In a recent piece for The New Yorker, critic Richard Brody purports to offer “Advice for Robert Downey Jr.” I honestly couldn’t make it past the second paragraph without letting my eyes wander off the page in a heady fog of annoyance and bewilderment:
In a recent video interview to promote ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron,’ Robert Downey, Jr., Iron Man, lost his mettle. The interviewer quoted a remark by the director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu that superhero movies are ‘cultural genocide.’ Downey seemed taken aback and responded offensively, with a nativist slur: ‘Look, I respect the heck out of him, and I think for a man whose native tongue is Spanish to be able to put together a phrase like “cultural genocide” just speaks to how bright he is.’
There’s no defending Downey’s remark.
You don’t need to do much beyond read the plain language of Downey’s remarks to understand what he’s saying and realize it’s not offensive at all. Downey is simply saying that he’s impressed by the Mexican filmmaker’s sophisticated use of a second language.
Art Isn’t Art If People Can’t Say Anything
Far from a “nativist slur,” it’s the exact opposite. Downey is contrasting Iñárritu with the more parochial attitudes of Americans, most of whom do not speak a second language, let alone do so with such a high degree of cultural sophistication.
Instead, we’re told, “There’s no defending Downey’s remark,” as if the horror of his remarks is so self-evident it requires no explanation. If Brody had made the most minimal effort to ask if there was any way to positively interpret what Downey said, it seems unlikely that he would have arrived at such an insulting and erroneous spin on a pretty clear and harmless comment.
Insofar as Downey’s vocation is that he is very good at entertaining us in two-hour increments, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s required to have an opinion on whether comic book movies are “cultural genocide.” That he would be all but libeled for respectfully and politely demurring to answer such a hyperbolic question makes that particular “cultural genocide” phrase pretty darn ironic. It’s going to be near impossible to make any sort of popular art in a culture that goes out of its way to view every statement through the prism of politically charged constructs.
The question here is, do we want to live in a society where everyone feels they’re justified in their self-centered critiques, or do we want to live in a society where when we’re confronted with something that offends us, we seek to understand and forgive?
Well, part of the reason it’s worth standing up here and speaking out in defense of the trivial slings and arrows endured by a fabulously rich and famous white dude is that I know where Robert Downey Jr. stands on this question. I can give you a dramatic example of how he has gone all-in on forgiveness.
Maybe you have some recollection of Downey’s struggles with addiction and how it nearly destroyed his career. Well, back in 2011, at the twenty-fifth Annual American Cinematheque Award Ceremony, Downey asked Hollywood to forgive Mel Gibson. Why? Because Gibson was there when Downey needed him the most:
I asked Mel to present this award for me for a reason. When I couldn’t get sober, he told me not to give up hope and encouraged me to find my faith. It didn’t have to be his or anyone else’s, as long as it was rooted in forgiveness. And I couldn’t get hired, so he cast me in the lead of a movie that was actually developed for him. He kept a roof over my head and food on the table and, most importantly, he said if I accepted responsibility for my wrongdoing and embraced that part of my soul that was ugly—hugging the cactus, he calls it—he said that if I hugged the cactus long enough, I’d become a man.
I did, and it worked. All he asked in return was that someday I help the next guy in some small way. It’s reasonable to assume at the time he didn’t imagine the next guy would be him, or that someday was tonight. So, anyway, on this special occasion and in light of the recent holidays including Columbus Day, I would ask that you join me, unless you are completely without sin, in which case you picked the wrong f–king industry, in forgiving my friend his trespasses and offering him the same clean slate you have me, allowing him to continue his great and ongoing contribution to our collective art without shame. He’s hugged the cactus long enough.
How About Forgiveness Instead of Accusation?
That was, again, more than three years ago, and despite Downey’s impassioned plea, Gibson is still persona non grata in Hollywood. But Downey hasn’t let up trying to revive a fellow addict’s career. He’s now saying the only way he’ll do another Iron Man movie is if Gibson is allowed to direct it. Of course, there’s always a chance Gibson really is a monster. But I choose to take Downey’s word that it’s time to forgive, because I’d rather live in a society where we err on the side of too much forgiveness than not enough.
Forgiveness means nothing if it is not freely given, to say nothing of when it is given at great cost. Downey’s putting his own reputation, which he’s already fought hard to reclaim, on the line here. (Or at the very least, he’s wagering whatever mind-boggling large payday that would accompany Iron Man 4.)
Now, contrast Downey’s own personal example here with Brody’s nativist accusation. Again, what would it have cost Brody to even consider whether he was being fair, to say nothing of leveling a reckless charge and declaring “there’s no defending Downey’s remark”? Precious little.
But having beat Brody over the head, it’s telling that these kinds criticisms are so often done on impulse—indeed, Brody’s egregious slight of Downey had almost no connection to the rest of an otherwise-interesting bit of criticism on the import of comic-book films. In that sense, it would be wrong to single out Brody’s uncharitable interpretation of Downey, without noting it’s merely a representative example of the bad impulses that lie within all of us—something Downey himself knows all about.
That’s why, in a culture fueled by cheap outrage and fleeting fame, it’s imperative we all try harder to understand the things that supposedly offend us. It’s a somewhat tragic but wonderfully human story that Gibson and Downey eventually swapped places in terms of who was in a position to publicly extend generosity to the other in their respective times of need. Sometimes it’s your job to tell someone else to hug the cactus, and sometimes it’s your turn for a sweet, spiny embrace. And, as many a person looking to rebuild his or her life has prayed, God grant us the wisdom to tell the difference.
Mark Hemingway is a Senior Writer at The Weekly Standard. Follow him @Heminator.