Robert Downey Jr. on the politics of Iron Man in 'Captain America: Civil War'
Tony Stark has a black eye. He’s sitting on a leather sofa in an international intelligence task force center with blood on his silk shirt and tie.
Somebody got a hold of him when he didn’t have his metal suit handy.
Really, this is a set for Captain America: Civil War on a studio lot outside Atlanta, and Robert Downey Jr. is feeling a different kind of punchy. He can’t say who beat the hell out of his character, but it wasn’t Captain America.
“No, I mean, look, if he and I are gonna beat each other senseless, that should be an Act III thing,” the actor says. “We haven’t written Act III yet? No?” he says to some passing crew, who don’t really hear him. Downey smiles. “That’s the only way we can stay ahead of the guess-thing — actually not write it until we’re there.”
There is an Act III, fear not. Downey’s just being Downey. He’s actually the one who likes to rewrite on the day.
In this 13th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which Downey helped inaugurate with 2008’s Iron Man, his hero clashes with Chris Evans’ Captain America in a conflict over whether superheroes should be controlled by the governments of the world. Iron Man is for that idea, and Cap’s against it.
They don’t settle the disagreement by using their words.
Iron Man isn’t necessarily the “bad guy,” but he’s definitely the antagonist. “It didn’t bother me at all,” says Downey. “I’ve always thought of it in some ways that Tony is the antagonist to himself in his own story, so this isn’t a problem. This guy understands problems ‘cause he is a problem. And he tends to create problems.”
It so happens, he also doesn’t think Stark is wrong. “I’m not having to patter around what I think the worldview is,” Downey says. “I wholeheartedly agree with what he does in this.” The actor adds with a smile: “Which is, by the way, more than I could say for some of the other movies.”
Stark was once the anti-authoritarian firebrand, but having unleashed Ultron on the world, among other more venial indiscretions, the billionaire, playboy, philanthropist is starting to appreciate boundaries.
Here’s the scene: An elevator opens in the op-center, and Steve Rogers and his friend Sam Wilson, a.k.a. Anthony Mackie’s Falcon, walk out – with a silent T’Challa (the public identity of Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther) walking in front of them alongside the government attaché played by Martin Freeman. Scarlet Johansson’s Black Widow is with them, and she’s not saying anything either.
Something bad has gone down. Cap and Falcon were involved. It did not go well. They have handed over their vibranium shield and flying apparatus before being allowed access to this place. The pair look like they’re being sent to the principal’s office.
“You guys want to take a seat?” Widow says. “And try not to break anything while we fix this.”
Stark, who hasn’t yet had his beat-down, is on his cell phone with U.S. Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) as Cap and Falcon step into the nerve center of the intelligence office. “No, Romania was not sanctioned by the accords … Col. Rhodes is supervising clean-up … Yes, there will be consequences …” Stark looks irritated, tired. “Obviously, you can quote me on that. I just said it.”
He hangs up, and beholds his Avengers.
“Consequences?” Cap says.
“Secretary Ross wanted you both prosecuted,” Iron Man answers. “I had to give him something.”
“I’m not getting that shield back, am I?” Cap says.
Black Widow walks ahead, joining Stark. “Technically it belongs to the government. Wings, too,” she says.
“That’s cold,” Falcon says.
Stark spins on his heel as the two walk away with T’Challa. He flashes a tight, unpleasant smile. “Warmer than jail!” he says.
NEXT PAGE: You’ve never seen Tony be this before …
There’s no other way to put this: You’ve never seen Tony be such a dick before.
Downey laughs and stomps his leg as he sits on the couch. “I know! I’m loving it.”
The “warmer than jail line” is such a passive-aggressive, nasty way of needling the Cap clique. “And yet, he’s just stating a fact,” Downey says, but he also admits: there’s some jealousy there. “I look at him like, ‘Oh, you and Falcon got a good thing going on, huh?’ He doesn’t really seem to give me the time of day.”
And later, when Cap chooses his friend Bucky Barnes, a brainwashed assassin, over Tony … that’s the last straw.
Downey says Cap and Iron Man are like the frontmen in a band that’s had some hits, but been playing together too long. Saving Sokovia was a good gig, but riding home together on the bus (or helicarrier) makes the tour agonizing.
“Yeah, and it’s also to who’s trying to grab the mic and take center stage because they think they can sing the song better,” Downey says. “So I’m like, ‘That’s not a bass line, give me that!’”
A little of this came out in Ultron, with Tony indicating that Cap was the leader of the Avengers team, with the addendum: “I just pay for everything, and design everything, and make everyone look cooler.”
Iron Man and Cap have always had their differences, starting in 2011’s The Avengers when Evans’ Steve Rogers called Tony Stark a “big man in a suit of armor. Take that off, and what are you?” Stark hit him back with: “You’re a laboratory experiment … everything special about you came out of a bottle.”
Ouch. With friends like that …
Tony has been feeling used, taken for granted. Philosophical differences aside, that also contributes to his battle against Captain America.
“Alls I’m saying is ultimately he’s never been in a status position over Cap,” Downey says. “It’s a crappy deal for Tony. It has been from the time he came out. I think he’s actually been pretty civil, all things considered. When he tries to bring lightness into the fact that he actually, at certain points, has the real upper hand; he just can’t help himself. Because it’s just been simmering for years and it’s very unrequited.”
The problem with Stark is, to quote some Ultron wisdom: he means well, but he doesn’t think things through.
He may be a genius, playboy, philanthropist, but he has a lot of blind spots. In the original Iron Man, Stark was oblivious to the damage his weaponry was doing to the world until he personally got injured by it. In The Avengers, he developed something Captain America was born with: a sense of self-sacrifice. In Civil War, he is starting to figure out that “paying for everything” isn’t the same as friendship, a fact you can read in his eyes in the trailer when Cap says he has to fight for Bucky because he’s his friend. “So was I,” Iron Man says softly.
What’s more painful: a broken friendship, or Tony realizing there never really was one?
Evans insists there was a closeness between the two, it was just buried beneath the bickering. In fact, it’s more than friendship. Evans uses the L word and the F word (but not that one.)
“I think they’re very different men but this is the beautiful thing about family,” Evans says. “In a family you know you could hate your mother, you could hate your sister but you’re my family and we have to make this work. I like the end of Ultron, when I say, ‘I will miss you, Tony’ and there is a love and respect there.”
That’s another of Stark’s hang-ups. For all his great powers and contributions, and despite the affection of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts, he can’t help but feel … unloved.
That’s where Downey says we find Tony Stark at the beginning of Civil War.
“He’s thinking about where he went to school. He’s thinking about his folks. He’s thinking all this dough he inherited wasn’t really just meant for him and he should be trying to do something with it,” the actor says. “He’s not a kid anymore. He’s thinking about the back nine.”
Iron Man is like a kid with big toys who never really grew up – but keeps trying. “Obviously he has this kind of tragic childhood where his folks die and all that stuff. He mentions it in the first film,” Downey says. “He says, he never got to say goodbye to his dad.”
We’ve never heard much at all about his mother. “Exactly,” Downey says. “I’d always felt that she was a really cool kind of Ivy League rebel, an Eleanor Roosevelt type, you know? So that’s kind of what’s been on my mind with it.”
Until now, Stark the big kid has been content to just share his toys, but he wants more in return. That’s why Cap’s loyalty and support is so important.
“He’s really trying everything from great earnestness to outright manipulation, emotional manipulation to try to get Cap to just make this, to swing the vote,” Downey says.
Iron Man doesn’t want to fight, he wants Cap on his side. But sharing is tough. And sharing power is especially hard.