Robert Downey Jr. Binge List: 10 Must-See Movies

Robert Downey Jr.
Robert Downey Jr. Photo: buzzfuss/123rf

East Hampton homeowner Robert Downey Jr. hit stratospheric super stardom with his role as Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, but the actor has been a movie star for far longer than his years under Marvel’s mighty umbrella. His performances first launched him as a 1980s teen heartthrob, and he continued with a long series of independent classics, dramas and comedies that earned him Oscar nods and Golden Globe wins. He even had a brief stint on the cast of Saturday Night Live. To experience his true range, look for these films starring Downey on various streaming platforms—presented in chronological order.

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Weird Science (1985) – Rent on Amazon Prime
Downey plays the quintessential ’80s teen jerk Ian in this John Hughes classic about awkward teens Gary (Anthony Michael Hall) and Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) who use their science skills to design their ideal woman, who is brought to life during a freak electrical storm. The boys’ gorgeous creation, Lisa (Kelly LeBrock) serves Gary and Wyatt as a genie of sorts, helping the young misfits finally become cool. As Ian, Downey goes from bullying the nerds to desperately trying to get in with their inexplicable female companion. The film also stars the late, great Bill Paxton as Wyatt’s idiot older brother Chet and Robert Rusler as Ian’s pal Max.

Back to School (1986) – Rent on Amazon Prime or watch on STARZ Channel on Prime
In another fun, 1980s-era supporting role, RDJ plays Derek Lutz, the eccentric roommate and best bud of Jason Melon, a college freshman struggling to fit in at Grand Lakes University. Just as Jason is about to give up and drop out, his wildly rich—and wildly wild—father Thornton (Rodney Dangerfield) enrolls at his school and changes everything. The film takes father and son, joined by Downey’s Derek, through ups and downs as Jason attempts to succeed on the school’s diving team, and both men must overcome bullies trying to keep them down. It even has a cameo by late Sagaponack author Kurt Vonnegut as himself!

Less Than Zero (1987) – Stream on HBO Max
This grim ’80s flick has a hugely different tone than Weird Science or any of the John Hughes movies that define the era, but it’s an important part of RDJ’s filmography and well worth the watch. Based on author Bret Easton Ellis’s seminal novel, the story follows rich college freshman Clay (Andrew McCarthy), who, at the request of his girlfriend Blair (Jami Gertz), returns home to Los Angeles for the holidays, only to find his best friend Julian (Downey) a drug-addled mess who’s hustling for cash and living under the thumb of dealer Rip (James Spader). Straitlaced and concerned about his friend, Clay attempts to save Julian from the life he’s now living. The movie is a snapshot of 1980s excess, though it strays far from Ellis’s original source material—which will soon be revisited in a new Hulu television series.

Chaplin (1992) – Rent on Prime Video
The first film to truly highlight Downey’s powerful acting cred, this biopic about the life of British silent film star and comedian Charlie Chaplin earned the actor a BAFTA win for Best Actor and nominations from the Golden Globes and Academy Awards. The story follows Chaplin’s life, from his vaudeville days in England, his movie career in America, four marriages, an enforced exile from the United States and his return to receive an honorary Oscar in 1972. This is a must-see if you want the full RDJ experience.

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Natural Born Killers (1994) – Stream on Hulu or rent on Prime Video
Downey doesn’t have a starring role in this controversial and experimental Oliver Stone film about America’s obsession and sensationalizing of murderers, but it was a huge deal at the time, and represents the actor’s inclusion in more serious, important projects following his Chaplin acclaim. In it, he plays Wayne Gale, host of an absurd tabloid TV series American Maniacs, who secures a post-Super Bowl interview with convicted killer Mickey Knox (Woody Harrelson). During Wayne’s interview, Mickey incites a prison riot, frees his wife and partner in crime, Mallory (Juliette Lewis), and embarks on a new killing spree with Wayne in tow, at least at first.

Wonder Boys (2000) – Stream on Prime Video
Based on Michael Chabon’s novel of the same name, Wonder Boys follows a college professor battling writer’s block, Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas), and his gifted students James Leer (Tobey Maguire) and Hannah Green (Katie Holmes), along with Grady’s editor Terry Crabtree (RDJ) through wild misadventures at an unnamed Pittsburgh university. The group’s antics lead them to steal a valuable piece of Marilyn Monroe memorabilia, hide a dead dog and much more. RDJ steals numerous scenes as the morally flexible Terry.

