We finally see proof that Robert Downey Jr. can get a more human drama film made outside of the behemoth of “Iron Man” now surrounding his recent movie career. When it was announced that Downey would be starring in a legal drama where he plays a lawyer defending his father of murder, it sounded like one of those projects that would relegated to the indie circuit or perhaps be put on delay due to box office concerns. But it’s thankfully going to get a major rollout this October as a likely Oscar contender for both Downey and co-star Robert Duvall. It also put a brief hold on “Iron Man” in order for Downey to finally get back to the human dramas that he almost abandoned in favor of comic book excess.
While some might say that “Iron Man” is just as much of a human drama, we still can’t say it comes anywhere near reality in outcomes. “The Judge” this October appears to take us into a realm of complicated reality and into situations that seem implausible, yet have solid elements of truth. Having the irony of a lawyer having to defend his judge father based on the possibility of him being a murderer is one that could easily happen in real life. In fact, it probably already has somewhere. It’s the perfect setup for the interesting character dramas Robert Downey Jr. was nurturing again just prior to taking on the role of Tony Stark in the “Iron Man” franchise.
Then the giant Iron Man wall went up, hence preventing Downey from getting back to showing his real acting roots until just recently. His small role in Jon Favreau’s recent “Chef” is Downey’s first foray back into the indie circuit since “The Soloist” in 2009. While he’s taken a couple of side movies that didn’t get much notice since then (“Sherlock Holmes” not withstanding), the Holmes and Tony Stark characters have dominated his career for the last six years.
It’s a typical scenario of other A-list stars of recent years getting sidelined into comic book franchises. You could say it’s almost a corollary now that once you become an Oscar-winning actress or actor after starring in a run of excellent indie features, you’ll soon be taking on other terrain of playing a comic book characters for three or four films over a decade’s time.
While you can argue that many A-list actors do that just for job security and the bigger paycheck, it nearly shuts down doing movies that show their real acting talent. Everyone from Halle Berry to recent Oscar-winner Jared Leto have been going this direction, proving that winning Oscars sometimes really does mean selling out.
But now you have to wonder if Robert Downey Jr. has finally set a precedent for ways to fight the comic book franchise bloat and get back to playing real human characters before people forget who actors really were. Most people who remember the 1980s know Robert Downey Jr. as one of the best lead character actors of his generation who showed those talents already as early as the mid 1980s in movies like “Less Than Zero.” If “Chaplin” was ultimately his breakthrough movie, all his drug arrests in-between then and the early 2000s didn’t stop him from being brilliant in just about every film he decided to act in. Only those born within the last decade would know Downey more from the time of his career just before “Iron Man” to today. No doubt he has a strong contingent of early teen fans that don’t even know some of the movies he acted in before “Iron Man” came out.
“The Judge” will finally break the idea that all he can ever act in until the end of the decade is “Iron Man” and “Avengers” movies. Since Downey is the ultimate emblem for this comic book movie trap, let’s hope all the others finally make a deliberate path toward getting back to their true acting spirit in films worthy of showing real character study. With Halle Berry taking a unique acting turn in CBS’ “Extant” this summer, much of those acting segues may have to be on TV or even cable to find the quality.
At least Downey now takes it back to the traditional Oscar movie for the big screen, even if it might be a little too obvious in pandering for Oscar gold.