This year saw second chances for Robert Downey Jr., Mickey Rourke, ''SNL,'' and more

By Josh Rottenberg
Updated December 19, 2008 at 05:00 AM EST

Robert Downey Jr.’s return to the spotlight made a certain amount of sense. Even with his notorious history of drug-addled face-plants, you had to figure that eventually the guy would get it together. Give him a couple of juicy roles — a cocky playboy/superhero in Iron Man, a deluded Method actor in blackface in Tropic Thunder — and the resurrection story writes itself. But when legendary Hollywood flameout Mickey Rourke starts popping up on Oscar short lists for his performance in The Wrestler, you know there’s something strange in the air.

Every year a few pop culture Rocky Balboas pull their weary bones off the mat for one more round (even that guy had his moment in 2006), but 2008 was an unusually good time to be looking for a comeback. Britney Spears kick-started a career that seemed to be heading toward fat-Elvis oblivion with Circus, which sold an impressive 505,000 copies its first week. Saturday Night Live rode Sarah Palin’s pricey designer coattails back to comedic relevance, scoring an 80 percent increase in the ratings over last season. Former punchline Tom Cruise wowed even his strongest detractors with an unrecognizable turn as a bloated, balding, hip-hop-dancing loudmouth in Tropic Thunder that had people talking long after the movie had left cineplexes. A dusty archeological relic named Indiana Jones found new life at the box office (roping in $317 million), as did the women of the HBO hit Sex and the City (which grossed $153 million). And in a truly shocking turn of events, Guns N’ Roses actually released Chinese Democracy. (OK, not every career resurrection is equally successful: So far it has sold just 318,000 copies.)

How to explain this plethora of comeback kids? Maybe this year’s fresh faces weren’t as compelling as some of the more weather-beaten ones. Maybe in these grim economic times, audiences drew hope from the idea of a late-inning, come-from-behind turnaround. Or perhaps in a world hurtling ever faster into an uncertain future, nostalgia simply exerted a stronger-than-normal pull. We’ll leave that question for pointy-headed cultural historians to puzzle over sometime in the distant future, when the guy who played Screech in Saved by the Bell is up for an Oscar and Vanilla Ice is back at the top of the charts.

What, Them Again?
Not all comebacks are created equal. Ranking the best and worst returns of 2008

Guns N’ Roses
Chinese Democracy
The band’s first album in 15 years didn’t drum up much excitement in the end.

Shannen Doherty
She’s just not as fun without the backstage bickering and acid-washed jean shorts.

Britney Spears
In its first week, her CD sold half a million copies to fans who still want to hear her sing.

Mickey Rourke
The Wrestler
Proved he’s still a heavyweight with his buzzworthy turn as a washed-up wrestler.

Robert Downey Jr.
Iron Man
Has flown back onto the A list as industrialist-turned-superhero Tony Stark.