Tony Stark is Iron Man, and by extension, so is Robert Downey Jr. The actor is synonymous with the role that put Marvel Studios on the map, and for good reason. Downey portrayed Stark for over a decade; his tenure with Marvel rehabilitated his career in a major way, and vice-versa for the then-struggling studio. It’s hard to imagine the actor outside the role, especially since his post-Marvel projects have felt a bit lackluster.
Downey’s appearance in Oppenheimer is a bright spot in an otherwise disappointing output. As Lewis Strauss, Downey turned in another career-best performance, causing many to wonder why it’s taken so long for him to connect with director Christopher Nolan. The answer, it seems, is a pretty simple one. The duo nearly worked together almost 20 years ago, on a very different superhero movie: Nolan’s Batman Begins.
Downey revealed all at a recent screening of Oppenheimer, confirming that he nearly appeared in Nolan’s first Batman film. The actor was in talks for the role of Jonathan Crane, aka Scarecrow, but his initial meeting with Nolan didn’t really bear fruit.
“I remember meeting [Nolan] for tea and I was like, ‘He doesn’t seem like he’s really leaning in on this interview,” Downey said. “He was polite and all that, but you can tell when someone is kind of like, ‘It’s not gonna go anywhere.’”
In truth, Nolan already had another actor in mind for Scarecrow. The director was circling Cillian Murphy, albeit for the lead role. After breaking out in 28 Days Later, Murphy wound up on Nolan’s radar. Nolan, then casting for Batman Begins, “got very excited” about the idea of Murphy screen testing for Batman.
The duo’s initial meeting was a far cry from Nolan’s tea with Downey. “I felt an immediate connection,” Nolan told Entertainment Weekly. “I felt like, this is somebody that I want to work with ... I really wanted to get on set with [Murphy]. I wanted to get [him] on film.”
Nolan admits that, even then, he knew Murphy wasn’t quite right for the role of Batman. Murphy agreed — “It was always going to be Christian Bale,” he told GQ — but tested for the role anyway. Nolan made sure the producers were on set for his shoot, and there he broached the idea of casting Murphy as Scarecrow.
“Everybody was so excited by watching [Murphy] perform that when I then said to them, ‘Okay, Christian Bale is Batman, but what about Cillian to play Scarecrow?’ There was no dissent,” Nolan told EW. That sparked the beginning of a decades-spanning partnership between Murphy and Nolan, culminating with Oppenheimer.
The 2023 film marked Murphy’s first time playing a lead in a Nolan film, after scene-stealing turns in Inception and Dunkirk. Oppenheimer also gave Nolan the chance to make good on his connection with Downey. Though the actor may have felt a bit slighted in their first meeting, it clearly worked out for the best.
While Murphy and Nolan were doing their thing, Downey was becoming Iron Man. He now counts his work with Marvel among his best, even if it “went a little bit unnoticed because of the genre.” It’s fun to imagine things playing out differently, but we may not have seen that work if his tea with Nolan had been more successful, so there’s no great loss here.