“Like Tony Stark, who is saved by his symbolic birth into a superhero body, Robert Downey Jr. is saved by his rebirth into the movies with a superbody.”
Robert Downey Jr. has some serious superhero clout. He has done amazing things after the significant setbacks he faced with his drug abuse, continuing to make commercially and critically successful films and achieving master status with awards and nominations. These days, he is most famous, and most widely distributed, as the American superhero Iron Man. As if commenting on his own path of life, Tony Stark’s path in Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008) mirrors Downey Jr’s, as someone who recreates himself and his strengths after a significant hurdle. Like Tony Stark, who is saved by his symbolic birth into a superhero body, Robert Downey Jr. is saved by his rebirth into the movies with a superbody.
His original rebirth actually occurs with The Singing Detective (Keith Gordon, 2003), where, hospitalized with a crippling skin disease, Downey Jr. dreams himself to be a 1950s private detective a la Philip Marlowe, who easily fits into an earlier era of superheroes. Soon afterward in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Shane Black, 2005), Downey Jr. is an actor posing as a private detective, and his character makes reference to such detectives from 1950s films. And of course, there is the visual plug for Iron Man, with the minor storyline about a fictional robot who wears an outfit very similar to that of a certain other superhero. This film, which is otherwise fairly lacklustre and cinematically unimpressive, is an important piece in Downey Jr’s oeuvre.
Entered into the superhero catalogue as Iron Man, Downey Jr. is now and forever coded within the paradigm. Perhaps not in the eyes of long-time comic book fans (who have their own opinions about actors), but certainly in the eyes of the mainstream cineworld and by those who love superhero movies. Film and cultural scholar Leo Braudy wrote in 1976, “The basic nature of character in film is omission — the omission of connective between appearances, of references to the actor’s existence in other films, of inner meditation, in short, of all possible other worlds and selves except the one we see before us” (Dyer, 119). This is clearly no longer the case. With a cameo in The Incredible Hulk (Louis Leterrier, 2008), as much for the solidification of his own superidentity as for a Marvel Studios cross-promotion, Iron Man’s presence spreads and Downey Jr’s identity becomes even stronger. Having recently impressed fans as Sherlock Holmes, Downey Jr. is becoming more and more desired. The old expression applies; women want him, men want to be like him. In Iron Man, an engineer apologises to the film’s villain Obadiah (Jeff Bridges) because he fails to replicate the iron suit: “Well, I’m sorry, I’m not Tony Stark,” he says. The line may as well have been, “Sorry, I’m not Robert Downey Jr,” as with his new 21st-century superhero identity and his quick-witted intelligence, certainly his person is to be envied. Tony Stark is constructed as a cool, suave guy, is ogled by men, women, and soldiers alike, and glamourized on magazine covers — just like Downey Jr, he is idolized as a star.
Scott Bukatman, in his extensive study of the superhero body and the superhero city, writes that many superheroes, defined by their own bodies, “are essentially presented as nudes (costumes are more coloration than cover-up)” (Bukatman, 59). With their bare bodies alone, early comic book superheroes could take on the American industrial landscape of the 1930s: “only the Man of Steel has the constitution, organs, and abilities equal to the rigors of the Machine Age.” (Bukatman, 53) Iron Man then represents a new kind of superhero, one whose mechanical, not bodily, armour is the source of his power. Originally created in 1963 against a Cold War background, Downey Jr’s Iron Man is shifted to war-torn Afghanistan, presumably in the early 2000s. Iron Man was not made to equal the rigors of the Machine Age; he was made to equal the severity and strength of weapons of mass destruction. At the same time, he represents what Bukatman describes as a tension between a monstrous body and an emotional inner core. With an excessively hypermasculine disguise masking Tony Stark (a man who really only wants World Peace), Iron Man is a prime example of a scenario in which “[p]hysical strength only hides the emotionally complex inner subject” (Bukatman, 64). Iron Man is like Batman in this sense, with Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne both creating their man-made superbodies out of machinery as a contribution to the greater good. Both Iron Man and Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, 2005) feature elaborate montage sequences where the heroes build their masked bodies. These hypermasculine machine bodies can only succeed on an already muscular body, and only intensify a physical and inner strength that is already there.
It is because of Downey Jr’s place in the modern superhero canon that he was cast, so successfully, as Sherlock Holmes. One of the most common negative responses that I encountered in regard to Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes (2009) has been that the detective should not be muscular and built with a six-pack. But in the current cultural climate where narratives from the past are becoming updated, taking on meanings and identities that have traversed time and settling in a new generation, his six-pack is particularly apt. Sherlock Holmes is a superhero. He is, remarkably, and like Superman, equal to the rigors of the industrial age of his time: he fights side-by-side with the Industrial Revolution, escaping death at the hands of a ship-in-production, and at the great heights of an under-construction bridge. Bukatman writes that “superhero bodies, despite their plasticity, are armoured bodies, rigid against the chaos of surrounding disorder” (Bukatman, 56). This is where the strength of Holmes’ six-pack lies; whereas in Iron Man it is Downey Jr’s suit that is excessively fetishized, in Sherlock Holmes, it is above all his body. He is defined by his a body from the opening scene of the film, where his muscles are on display and even spectacularized in slow motion as a signifier of his strength. Susan Bordo provides a perfect assessment: “[M]uscles have chiefly symbolized and continue to symbolize masculine power as physical strength” (Bordo, 193). Without this display of muscularity it is unclear whether Sherlock would be quite as strong; Watson, after all, is only the sidekick, and there is a reason he never takes off his shirt.
