Robert Downey Jr.

Let’s just start with the axiom that the most compelling popular culture narrative America sells itself is the narrative of individual destruction and redemption. I won’t list the dozens of celebrities that are exemplars of this. We find ourselves fascinated with famous and talented people being degraded and abased through their own weaknesses of character: the powerful and tragic magnifications of our own lapses and less-than-proud moments.

Enter into this system Robert Downey Jr., circa late 90s-early 2000s. Incorrigible, so gone that we kind of gave up on following his story until it was all over (think Whitney Houston about 20 months ago). What’s left, when the glory of being a celebrity is ruined by the shame of being human and subject to human problems? (Think Britney Spears, now). Middle America (and I’m not objectifying this: at the time, I definitely shared the perspective of middle America) wanted Downey to osmotically learn the lessons we understood as common sense, and we were mighty vexed when he didn’t, at least not immediately.

And didn’t at all, not in ways that we found traditionally comforting. He took his issues past a point where we understood them within a revival or “bad boy with a heart of gold” narrative: he got bothersome, and let us give up. He didn’t publicly apologize in the mode we’re accustomed to now. He didn’t get Christian: he just hit rock bottom. We figured he’d be in jail until we forgot about him.

But he then lived. What’s more, he understood himself as the man lost and found again, the prodigal, and performed it. His performance in Elton John’s “I Want Love” is perhaps the most succinct distillation of this. “A man like me is dead in places.” Watch the subtlety with which he, in spaces of moments, mobilizes regret, craving, sadness, defiance, and invites us to sympathize with him. He understands these feelings as theater: not only his own drama, but the drama we were living through him. Downey persisted through the facile shows of glowing life and tragic fall to which we assign the famous, and remained able to look us in the eye and perform himself, and to understand the framework with which we appropriated him, and to own and perform that as well.

Whether it’s in Wonder Boys or Zodiac or his public existence: Downey not only lived through the horrors of addiction but has proven able to mobilize his own story of addiction and tenuous survival, to synthesize it with his art and present it to us in a way we find resonant. Maybe it helps that middle America has seen a lot more Oxycontin and meth and is a little more able to acknowledge the addictions that live within its own culture. Or maybe it’s just because he’s a brilliant actor.

Regardless, he’s free now of our pernicious stories: he’s been through our wringer, so rather than continue to subject him to our narratives of fidelity, sobriety and domesticity, we respect him for the shaman he is, and we let him work. In Iron Man he plays an arms dealer, an emblem of Blackwater or Halliburton, who seeks redemption, and perhaps only he could sell that to an American audience at this point. By acknowledging that he is “dead in places,” Downey takes up our sins and invites us to wrestle with our own degradations and abasements. In some ways, he’s one of the few convincing superheroes we can still plausibly have, and I don’t think I’m alone in saying it’s about time we saw him fly.

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Jason Craft

"Earth X" indicates an unreal, alternate world from our own, in vague but fantastic terms. Im Jason and this is my blog.

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