Robert Downey Jr.’s Best Performances: ‘Iron Man,’ ‘Oppenheimer,’ ‘Tropic Thunder,’ and More

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If there’s a defining blockbuster performance of the 21st century, it’s Robert Downey Jr.’s snarky, nimble turn in the 2008 blockbuster “Iron Man.” As Tony Stark, the arrogant tech billionaire turned selfish hero, Downey improbably regained A-list, household name fame in his 40s, following highly publicized setbacks with addiction throughout his career. More broadly, his sarcastic, self-aware take on the superhero genre became a lynchpin and touchstone for the broader Marvel Cinematic Universe and its sitcom-esque, unserious tone, defining the tone of superhero films for a solid decade to come. It’s a development that you either liked or hated, although it’s hard to deny that Downey himself proved eminently charismatic and watchable in that mode.

After playing Stark in many “Iron Man” movies across the MCU — he appeared as the character 10 times between 2008 and 2019 — Downey Jr. firmly exited the cinematic universe with “Avengers: Endgame,” which killed his character off permanently. Since then, his career choices — well, his career choices after the disastrous “Dolittle” — have seemingly been designed to get him the artistic credibility that his extended time as the head cog in the MCU machine denied him. In 2022, he emphasized his lineage in underground filmmaking through a documentary about his late father Robert Downey Sr., a countercultural figure famous for his indie film “Putney Sweep.”

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And in his first acting role since “Endgame” in 2019, Downey chose a meaty, prestige part in Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer,” starring Cillian Murphy as the creator of the atomic bomb. That film is certainly still a blockbuster, but an ambitious and weighty one, with an epic three-hour runtime devoted to political machinations, scientific theory, and ruminations on the cost of greatness. In his role as Rear Admiral Lewis Strauss, Downey is the furthest thing from a superhero: he’s weaselly, cowardly, and more pathetic than inspiring. The sharp change in tone has won Downey the Golden Globe Award, a BAFTA Award, and a Screen Actors Guild Award, as well as his third Oscar nomination.

With the Oscars around the corner and Downey on the cusp of a career-first win, we decided to look at his long, varied career, which began in Brat Pack teen films, continued into Oscar-nominated work like “Chaplin,” and, after various setbacks, rose from the ashes into true movie stardom. In making this list, we based placement on Downey’s performances rather than the films’ overall quality. In addition, we limited ourselves to one entry representing his appearances as Tony Stark in the MCU. With that said, read on for IndieWire’s list of Robert Downey Jr.’s 10 best film performances, ranked.

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