By Damian D’souza
Last week I made yet another pilgrimage to the theatre to watch Avengers: Infinity War and worship at the altar of Robert Downey Jr. For ten years, ever since he first stepped into that crimson and gold suit, he’s been a role model. It’s not because Iron Man embodies my fantasy of being a genius playboy-billionaire-philanthropist in a high-tech suit who saves the day while having a good time that borders on the bacchanal.
No, it’s because of what Robert Downey Jr and Iron Man, now symbolise – redemption through self-destruction.
When I say redemption, I don’t mean in a cinematic, feel-good, inspirational manner. I mean redemption of a more visceral kind. The kind that goes from summiting the peak of success, to salvaging the broken-down heap of scrap that your life has become, then fine-tuning what remains before finally getting back into the fight. Broken, battered, but ready to take on the world. This has been Iron Man’s character arc, just as much as it is for the rest of us kooks, rebels, and mad men – people who live our lives without a middle ground, slowly imploding, hoping that there’s a slim chance with astronomical odds that our path to salvation lies in our self-destruction.
I first saw Robert Downey Jr in Air America on Star Movies at the height of his addiction to crack, smack, and everything in between. Back in the ’90s, you were more likely to see his name featured in headlines regarding a drug-related arrest or yet another rehab stint, rather than a credit roll of some summer blockbuster. That decade belonged to the gleaming smile of Tom Cruise and the subtle suave of George Clooney, not the gurn of Downey after a weeklong bender.
There’s something to be said about the urge to always turn it up to a hundred, to maximise pleasure, while inadvertently maxing out on pain.
The man did more jail time than most gangsta rappers and built up a resistance to rehab that would make Sanju Baba jealous. Stories are rife about him waking up in jail in a pool of his own blood and smoking crack in his psychiatrist’s bathroom. At the lowest point in his career, Downey earned only a fraction of the two-million-dollar fee he once commanded during better times in the ’80s and ’90s – which in turn is a far cry from the cool fifty mil he’s allegedly going to pocket from the fourth Avengers movie. He did his time wasting away on Hollywood’s underbelly, forgotten and alone, to come back as the tentpole that props up the most lucrative franchise in cinema to date.
Rising from the ashes like a phoenix is something I first thought about way back in 2008, the same year Downey scripted his comeback in the film that launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It was a memorable year for me – I’d just gotten kicked out of junior college after an attendance record of 22 per cent. I had been disallowed from attempting the biology final, so I went ahead and played Counter-Strike and later watched Iron Man. I’d drink every morning before college and had recently picked up a subscription to getting stoned. It was the classic case of a rebel without a cause. I actively sought out turmoil and misery, in the hope that it would somehow mould me into the tortured genius I saw myself becoming in 15 years – and also simply because I enjoyed it.
Then I saw Robert Downey Jr in Iron Man, sipping whiskey in the back of a Humvee in the desert to the menacing sounds of AC/DC, and I saw the personification of my teen angst and grand ambition in Tony Stark. A slick, high-functioning degenerate who drank and fucked his way through life, without worrying about the consequences.
Tony Stark has a change of heart toward the end of the film, but it wasn’t one of those sappy screen moments. His change of heart stems from finding purpose. Mine did too. Where he wanted to become a superhero, I wanted to become a chef.
Tony Stark undergoes a metamorphosis from a spoiled, drunken manchild, to an altruistic saviour. I went from a hubristic arse, forced to hold down a couple of dead-end jobs that ranged from store-keeping at Nature’s Basket to customer service at a BPO, all the while picking up the pieces of my life and swallowing my pride. Starting from scratch was the only way forward, and I’m better for it today.
Robert Downey Jr has long since ended his tryst with drugs and appears to have transcended his once-conflicted life. From carrying the burden of addiction, to being the Atlas holding up the Avengers and Sherlock Holmes franchises, and going on to become one of Hollywood’s highest-paid actors, Downey is technically a recovered addict, trying to be better with each passing day. He is the poster child for seeking solace in self- destructive behaviour and coming out on top.
There’s something to be said about the urge to always turn it up to a hundred, to maximise pleasure, while inadvertently maxing out on pain. Why cruise comfortably when you can nose-dive into the abyss, and pull up when the bottom rushes up at you? In doing so, we opt to burn out, rather than fade away, hoping that a combination of grit and sheer luck might rekindle that same fire to burn brighter, just like Iron Man. He finally fires up the miniature arc reactor he’s managed to cobble using the odd bits and bobs from his past as a high-flying arms dealer.
It’s either that, or bust, there is no in between.
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