Robert Downey Jr. has delivered iconic performances on both sides of his comeback as Iron Man in 2008. Despite his demons in the past, he always turned in great acting in his films. Whether the roles required him to dance, sing or fully embody a famous silent film actor, he excelled and continues to do so.
Let’s look at his most impressive performances (so far).
1. Iron Man (2008 – 2019)
Robert Downey Jr. was a perfect fit to play Iron Man. While watching any of the films, he seems so comfortable and convincing in the role. The sarcastic and relaxed nature with which Downey Jr. plays Tony Stark is fun to watch. He even brought some of his tendencies, such as snacking on set, into the role. He often offered his coworkers a piece of his snack even though it was unscripted.
Watching him return to the big screen was a joy for his fans. His career skyrocketed with this role, and it was great to see. But no matter what happens with Marvel going forward, he will always and forever be Tony Stark.
2. Larry Paul in Ally McBeal (2000 – 2001)
When Robert Downey Jr. entered the cast of Ally McBeal in the show’s fourth season, he elevated the entire show to a new level. While the show was enjoyable before, the season he was in was made so much better. He gave Ally a man she could love, and they had a ton of chemistry right from the beginning.
Robert Downey Jr.’s unique style and awesome singing ability made the role of Larry Paul something to watch. He was funny, and this type of show was an excellent vehicle for his talent. The last season did not have the same magic without him.
3. Charles Chaplin (1992)
Robert Downey Jr. fully steps into every role, and Chaplin is no different. He was masterful in portraying the silent film icon and made you believe he could be Charles Chaplin.
The film tells the often rough life of comedic genius Charles Chaplin. Downey Jr. expertly plays through all these emotions, making you feel for how difficult Chaplin’s life was at times. According to Geraldine Chaplin, his daughter, when she saw Downey Jr. made up as her father for the first time, she was awed by the sight, given his likeness.
4. Sherlock Holmes
While we don’t know exactly if or when the third installment of Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes will come, he is still a lot of fun to watch in the first two.
Both he and Jude Law as Watson play off each other well. They depict the relationship between these two men in a banter-filled way that adds interest to their characters. Downey Jr. presents an interesting Holmes, often in wacky ways.
5. Thomas in Heart and Souls
The great thing about Robert Downey Jr. in Heart and Souls is that he doesn’t just play one character but five at different points in the film. As a result, he can capture the various mannerisms of each one, and it is not only funny but impressive to watch.
The plot surrounds four ghosts stuck with a small child, who they befriend and watch grow up. When Thomas grows into an adult, the ghosts finally learn that they were supposed to use him to help finish their unfinished business. This realization leads them to take over his body to fulfill their last wishes.
6. Harry in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
While Iron Man is undoubtedly Robert Downey Jr.’s most popular triumphant return, we have his role as Harry in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang to thank for setting the stage for his comeback. Much like playing Iron Man, Downey Jr. looks like he’s having a lot of fun.
He and Val Kilmer’s chemistry is the highlight of the film. The way they play off each other and work together makes this film great. Downey Jr. plays a thief posing as an actor who is thrown together with a detective to solve a murder mystery.
7. Julian in Less Than Zero (1987)
While Robert Downey Jr. gives an excellent performance as Julian, it hits a bit too close to home, given what was happening in his personal life at the time. He plays someone with an uncontrollable drug habit.
Even though the film’s context is tragic, Downey Jr. pulls it off well anyway. The film shows Julian’s friend Clay (Andrew McCarthy) as he tries to help him.
8. Peter in Only You
An often-forgotten romantic comedy from the 1990s, Robert Downey Jr. stars as Peter opposite his love interest Marisa Tomei as Faith. He is a lovable cad who is a strict believer in fate and love at first sight. Although it takes him 43 minutes to enter the film, it is worth the wait.
The premise involves a girl who is repeatedly told that Damon Bradley is her destiny, so when a man by that name calls and mentions that he’s heading to Venice, she follows him there. Downey Jr. is funny, and the chemistry between him and Tomei presents a great film to watch as a fan.
9. Alex in Chances Are (1989)
Robert Downey Jr.’s comedic talents are displayed in this somewhat strange romantic comedy from the 1980s. According to director Emile Ardolino, he is “a director’s dream. You can give him five directions on the same scene and immediately see them executed, and they’re all terrific. Then he’ll turn and say, ‘How about one for me?’ and give you something equally good you hadn’t even thought of.”
His talent was evident early. In this film, he plays Alex, the reincarnation of the father of the girl he wants to date. As creepy as that may sound, the film comes off endearing as he struggles between his life and the one he isn’t supposed to remember.
10. Kirk in Tropic Thunder (2008)
While there is some debate about the decision to use blackface on Robert Downey Jr. here, he still gives a dynamic performance as an Australian actor playing an African-American Vietnam sergeant. The focus is more on the lengths a method actor goes to, including not breaking character.
Downey Jr.’s performance is a testament to his range as an actor. He even received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. The premise follows a group of actors as they are dumped into a jungle by their director.
11. Terry Crabtree in Wonder Boys
Even though Robert Downey Jr. was on probation during filming, he committed to a four-and-a-half month shoot to play Terry Crabtree in this critically-acclaimed film. He delivers a compelling performance opposite Tobey Maguire.