Holmes’ body is perpetually ripe for movement, and while he cannot always use his body as solid armour, he is, without fail, ready to work with his environment. Readily resourceful, he is a superhero not only of his body, but also of the world around him. Using a metal prong in his defence, Holmes gains uncanny strength, as though having a superpower. Tony Stark builds an iron suit out of scrap metal while trapped in an Afghani cave. In this way, the common ground between Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes is not only Robert Downey Jr; it is also their shared ability to become a superhero by using what is around them. In fact, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle originally wrote Sherlock Holmes as a man with “extraordinary powers.” This is no doubt a remarkable imagining for the late 19th Century, yet it could only be written in the pages of fiction. For several years following their debut appearances in 1939, Superman and Batman’s powers were similarly confined to the pages of newspapers and paper comics. In the early 1940s, Batman became a human face in a film serial directed by Lambert Hillyer, with the broad-chested Lewis Wilson as our hero. Superman was not given a body until 1948, when Kirk Alyn portrayed him in a similar film serial. However, due to technical limitations, Alyn was replaced by an animated graphic of Superman whenever the character was shown to be flying. It was only later that such superpowers were translated to the screen, and emphasis most certainly was put on the body. Christian Bale, for example, has changed the weight and muscularity of his body multiple times for film roles, including losing and gaining weight in between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008). With the development of technical ability in cinema, the body of the superhero figure is now more important than ever. It is Downey Jr’s own superbody that makes him a worthy star.
Accordingly, it remains the star who is the most important figure in the existence of the film character as it is they who create a life. In Stars, Richard Dyer writes that “a character’s personality in a film is seldom something given in a single shot,” rather it has to “be built up, by film-makers and audience alike” (Dyer, 106). A character’s personality, then, is made up not only of content from a single textual source but of their intertextual identity and their existence in a whole range of media and stories. It is axiomatic that the appearance of a star will bring interest to a film whatever its subject matter. We can see this star power exploited recently on the first season of Glee (2009-), a television show based on the genius idea that money can be made weekly, and worldwide, from the large musical theatre fanbase. With the recurring guest appearances of Idina Menzel, famous for being the first woman on Broadway to create the character of Elphaba in Wicked, Glee created a lot of publicity for itself. Even now, I can’t even think of the name of her character on the show, because she is clearly only there to perform as Idina Menzel. In the same way, the recent appearance of two stars from Glee at the Tony Awards drew a large audience to the televised broadcast of an event whose awards have nothing at all to do with television.
This example from Glee illustrates the power of the star in visual media, and that, as Dyer writes, “it is very common for people to speak of a character in a film as having the star’s name” (Dyer, 109). This is why it is okay for Sherlock Holmes to have a sixpack — because more than remaining faithful to Doyle’s stories, Guy Ritchie’s film is about Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes. This is also why, when Holmes embarrasses himself and Watson (Jude Law) very early in the film, he is immediately able to redeem himself by winning a boxing match. As our identifiable hero, the spectators want Downey Jr. to come out on top and will without hesitation accept anything that makes it happen. In the past, it has been the superhero’s disguise that held their power: “the mask is the perfect synecdoche for the superhero, the mysterious totem that makes everything possible” (Bukatman, 212). At the moment, Robert Downey Jr is a synecdoche for a superhero. It is not Downey Jr’s disguise that is his weapon; it is himself. And he will remain a weapon embedded in this canon; a sequel to Sherlock Holmes and more Iron Man franchising with The Avengers (Joss Whedon) slowly approach their release dates.
Unlike Sherlock Holmes, who wants to keep his identity from the public eye, Tony Stark wants everyone to know that he is Iron Man — his revelation during a press conference is one of the best moments of Iron Man 2. This sets him apart from other superheroes who observe the “secret identity” rule and use anonymity to protect their superstrength. With a slight element of this traditional superhero sensibility, Sherlock betrays a lack of modesty, a desire to be celebrated. “You made the front page,” he is told, when issued a warrant for arrest. “Only name and no picture?” Sherlock laments. But the absence of a photograph is ultimately irrelevant — everyone knows that Robert Downey Jr. is the real star.
Bordo, Susan. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Berkeley: Los Angeles: London; University of California Press, 2003.
Bukatman, Scott. Matters of Gravity: Special Effects and Supermen in the 20th Century. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003.
Dyer, Richard. Stars, London; British Film Institute, 2004.