How Iron Man Defeated Batman

With a little help from Robert Downey Jr., Hollywood has found the keys to financial success: jokes and a metal mask.

According to a new Forbes study, Robert Downey Jr. made more than twice as much money as Christian Bale this year and more money than any other actor in Hollywood. And while Bale was rushing around the Canary Islands and Austin makingExodus: Gods and Kings and Untitled Terrence Malick Project, Downey Jr. was shooting a bit part in his buddy Jon Favreau’s Chefand enjoying the backend of a movie that came out 15 months ago. Downey Jr. is Iron Man – and it’s working out for him. Thing is, it’s about to be working out for several other comedic actors as well. Paul Rudd is Ant-Man (looking strong-jawed in that poster that’s suddenly everywhere); Chris Pratt is Star Lord (starting next week); Will Arnett and Johnny Knoxville are Ninja Turtles (or their voices anyway). The Dark Knight’s rise was remarkable while it lasted, but the jokers over at Stark Industries are monopolizing the big screen.

The most interesting thing about Downey Jr.’s success is that he doesn’t get paid to play a superhero. Downey Jr. gets paid to make Iron Man compelling when he’s not in the suit. All those action sequence? Those are programmed by the guys over at Legacy Effects. The heroics happen in a nondescript industrial center on Parkside Drive in San Fernando. The charismatic bumbling and speechifying is what earned Downey Jr. the biggest payday in the history of film and it’s the fact that the overhead his contract represents doesn’t even bother Marvel that augers the rise of similar franchises. 

Like Iron Man, Ant-Man and Star Lord from the Guardians of the Galaxy aren’t particularly popular comic book characters. But the similarities don’t end there. Each of these leading men has a reluctant hero story arc, an eye for ladies, and a metallic mask. Each fails to take his own heroism seriously. Each is played by an actor with unusual comic timing. They may not be the same role, but they are all part of the same equation: Charisma + Action = Money. The new superhero stops robberies and steals scenes. When franchises prove bankable, the new superhero actor makes bank. 

Will Ben Affleck kick ass as Batman? Maybe, but he won’t make Downey Jr. money. Bruce Wayne is a bummer.

On some level, the new superhero represents a modernized take on old-school thinking. Remember when former stand-up comedian Michael Keaton was the Caped Crusader? So does Hollywood. That blockbuster was a minor success that proved major comic actors could make great movies and also that they would look stupid in a cape. Sam Rockwell would make a great Clark Kent, but he’ll never be Superman – too bad the Man of Steel doesn’t wear a mask.

It’s ironic – or something adjacent to ironic – that the highest paid actor in Hollywood spends the key sequences of his movies hiding his face, but it also makes sense. Robert Downey Jr. is his own comic relief. Iron Man is essentially a buddy movie about one guy: the hero we deserve and that hero’s drunk doppelgänger. He’s two for the price of one, which goes a long way toward justifying that paycheck.

Photos by Paramount / Everett Collection