Robert Downey Jr., essential performances“Big man in a suit of armor. Take that away then what are you?” asks Captain America (Chris Evans) in Joss Whedon‘s “The Avengers.” “Genius billionaire playboy philanthropist,” shoots back Tony Stark, in a quip that, delivered either of two ways, is only slightly more impressive than the actual truth. Because of course, outside the suit, and outside the Marvel films, Iron Man/Tony Stark is in fact, Robert Downey Jr., and he’s one of the biggest movie stars on the planet.

But damned if he didn’t make quite a meal out of getting there. When you consider Tom Cruise made “Risky Business” after only four other film roles, (read about his early days here), and Will Smith‘s first-ever role as the “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” meant that he’d be leading “Bad Boys” after just three feature roles, it seems to have taken Downey Jr. an inexcusable amount of time to attain anything like a similar degree of stardom to those fellows. Of course, it doesn’t help that for the better part of a decade there, he was in the throes of a high-level drug addiction, and the arrests, court cases and incarcerations that happened between 1996 and 2001 made him largely unhirable and uninsurable.

But what’s perhaps more of a story than how much his drug problems hampered his career, is how much they didn’t. Unhirable as he was, he kept getting hired. And perhaps that’s because, as well as having some very loyal friends in Hollywood (itself a fact worthy of mention in that notoriously fickle town) even at the height of his off-screen excesses, Downey Jr. was never truly an unpopular actor with audiences. While some of his choices were questionable and definitely money-motivated, he was often, in fact usually, pretty great even when the films weren’t. So he’s been a fairly constant presence on our screens for over two decades now, and he’s flirted with that top level of stardom not just once, but on quite a few occasions, only for it seemingly to evaporate at exactly the point that it should have been a sure thing.

One reason we’d hazard for that constant bubbling-under is actually one of RDJ’s great strengths — he is all types of actor at once. Take a stroll through his back catalogue and you can see it as a series of near-misses or you can see it as an extended trial run for all the different kind of performer he might have wanted to become — a serious, Day-Lewis style “important” actor? An indie darling? A Hugh Grant-esque romantic lead? An out-and-out comedian? There are roles he not just won, but nailed, that suggest he could have been any of these things in a bigger way than he ever was. And luckily, blessed with all that to burn, Downey Jr. conquered his demons and finally channelled some of that restless energy into what we could grandly call a “career plan.” And it has paid off in spades, leading up to his casting as “Iron Man,” a defining role in what could be called the second half of his career.

With his third, and potentially last, time donning the suit coming to your theaters on Friday in the shape of the only-question-is-how-huge “Iron Man 3,” we thought the time was ripe to take a look at Robert Downey Jr.’s back catalogue, to see how he climbed so high. So here goes a whistle-stop tour, in which we pick seven films to use as handy milestones: good or bad, each illustrates a particular phase or a recurring theme in the actor’s long career. There’ve been many twists and turns, but is there any big star whose success feels quite so satisfying?

Less-Than-Zero-robert-downey-jr-15417935-1300-916Less Than Zero” (1987)
Prior to the release of this 1987 film based (rather loosely) on the Bret Easton Ellis novel, Downey Jr. was one of the lesser orbiting satellites of the Brat Pack, boasting a small role in “Weird Science” among other ’80s teen comedies. And 1987 first saw him in another of those — “The Pick-Up Artist” — which was notable for being an early lead as opposed to a best-friend role for Downey Jr., though it was more a rather dull vehicle for then-teen-queen Molly Ringwald. But it was “Less than Zero” that brought the actor the first real attention of his film career, as he got props for the eerily prescient role of Julian, the privileged college graduate who dissipates his promise and his father’s money on a drug habit that gradually spirals out of control and threatens his relationships with best friends Clay and Blair (Andrew McCarthy and Jamie Gertz).

The film has subsequently earned a kind of cult status, though we’re hard pushed to see why it deserves it, salacious themes aside. It’s true that Downey Jr., along with James Spader, gets closest to giving the film some actual bite, but with too much screen time accorded the sappy reunion/love story between Clay and Blair, the original material is shorn of most of its irony — where Ellis is a past master at using shallowness to comment on shallowness, the film lacks that subtlety and ends up more or less “St. Elmo’s Fire” with drugs, bisexuality and hooking. So really, it’s hard to tell if Downey Jr. is actually great in this, or if he’s merely much better than the other two (McCarthy and Gertz — adorable: yes, tragic: not so much) but either way, the role, which the actor claimed was “a catharsis” but also “probably the first time I created a character from scratch,” got him noticed, and became something of a template for future films in which Downey Jr. takes a slightly less central role and plays the oddball character, the misfit, the joker, the damaged one, as opposed to the straight lead.

In fact next up was “Johnny Be Good” in which he played just such an oddball to Anthony Michael Hall‘s jock (whaaa?), followed by a few other middling comedies, until his 1990 film “Air America” teamed him with Mel Gibson. Gibson would prove one of RDJ’s staunchest friends during his most troubled periods, loyalty that Downey Jr. now seems to be paying back — casting his invisibility cloak of superstardom over persona non grata Gibson at the last Golden Globes, for example. “Air America” for its part was never a great film, but has aged badly. “Good intentions, sad result” said RDJ of it at one time. “By the time we were done, the only positive thing was meeting Mel Gibson.”

nullChaplin” (1992)
His star gradually rising, and the parts getting bigger, Downey Jr. then landed his first really big fish in the shape of the lead in Richard Attenborough‘s loving biopic “Chaplin.” The actor, coming off the surprisingly fun and frothy “Soapdish” really threw himself into the role, reportedly learning to play tennis and the violin left-handed for authenticity’s sake, and was of course, rewarded with a Best Actor nomination for his troubles (and he can be justly pissed that he lost to Al Pacino‘s parodic performance in “Scent of a Woman“).

The film itself, though, feels like it’s too dazzled by its subject to give us anything more than a cursory, magazine-y look at Charlie Chaplin’s life, stretched out to overlength, especially a shame when you consider just how up for it Downey Jr. was. A more skilfully crafted screenplay, and a less embalming style of direction could have made this the much more vital piece of work that both actor and subject deserved. Still, though, Robert Downey Jr. hitting one out of the park his first time to bat as far as the “serious acting” brigade were concerned…there was no way this kid (27 at the time) wasn’t going to be huge right?

Well, wrong. Not for the last time, the good buzz the actor earned didn’t actually translate into a big leap forward career-wise. Instead he frittered his momentum away on working with auteurs, yes, but never in the leads, (Robert Altman‘s “Short Cuts” and Oliver Stone‘s “Natural Born Killers“), taking the odd arty leftfield choice (“Restoration,” “Richard III“) and retreating back into the lightweight comedy territory as a failsafe (“Heart and Souls,” “Hail Caesar,” “Home for the Holidays“).

We should also make note here of possible career nadir “Danger Zone” (1996) in which he plays second fiddle to Billy freaking Zane, for heaven’s sake. When asked why he did it, Downey Jr.’s reply was simply: “Five hundred grand for two weeks.” Which is a pretty low level to sink to after an Oscar nod for a prestige biopic just four years before.