodedly: "I prepared for the screen test so feverishly that I literally made it impossible for anybody to do a better job," he told Playboy in 2010.
And while story and action was meticulously planned in advance, Downey Jr. did end up improvising or reinventing a lot of his dialogue, so that feel you get while you're watching Tony Stark trade quips, makes it seem that they're his quips, has some basis. A sense of humour was something he and Favreau both believed the role sorely needed, and Downey Jr. apparently mined his own experiences with going into and the coming out the other side of, addiction and drug dependence. "Robert brings a depth that goes beyond a comic-book character who is having trouble in high school, or can't get the girl." said Favreau.
So an unusual alignment of the planets or something caused the right script to go to the right actor under the right director at exactly the right time. And for Downey Jr., the film's massive success, and his own hugely lauded role in that, changed the trajectory of his career forever. Subsequent to "Iron Man," of course, his raised profile has enabled him to mount another franchise in the "Sherlock Holmes" movies, as well as to pursue more personal (and the cynic would say Oscar-baity) projects like "The Soloist." But his second Oscar nomination actually came the same year as "Iron Man," for his hilarious but decidedly-not-Oscar-baity role in "Tropic Thunder" -- that Downey Jr. could negotiate the minefield of performing in a comedy in (satirical) blackface and come out with Academy approval is nothing short of miraculous, but perhaps points to just how much even they were rooting for him to be the huge star he has since become.
With two more "Iron Man" films under his belt and a very central gig on the 3rd-highest-grossing movie of all time "The Avengers," (for which he reputedly pocketed a cool $50 million in a back-end deal), Downey Jr. is, after all these years a massive star. And that's not likely to change any time soon, with a crowded upcoming slate that may not feature Paul Thomas Anderson's "Inherent Vice," but will see him take on "The Judge," opposite Robert Duvall, and possibly the mooted "Pinocchio" before "The Avengers 2" arrives in 2015. But there is something about the self-awareness that the long climb and his frequent stumbles have given him, along with a string of witty awards speeches and note-perfect red carpet appearances that makes his success hard to begrudge. More than his peers, there's a feeling that RDJ earned his spot at the top table, and maybe still remembers what it was like to be on the outside.
"The morning Jon Favreau called and told me I'd gotten the ['Iron Man'] gig—I still get all choked up just remembering," Downey Jr. told Playboy in 2010. "It was such an invitation to this cornucopia of possibilities. And it all happened."