The plot revolves around an English professor (Michael Douglas) as his life begins to spin out of control in both his personal and professional life. His editor Terry arrives to ensure the book he is working on will get finished because both of their careers depend on it, but he soon becomes infatuated with a student (Maguire).
12. Steve in The Soloist (2009)
Robert Downey Jr. gives a complex performance as journalist Steve Lopez, who discovers a talented homeless musician named Nathaniel (Jamie Foxx). The performance itself required Downey Jr. to draw on many areas to convey this story that deals with conflicts of self.
When Steve discovers Nathaniel, he tries to help him due to his enormous talent but finds that Nathaniel often gets in the way of that.
13. Wayne in Natural Born Killers (1994)
Playing another journalist, but this time one with a taste for violence, Robert Downey Jr. has a supporting role here as Wayne. The story revolves around a couple who kill the woman’s parents and then go on a killing spree down Route 666.
Wayne reports on their murders, making them famous in the process. The film is a satire written by Quentin Tarantino that highlights the media, public opinion, and violence. While more of a supporting role, Wayne shows the influence of the media on gruesome acts.
14. Hank in The Judge (2014)
As a break in between playing Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr. stepped into a different type of role in The Judge. Here he plays Hank, who returns to his hometown when his father, Joseph (Robert Duvall), is suspected of murder.
Downey Jr.’s impactful performance is the best thing about the film as a son who needs to defend his father over this terrible crime. However, he soon discovers the truth is not what anyone thought.
15. Peter in Zodiac (2007)
The character arc Robert Downey Jr. presents in Peter as a journalist is impressive. He shows us the unraveling spiral of an alcoholic with an obsession. He shows us how much of a toll this can take on someone during the film.
The premise revolves around a fictionalized account of the 1970s case as they look for a serial killer. The reporters and investigators become obsessed with the case.
16. Peter in Due Date (2010)
In this goofy comedy with Zach Galifianakis, Robert Downey Jr. plays a man desperate to get home for the birth of his child. So when an irritating actor gets both of them kicked off the plane, they work together to get home.
The road trip comedy is amusing, and Downey Jr. is fun to watch with his interactions with Galifianakis. It tries to be more like Planes, Trains, and Automobiles but doesn’t quite get there. It is entertaining anyway.
17. Home for The Holidays (1995)
As one of the few Thanksgiving-themed holiday movies, this is one of the best ones. Robert Downey Jr. plays Tommy, the brother of the main character Claudia (Holly Hunter). He plays the character with a well-rounded approach, giving him depth.
The premise revolves around Claudia losing her job and heading home to spend Thanksgiving with her family. Many crazy antics follow as her brother introduces his new boyfriend, and Claudia wonders what her daughter is doing at home without her.
18. Nathan in Charlie Bartlett (2008)
The final film that Robert Downey Jr. completed was Charlie Bartlett before Iron Man turned him into a full-fledged superstar. The film plays like it was inspired by the John Hughes films of the 1980s and features a high school student named Charlie (Anton Yelchin), who becomes like a psychiatrist to other students.
Downey Jr. plays the alcoholic principal in a fantastic performance that showcases his talent. He and Yelchin work well together, even if the story has difficulty deciding between an antihero story and a comedy.
19. Bill in Short Cuts (1993)
Robert Downey Jr. still makes his presence known in this huge cast of twenty-two characters. The movie shows the lives of these people as they overlap with each other.
Downey Jr. plays a makeup artist named Bill in this film featuring an ensemble cast. His acting is brilliant and helps him stand out against many other actors.
20. Lionel in Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus
In a strange film, Robert Downey Jr. stars as Lionel, a man with werewolf syndrome that causes him to grow excessive body hair. The film is a tribute to Diane Arbus instead of a biographical film. It takes liberties with characters and is not an accurate representation of her. Downey Jr. presents an excellent talent for conveying emotion, even when his face is covered.
When Lionel moves in upstairs, Diane (Nicole Kidman) is intrigued by him and, even though she is married, falls in love with him. He also introduces her to other marginalized groups for her to represent in her photography.
21. Jerry in Bowfinger (1999)
Although his part in Bowfinger is small, he uses all of his screen time to showcase his character as a smug producer named Jerry fully. His attitude is reminiscent of Tony Stark and gives us a glimpse of what makes him charismatic. This character is a bit slimier, but it still embodies his style.
His character is still key to the plot because he gives Bobby Bowfinger (Steve Martin) the go-ahead on his sci-fi film if action star Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy) is cast.
22. Joseph in Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)
The role in Good Night, and Good Luck came at a time in Robert Downey Jr.’s career when it was beginning its upswing. He plays Joe Wershba, whose primary mission is to keep his secret marriage to one of his coworkers a secret.
The main story revolves around the threat of Communism and how it changed the United States because of the paranoia it caused.
23. Pete Graham in Gothika (2003)
In a departure from his usual funny and romantic roles, Robert Downey Jr. plays the creepy Pete Graham in this film. While the horror film makes you feel uncomfortable the entire time, his character is particularly unsettling.
Gothika is a weird movie, and while it is strange to see Downey Jr. as unlikeable, it is another testament to his talent.