How Robert Downey Jr. Became the Iron Man of Summer

Joal Ryan
Movie Talk

Robert Downey Jr. has mastered summer. Or maybe it should be said he's remastered it.
It was 10 summers ago that the actor, once invariably referred to as the "troubled actor," couldn't get insured to star in Woody Allen's "Melinda & Melinda." Today, he's the star of his second consecutive No. 1 summertime box-office hit.

A look at how Downey got from there to "Iron Man 3":

2003: He's not at the bottom — the bottom would be in 1999, when he's sent to prison for drug and weapons violations, or in 2001 when he's fired from "Ally McBeal" after yet another drug-related arrest — but, career-wise, he's pretty close. In order to get hired on "The Singing Detective," the art-house crime musical, he needs friend Mel Gibson to play his producer card. In order to get hired on "Gothika," the Halle Berry thriller, he agrees to having nearly half his pay withheld until the film wraps. And then there's "Melinda & Melinda," from which he gets hired and un-hired.

"It's hard to get out of the barrel," Downey would tell London's Telegraph. "It's slippery around the edges and people are happy to see you fall back in."

Downey credits two things from that year with helping him keep his grip: the "Gothika" producer, then known as Susan Levin, whom he'll marry in 2005 — and ... Burger King.

Per a story said to have been originally recounted in Britain's Empire magazine, Downey was driving with "tons of f---ing dope" when he stopped for a fast-food hamburger.

"It was such a disgusting burger I ordered ... and I thought something really bad was going to happen," Downey said.

And so he threw the hamburger and the drugs away. And nothing really bad happened.

2004: Downey releases an album, "The Futurist," which gets him on "Oprah," which gets his redemptive arc in swing, which Downey totally gets: "No way would I ever get to express myself musically if I wasn't an actor of ill repute," he tells the New York Times.

2005: Downey is "riding high on the comeback trail," the headline says, and it's true. He's starring in a studio movie again, "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang." The action comedy fizzles at the box office, but Downey, who earned an Oscar nomination for 1992's "Chaplin," is back in the awards-season game with a supporting role in George Clooney's "Good Night, and Good Luck."

2006: The year everything turns. In March, Downey, having kept his nose clean for about five years, is a family-friendly Disney employee, co-starring in the Tim Allen remake of "The Shaggy Dog." Six months later, he's superhero material, landing the title role in "Iron Man." Marvel exec Kevin Feige says Downey is "an ideal fit to play such a complex character." (Translation: In the comics, Tony Stark is a playboy of ill repute.)

[Related: Exclusive: Robert Downey Jr. reveals the toughest part of playing Iron Man]

2007: Downey gets good notices for David Fincher's "Zodiac," but mostly he gets tons of press as the "Iron Man" machine fires up. The curiosity factor is high. "We didn't want to just go with a safe choice," Downey's director Jon Favreau says to USA Today.

2008: "Iron Man" opens, and it works — does it ever work. It leads off the summer with a nearly $100 million opening weekend, an unprecedented sum for a superhero who isn't Spider-Man and for an actor who'd enjoyed far more critical than commercial success. Only the Heath Ledger-powered "The Dark Knight" amasses more support at the box office that summer. The late Ledger will wind up with an Oscar nomination, as will Downey, who ends the first best summer of his career in Ben Stiller's "Tropic Thunder."

[Related: Iron Man Is Stacking Paper: Robert Downey Jr. Tops Forbes’ List of Highest Paid Actors]

2009: And now Downey has himself two hot franchises. His James Bond-ian take on Arthur Conan Doyle's detective makes "Sherlock Holmes" a Christmastime hit.

2010: "Iron Man 2" comes up big, if slightly smaller at the domestic box office than "Iron Man." But no matter, it's still very, very big. And in arguably even bigger news, Downey appears at San Diego Comic-Con to confirm and announce the cast of a crossover superhero adventure that'll become his third hot franchise: "The Avengers."

2011: Another year, another blockbuster ("Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows"). The fall comedy "Due Date" is also a hit, and firmly plants Downey on the green side of the fence. In a story about a screw-up actor and a professional father-to-be, Downey plays the latter.

2012: The man of summer has arrived. "The Avengers," which kicks off the season, and stays around to dominate it, grosses $1.5 billion-plus worldwide, and reportedly nets Downey $50 million.

2013: The man of summer stays. "Iron Man 3," which opens in May, becomes the franchise's biggest movie yet. To date, it is the year's only movie to top $400 million domestically. And in arguably even bigger news, Downey officially comes on board for two more "Avengers" movies. The first sequel is due out in 2015 in — when else? — the summer.

[Related: Marvel's Phase Three: A Robert Downey Jr.-Less 'Iron Man 4'?]

Watch Robert Downey Jr. in 'Iron Man 3':