When people talk about “movie stars” — as opposed to just anyone who stars in a movie — they specifically mean those rare individuals gifted with so much on-screen charm and charisma that they’re impossible to look away from. They’re people who could open movies and send the audience to theaters in droves with nothing more than their name on a poster — above the title of the movie, of course. When audiences of the past went to see movies led by Julia Roberts, George Clooney, Tom Cruise, Cary Grant, Paul Newman, or Katharine Hepburn, it didn’t matter what character they were playing, because everyone knew they’d bring that indefinable excellence to a role. Or at least they used to.
The pundits say the stars we have are aging out, though, and that the comic book movies dominating the cultural landscape aren’t making new ones to fill the void. Robert Downey Jr.’s newly Oscar-nominated performance in Oppenheimer — his third after noms for Chaplin and Tropic Thunder – is a compelling data point for that argument. It proves that the problem isn’t that actors can’t handle stardom anymore. Instead, it’s that they aren’t getting the kinds of roles that properly project their charisma.
Downey is a special case that makes this clear. He was right on the edge of true movie stardom in the 1990s, following a stint on Saturday Night Live with a string of modest hits like Soapdish and Air America and the Oscar nomination for Chaplin. But Downey fell off in the early 2000s, appearing in far fewer films and even fewer box-office hits. Iron Man in 2008, and his recurring role as Tony Stark in the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies that followed, launched RDJ’s career into the stratosphere and made him a superstar. He’s the only one who got that level of fame boost from the Marvel machine, though. And getting there required him to start off with almost two decades of public notability and great acting.
After a decade in the Marvel Cinematic industrial complex — a machine that grew increasingly efficient at making money without established star power during his tenure — RDJ has mostly been lost in the moviemaking wilderness. At least until Oppenheimer.
In Christopher Nolan’s epic about the man behind the atomic bomb, Downey turns in a career-best performance. As U.S. Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Lewis Strauss, he sheds his frequent sarcasm and vanity to play an ambitious, backbiting coward. Strauss’ puffed-up pettiness comes through in Downey’s every gesture and word without ever slipping into cartoonish showiness. In what is otherwise an enormous movie, Downey trusts that his brand of subtlety will carry all the weight it needs to.
The performance echoes and reverberates around the movie even when Strauss is off screen, which Nolan uses as a kind of invisible tether to hold the movie’s two competing timelines together. And all of this without ever overwhelming or overpowering the rest of the movie. It’s a true movie-star performance, and a reminder of Downey’s incredible screen charisma and talent. It’s also a reminder of what Downey can do as an actor that his cocky, sarcastic Marvel persona never even hinted at.
But none of this would be possible without great material for him to perform. And the same goes for all the almost-A-listers who jumped into the Marvel Cinematic Universe while their stars were on the rise. In 2023, Mark Ruffalo got a similar opportunity to show off his range as a dastardly, thoroughly outfoxed asshole in Poor Things. Scarlett Johansson has had plenty of great roles since she left Black Widow behind.
The MCU’s younger heroes haven’t gotten much of a chance to take on other career-defining roles yet. Tom Holland hasn’t managed to open a hit outside of the Marvel IP yet; he’s been trapped in middling movies that don’t know what to do with him, like the Russo brothers’ dismal 2021 addiction movie Cherry. And even Captain America himself, Chris Evans, who was great in Knives Out but not so great in his starring roles in Ghosted and The Gray Man, hasn’t managed to break through much beyond his superhero days. They’re just a few of the many actors who have never managed to break free of Marvel’s gravitational pull to reach stardom of their own — not including those who jumped into comic book universes well after their star had risen, like Benedict Cumberbatch or Florence Pugh.
Just because most MCU actors haven’t ascended to movie-star status doesn’t mean they aren’t likable, talented, or engaging. The problem is, at least in part, that they’ve never had material that lets them shine. Becoming a movie star takes a certain amount of space in your lead roles. Great actors need parts that have room to inject personality, charisma, heart, and pain into the empty spaces. Real movie stars bring some little part of themselves onto the screen with them and make their movie better, no matter what the confines of their characters are.
But Marvel movies — really, most of the franchise IP that dominates the box office — don’t leave any air for a performance like that to thrive, beyond some quips and tertiary charm. (The last role that did leave enough room for movie-star personality was probably Kylo Ren, Adam Driver’s messy, haunted Star Wars villain.)
Meanwhile, movie-star vehicles are rare: spacious dramas like Lady Bird, Midsommar, and Silver Linings Playbook, or franchises like the Creed movies, which give the actors generous space to define their roles. Thankfully, these kinds of movies are at least present enough to have minted a few new A-list stars, like Pugh, Timothée Chalamet, and maybe even Glen Powell.
The good news is that Hollywood’s comic book movie and franchise phase can’t last forever. In fact, with Marvel’s movies struggling at the box office, and comparatively modestly budgeted prestige movies and movie-star vehicles like Anyone But You, No Hard Feelings, and Oppenheimer all outperforming expectations, we can hope that Hollywood is getting the message.
While the reasons might come down to the material more than the talent, it is true that Hollywood has spent two decades struggling to produce new movie stars with the efficiency it had in the 50 or so years before that. And that lack left us all worse off. Movie stars are the backbone in the squishy middle of moviegoing that we’ve been missing during the reign of the IP blockbuster. They’re the people who can get audiences to line up for two-hour talky dramas or taut thrillers about smaller stakes than the end of the world.
The work of movie stars is in adult dramas, rom-coms, courtroom thrillers, and all the genres that have lost status and visibility over the last decade. And if a resurgence of those grand moviegoing traditions is going to happen — if something’s going to come along to replace the slick IP blockbusters that viewers claim they’re tired of watching — it’s probably going to have to start with movie stars who make people want to run straight to their local theater.
More than their individual movies, though, stars are people who develop a cinematic relationship with their fandoms. Each new part in a movie is a fascinating puzzle piece in their career, simultaneously in conversation with both their past work and their public life. Gone Girl is a phenomenal movie, but it’s made even better by the complicated, messy relationship the public has with Ben Affleck’s private life. Tom Cruise is one of the world’s foremost proponents of keeping movies as handcrafted, careful works of art that people should enjoy in theaters, so when he fights an AI in Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, he’s able to make connections to our world, and the role that AI plays in our art, more effectively and efficiently than the movie’s screenplay.
Stars are like a secret sauce that, to borrow a phrase from another movie star’s AMC ad, make movies better. Even if Hollywood doesn’t learn that anytime soon, at least Robert Downey Jr. has another well-deserved Academy Award nomination. And at least it wasn’t for a Marvel movie.