A Scanner Darkly (2006) – Rent on Prime Video
Based on Philip K. Dick’s dystopian 1977 sci-fi novel, this film takes place in a future where the United States has lost its war on drugs, and a powerful hallucinogenic, Substance D, has much of the country in its grip. Directed by indie icon Richard Linklater (Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Boyhood) the film uses an innovative interpolated rotoscope animation technique—where animators trace over each frame of the original digital footage—to give it an unsettling psychedelic vibe. This visual style alone is worth the price of admission. Downey plays a supporting role as James Barris, one of undercover agent Bob Arctor’s (Keanu Reeves) drug-addicted, bum roommates, along with Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson). Bob, too, has found himself addicted to Substance D, though he’s immersed himself in the culture in order to infiltrate and disturb the drug’s supply chain. Also starring Stranger Things’ Winona Ryder and Rory Cochrane (Argo), this is truly an experience to watch.

Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, aka Iron Man
Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, Photo: © 2011 MVLFFLLC. TM

Iron Man (2008) – Disney+ or Rent on Prime Video
No list of RDJ movies would be complete without his Marvel Cinematic Universe debut, and the film that launched the MCU overall. Director Jon Favreau’s Iron Man put Downey in the role of Iron Man’s alter-ego Tony Stark, which he was born to play. Also starring Amagansett’s Gwyneth Paltrow as Tony’s loyal assistant Pepper Potts, this blockbuster demonstrated what superhero movies could be, but it wouldn’t have been the same without Downey’s charismatic, can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him performance. For those weirdos who don’t know the story: After being critically wounded, and while being held prisoner in an Afghan cave, billionaire engineer and arms dealer Tony Stark builds a weaponized suit of armor to escape. Once home, he swears off building and selling weapons and then builds an upgraded suit to fight evil and create peace. Unfortunately, his father’s old business partner and Stark Industries’ manager Obadiah Stane has other plans and builds his own suit of armor. Explosions and heroics ensue.

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Tropic Thunder (2008) – Rent on Prime Video
Downey’s second major awards contender, after Chaplin, this outrageous and satirical action film puts him in the role of a white guy playing a black man, which somehow didn’t end his career. That, it seems, is the power of good humor and tone. Directed by Ben Stiller, the film focuses on a group of prima donna actors who end up in very real danger while filming a Vietnam War movie. Dropped by their director in the middle of the jungle in the Golden Triangle, a heroin trade hotbed, the actors must survive as the Flaming Dragon gang hunts them—but they’re not sure what’s part of the movie and what isn’t. Downey’s character, an Australian five-time Oscar winner and serious method actor Kirk Lazarus, surgically dyed his skin for his role. Tropic Thunder has a brilliant ensemble cast, including Jack Black as drug-addicted comedian Jeff Portnoy and Stiller as washed-up action star Tugg Speedman, along with Brandon T. Jackson, Jay Baruchel, Valerie Azlynn, Steve Coogan and an almost unrecognizable Tom Cruise as overweight, balding and ill-tempered executive producer Les Grossman. This movie is an uproarious sendup of Hollywood, and it earned RDJ Best Supporting Actor nominations from the Academy Awards, Golden Globes, BAFTAs, Critics Choice, SAG and Satellite Awards. 

Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, in the first "Avengers: Endgame" trailer
Robert Downey Jr. in the first “Avengers: Endgame” trailer from Disney and Marvel Studios

Avengers: Endgame (2019) – Disney+
It was a tough call to leave out 1991’s Soapdish and RDJ’s Golden Globe-winning lead in Sherlock Holmes (2009), but considering the impact of his role as Tony Stark, it seemed almost irresponsible to leave out his final top-billed film as the character. SPOILER ALERT! Avengers: Endgame gives the star a heroic exit from the MCU, killing Tony off as he sacrifices himself to save the world from Thanos (Josh Brolin). Redefining the word “blockbuster,” this movie earned a record $2.79 billion worldwide and gave Downey a chance to explore more of Tony’s softer side—as a husband, father and loving friend. The film concludes a well-planned story that began more than a decade before in Iron Man and continued through nearly all the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, including the penultimate Avengers: Infinity War (2018), which set events in motion for the final, all-in confrontation. Downey is joined by all his MCU compatriots—Amagansett’s Scarlett Johansson (as Black Widow) and Paltrow among them.

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