[Analysis] - Do Marvel And Robert Downey Jr. Need Each Other?

Courtesy of Marvel
After watching the first trailer for The Winter Soldier yesterday, it put a bug in my brain. Here is a movie being fronted by Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson and Samuel L. Jackson, three stars of pretty prominent fame, who are guaranteed a steady income if they spend the rest of their careers playing these characters. Granted few actors want that kind of repetition, and would ultimately find no challenge in playing the same character over and over again (unless we're talking about Johnny Depp, obviously). But if all other movie roles dried up, they'd at least be set in the roles of Cap, Widow and Fury. I don't know why this thought kept picking at my mind, but during my commute home, it set up show front and centre of my skull.

Marvel is notoriously cheap too, picking lesser known, lower profile or straight up freshman actors to fill roles that are anticipated to have some longevity, because they aren't stars yet, and can be signed to multi-film contracts knowing that the Marvel films will raise their profiles. Chris Hemsworth was a fresh face, Chris Evans' biggest role had been as the Human Torch in the Fantastic Four films (and remained a supporting actor, rather than a lead). The supporting casts are generally television actors, like Thor's Jaimie Alexander, Idris Elba and Kat Dennings. It's only in the case of high profile, smaller roles, like Anthony Hopkins as Odin, or Jackson as Fury, or Johansson as Widow initially, that actual bankable names were hired. Except Iron Man.

Iron Man was the first out of the gate, and Marvel wanted to make a splash, so they stacked their film with the biggest names they could get. Terrence Howard was coming off the critical successes of Crash and Hustle & Flow, Jeff Bridges was Jeff Bridges, and Gwyneth Paltrow was still considered A-list despite not having a major success since The Royal Tenenbaums. And anchoring it all was former bad boy turned reformed charisma bomb, Robert Downey Jr., who was the biggest risk the studio took. Iron Man catapulted Downey back into the upper echelons of the Hollywood caste system, and as he recently concluded his Iron Man trilogy, time had come to renegotiate his contract. Downey was demanding big bucks, but was also claiming that he was a major draw. Joss Whedon conceded that when work began on Avengers, Downey believed that he would be the star. Kevin Feige has long maintained that the characters are larger than any one actor, using James Bond as his exemplar. And yet, contracts were signed, and Downey's role in Age of Ultron was secured. But it got me to thinking, who needs whom more, Marvel or Downey? 

After the jump, I'll look at the numbers, and see if anything might be discerned.
We'll start by looking at Downey. If we must look at his career in stages, then his time on Ally McBeal represents the end of the drug infused portion of his life. He wouldn't return to a significant role until 2003's The Singing Detective, Mel Gibson's bizarre adaptation of the surreal BBC musical. The same year he appeared in Halle Berry's continued descent into obscurity, Gothika. It wasn't until 2005's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang that Downey made audiences notice him again, turning in a fantastic performance in Lethal Weapon originator Shane Black's return to Hollywood after a decade. Determined to use the goodwill the role brought him, and his considerable charm, he turned out a string of films over the next two years, working his way back up the Hollywood ladder, in films like Good Night, and Good Luck, Zodiac, A Scanner Darkly and Charlie Bartlett, with Downey's performances almost always singled out.

Then came Iron Man, and just like that he was on top of the dog pile again. And this is where a shift happens. Suddenly in demand, he hitches himself to two franchises, the Marvel films, and Guy Richie's Sherlock Holmes adaptations. The majority of his output over the last six years have been in one of these two arenas. In fact, he's only made three films outside of these franchises, and two of those (Tropic Thunder and The Soloist) were ones he was attached to before Iron Man's success. 2010's Due Date stands alone in the original category. Other film roles, like George Clooney's character in Gravity or a Perry Mason reboot were offered and accepted, but had to be refused in favour of the franchise. It's only now that Tony Stark is receding that he has begun to accept new roles, like in Jon Favreau's Chef.

Downey remains the only lead actor in a Marvel film to have marketing focused on promoting him in equal measure to the character. The only other that comes close is the media push for Tom Hiddleston as Loki in Thor: the Dark World, and to a lesser extent, Joss Whedon's role as Avengers guru (expect to see that played up big time for the sequel). Because Marvel wants to focus to be on the characters, and because the actors still aren't as well known as the roles they are playing, the films tend to be "the return of an Avenger." However, Downey is still identified primary as Iron Man, not playing Iron Man. Marketing for the Sherlock Holmes films used Downey's Iron Man fame to their advantage, but because of the ubiquitous of the role (and the BBC's far superior series starring Cumberbatch), Downey and Sherlock will never be closely associated.  

