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It has long been rumored – though never actually confirmed – that Robert Downey Jr. hit the motherlode when it came time for Marvel to lock the actor up for The Avengers. Part of it might have been a “Thank you” for helping the studio successfully launch their Phase One (which started with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man). Part of it might have been incentive to stick around for a longer term, as Downey has cemented himself as Tony Stark, and replacing the arrogant man standing outside of the armor could be costly in more ways than one.
But in a recent GQ interview, Downey was asked point blank if the rumored salary for his Avengers participation – in the ballpark of $50 million – was accurate, and the actor replied affirmatively.
"Isn't that crazy? They're so pissed. I can't believe it. I'm what's known as 'a strategic cost.'”
Why would Marvel be so pissed? They agreed to pay Downey that price. But it does set up an imbalanced scale, where actors like Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth – who could argue they are just as important to the Avengers franchise as RDJ – can now negotiate with, “Well, you paid Robert this much. I’m at least worth half!” And that can drive up costs, even when your franchise just crossed the $1 billion mark with its last chapter.
Of course, the debate will always be, “Was Downey that necessary?” Marvel spent a lot of money to keep the actor in the armor. Could they have replaced RDJ in time for The Avengers? It would be a slimy way of doing business, and so the $50 million check might have been a way for the studio to announce to future cast members that they respect the talent, and they are willing to reward those who take risks on superhero genre pieces.
And then there’s the fact that Downey might be ready to walk away on his own, in time. The actor was asked about the future of the Iron Man series, and if he’d really be ready to walk away when he approaches the age of 50 in three years. His response is a must-read:
Here's the thing. At whatever point I'm done with this, I'm going to have a bit of a crisis, because I probably haven't even fully ingested how much I've enjoyed it, how much it's meant. It so came out of kind of relative obscurity as this second-tier character from the Marvel universe, and I feel I was part of making it something more. But it also to me was just good filmmaking. It's funny, people will come up to me and go, 'Dude, how do you do it? How do you dress up and play these...?' While whatsisname is shooting the next David O. Russell or whatever, I'm, 'Here's the thing, you're either having a good time or a bad time, and you're either doing a good movie or a bad movie.' And I know one thing, which is that there is no guarantee that doing a movie you think is important isn't going to be the worst piece of tripe I've ever had to sit through. Or that this kind of two-dimensional genre movie I'm doing isn't actually going to be thoroughly entertaining. Isn't that why you went to the movies to begin with? Whatever."
No matter how it ends, the Marvel phase of Downey’s career has made him a very rich man. But it isn’t over yet. It continues with Iron Man 3, in theaters on May 2.