Robert Downey Jr.’s tenure as Tony Stark/Iron Man ranks among the great performances within the superhero genre. Like Hugh Jackman as Wolverine or perhaps Christopher Reeve as Superman, you have a hard time imagining anyone else in the role.
It was also a remarkable turnaround for Downey Jr. as a person. His casting for the original Iron Man back in 2008 was seen as a risky proposition. Not long before winning his dream part, the actor was in and out of rehab as well as spending time in prison. He made just $500,000 on the first film but by the end of Avengers: Endgame, eleven years later, he was making $75 million.
In that run, Downey Jr. played the character nine times (not counting The Incredible Hulk), and he’s also making a cameo in Black Widow as well. You’d think in all that time, every aspect of Stark would’ve been explored. But there’s one serious aspect that was only hinted at in the beginning before being all but abandoned by the end.
That major aspect was Stark’s alcoholism. In fact, the first time you see the character on screen, he’s holding a glass of booze in the Humvee. Iron Man 2 goes a little more into the issue, as Tony drunkenly ruins a party and gets into a fight with War Machine (Don Cheadle). But that scene, much like the movie itself, isn’t remembered for going down a darker path for the character. It’s a largely forgotten entry in the MCU, and came at a time when Marvel was still trying to find its footing within the larger universe.
By the time Iron Man 3 released, they’d replaced Stark’s potential alcoholism with a PTSD subplot following the events of The Avengers. It was an interesting angle to tackle because it could ground the events of the movie as something more than just aliens coming out of the sky.
They eventually came up with new challenges for Stark to overcome as well, such as the burden of too much knowledge and power in Avengers: Age of Ultron to the cost of collateral damage in Captain America: Civil War to the responsibility of guiding the next generation like Peter Parker (Tom Holland) and his own daughter, Morgan.
The alcoholism was certainly a missed opportunity though, especially considering the parallels to Downey Jr.’s own struggles. But Marvel and the MCU have become the most significant property within Disney. They’re the most successful movies at the moment and the Mouse House clearly didn’t want to touch on subjects that went beyond family-friendly.
You always want your favorite characters to have layers and flaws. Without that personal struggle, they’re too perfect. But while Iron Man didn’t fully commit to one of the character’s biggest flaws, they did find new ways of challenging him so that by the time Endgame came around, his sacrifice meant something greater than just saving the universe.