Tropic Thunder was an assemble piece, and the major of the focus of promotion was on Ben Stiller and Tom Cruise. The Soloist was initially an award bait film that got pushed back into the dead zone of late winter, and was still sold primarily on Jamie Foxx's remaining Ray clout (something that ran out just in time for him to make Django). The film disappointed with $31 million. Due Date opened in second place, and made $200 million when all was said and done, but it was sold more on the recent success of director Todd Phillips and star Zach Galifianakis' film The Hangover. What focus on Downey there was, made a point of driving home how much different from Tony Stark this new guy was (punching a kid in the gut, for instance). Since his come back, a film has yet to be sold on Downey's star power alone, in the way that mentioning Clooney's name, or Cruise's can immediately sell a film.

When looking at Marvel's films, it comes down to two things: the numbers and the critics. Until 2008, Marvel had farmed their materials out, but were looking to establish more creative control over their properties (especially in the wake of disappointments X-Men The Last Stand and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer). Iron Man was a risk for a lot of reasons. First, he was a B-List hero at best, someone that had very little prior public profile. There was no nostalgia riddled TV show in the character's history, no culturally defining story form the comics that transcended medium and genre. Second, they had a formerly washed up actor in the lead role, who hadn't had a successful lead role in a film since 1992's Chaplin (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang had been critically lauded but only brought in $4 million). Third, superhero movies were still largely defined by either the vague cartoonishness of the Spider-man films, or the gritty noir of Christopher Nolan's recent Dark Knight films. There was yet to be a movie about a superhero that could be considered a good film. Marvel sought to change that. And finally, secretly, they were planning their Avengers experiment.

Iron Man opened to $98 million and rave reviews, ultimately bringing in half a billion dollars. But it wasn't proof that they were doing something right. The writer's strike had forced them to start filming without a completed script, and so much of the originality, charm and bounce in the film was down to talented actors working from an outline. Which, despite the success of the film, was no way to work in the long run. Next up was The Incredible Hulk, which had to overcome the dizzying prejudice audiences had that a CGI Hulk wouldn't look as realistic as a bodybuilder painted green, as the old school series had been. A less charismatic and more creatively difficult star didn't help matters, nor did a largely unknown director and the Green Menace opened to half of Iron Man's take, ultimately bringing in only $200 million. Quick to capitalise on their success, Iron Man 2 was put in motion.

The most important lessons Marvel has learned, they learned from the mess that would be Iron Man 2. Financially successful at $128 million (ending up at 2/3rds of a billion), it was critically gouged and fans weren't impressed at how intrusive the seeds for the Avengers film were to Tony's storyline. From here on out, while the films might share elements, the edict was clear: each film was to be it's own thing. Next up were the one two punch of Thor and Captain America, a genre film and a period peace, two incredibly hard sells to American audiences. And again, very little general public knowledge about the characters. No catchy theme songs, no easy to remember catch phrases. And yet, despite the bad taste left over from the last two films, Thor opened to $65 million ($449 million to close) and Cap did pretty much exactly the same (closing with slightly less, $370 million). The pieces were set, the audience was accepting of new things, and most importantly, the films were good. Thor and Cap were both well liked by critics and audiences, and Marvel was regarded in the same way that Pixar had been, a studio that turned out a consistant decent, likable product.

Then it happened. And there was no reason to see it coming. Even with Iron Man's greater success, the feeder films were pulling in standard business for summer blockbusters. Marvel hadn't had a financial bomb, and Hulk was the only of the films not to open in number one. But a television writer with exactly one film to his name, and a hectic, character heavy team up film was not expected to topple giants like James Cameron or Batman. So a $200 million dollar opening weekend, and a record setting $1.5 billion dollar high water mark, along with near universal critical appraisal, made Avengers the crown in Marvel's ascendancy in film making. This spring's Iron Man 3 made $174 million out of the gate, and $1.2 billion all told, but it is hard to determine if that was a reaction to the Avengers, or a building interest in Iron Man. Thor: The Dark World will be the real test, in the coming weeks, to see if it was character appeal, or if the studio's efforts have made any Marvel film, regardless of who is headlining, a must see event.

So, to put something of an answer to the initial question, do Marvel and Robert Downey Jr. need each other? I think Downey needs Marvel more than Marvel needs him. Marvel, though not record setting, has had not Downey related success with their other properties, and are willing to experiment without the safety net of established actors and characters. Unless Dark World or Winter Soldier bomb (which I can't see happening. Guardians maybe, but not the sequels), Marvel is secure. At the very least, they've got Age of Ultron not to far away. Meanwhile, Downey's resurgence has relied almost entirely on franchises, and has built his career resurrection heavily on the back of Iron Man. His challenge in the next couple years is to land a couple high profile films on his name, or more importantly, his talent alone, without a safety net. Otherwise he might have to seek a humbled solace in the comfort of his red and gold armour.

All figures taken from Box Office Mojo.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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