Here’s Why Robert Downey Jr.’s ‘Oppenheimer’ Twist Got Us So Good

Editor’s Note: The following contains Oppenheimer spoilers.

The Big Picture

  • Robert Downey Jr. delivers a strong and unexpected performance as the villain in Oppenheimer, showcasing his range as an actor.
  • Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Louis Strauss starts off likable and charming but gradually reveals his true conniving and ambitious nature.
  • The twist in Downey Jr.’s casting adds to the chilling effect of the character arc, as he breaks away from his usual roles as suave heroes and takes on a role of a cold and calculating antagonist.

One can consider Oppenheimer a groundbreaking film for various reasons. The blockbuster period-piece biopic not only shares an unsung story about one of history’s most contentious physicists, but in the signature style of Christopher Nolan, it also presses boundaries of what cinema can do both visually and dramatically. The star-studded film offers stellar performances from the likes of Cillian Murphy, Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, David Krumholtz, Florence Pugh, and more. However, the most memorable performance may come from the world’s favorite superhero actor, Robert Downey Jr., who plays against his conventional type to give us an unexpected and down-to-earth villain.

Robert Downey Jr. Is Hollywood’s Haughty Hero

Robert Downey Jr. in his acclaimed first appearance as Iron Man.
Image via Marvel Studios

Although they might be snarky and sarcastic, Robert Downey Jr.’s characters almost always come off as heroes at the ends of their respective movies. Even when he’s not donning a super suit to play Iron Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, RDJ has excelled at playing protagonists from Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Dolittle. Outside of blockbusters, he may take on more morally complicated roles, but whether he stars in a comedy like Tropic Thunder or Due Date, a drama like Chaplin or The Soloist, a neo-noir like Zodiac, or a mix of the three in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, Downey Jr. often finds himself winning over the audience’s hearts before the credits roll.

In Oppenheimer, Downey Jr. portrays Louis Strauss: a trustee at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, where the eponymous Dr. Robert Oppenheimer (Murphy) worked, and chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission after World War II. Through nonlinear editing reminiscent of Nolan’s Memento and The Prestige, Oppenheimer almost becomes just as much Strauss’ story as it does the titular scientist’s. In between color scenes of Dr. Oppenheimer creating the atomic bomb during the War, black-and-white scenes show Strauss attending a hearing to join President Eisenhower‘s cabinet in the 1950s.

With a receding white hairline and thick glasses, Robert Downey Jr. is not immediately recognizable as Strauss. He appears far older than the actor’s 58 years would suggest. Nevertheless, Strauss enters the film with reasonable levels of RDJ charm. In one of the first scenes, Strauss offers Oppenheimer a prestigious position at Princeton, and even as their differences unfold across the film’s first and second acts, Strauss still upholds an image as one of the scientist’s allies. It’s not until the third act that a classic Nolan twist turns the character on his head and reveals his true, conniving nature.

What Makes Robert Downey Jr. ‘Oppenheimer’ Performance Strong?

Robert Downey Jr. and Rami Malek as Lewis Strauss and David L. Hill in Oppenheimer
Image via Universal Pictures

Unbeknownst to the audience for nearly two hours of the film’s colossal 171-minute runtime, Strauss is secretly the villain in Oppenheimer. Near the start of the third act, as his hearing breaks for a recess, Strauss reveals to his senate aid (Alden Ehrenreich) that he has covertly been pulling strings to undermine Oppenheimer for political gain. Throughout the film, several scenes depict Oppenheimer being aggressively interrogated about his left-leaning, former-Communist affiliations in conjunction with his stances against the United States developing a Hydrogen Bomb. In this pivotal scene, Strauss reveals that he not only orchestrated the interrogation but rigged it against Oppenheimer to ensure that the scientist would lose his security clearance to the Atomic Energy Commission.

Robert Downey Jr. plays this switch masterfully. Just as Strauss has all of his colleagues fooled, RDJ effectively tricks the audience into thinking he was one of the story’s good guys. However, once Strauss reveals his true nature and ambitions, all of the subtleties in RDJ’s performance rise to the surface. Throughout the scene, he remains cool, calculated, and precise, and yet, we now notice the hints of furious self-absorption that Downey Jr. has been building within the character all along.

RELATED: ‘Oppenheimer’ Cinematographer Says Making IMAX Film Cameras More Accessible “Is Like Defying Physics”

Why Does Robert Downey Jr. Work So Well as Strauss?

Robert Downey Jr. in Oppenheimer
Image via Universal Pictures

The atypical casting of Robert Downey Jr. as Strauss makes the twist even more rousing. Unlike Tony Stark or Sherlock Holmes, Strauss never comes off as the smooth-talking maverick that RDJ often portrays. Even before the curtain falls on his agreeable facade, Strauss is somewhat distant in Oppenheimer. He appears as an uninspiring bureaucrat, rarely filling the room and hardly a centerpiece in the film. For a good chunk of the movie, it seems like the character is just there to frame Oppenheimer’s story without consequence. It’s a far cry from RDJ’s usual roles as suave, eccentric bigwigs, and it adds to the twist’s chilling effect.

As aforementioned, RDJ is best known for playing protagonists, and yet Strauss’ character arc is almost the reverse of Tony Stark’s in the first Iron Man movie. In the 2008 superhero film, Stark enters the narrative as an openly conceited hothead, but by the end, he rises to become a selfless hero. By contrast, Strauss begins Oppenheimer as a likable figure but ends with his pride and arrogance flatly displayed. It is not layers of hubris peeled back to reveal virtue, but quite the inverse, and while Iron Man eventually saves the world in The Avengers, Oppenheimer‘s haunting denouement suggests that Strauss contributed to its destruction.

Robert Downey Jr.’s ‘Oppenheimer’ Role Showcases His Impressive Range

Robert Downey Jr. and Matthew Modine as Lewis Strauss and Vannevar Bush in Oppenheimer
Image via Universal Pictures

All of this — from RDJ’s anti-typecasting to Strauss’ layered identity — not only proves that Robert Downey Jr is more than a character actor, but it demonstrates that he has a talent for nuanced and complex roles… enough so to pull off a Christopher Nolan plot twist without the narrative assistance of time travel, wormholes, or nineteenth-century magicians.

Above all, though, it confirms that Downey Jr. can play the villain just as well as he can play the hero. After nine times portraying Iron Man, and only once getting to dip his toe into antagonistic waters when becoming the adversary in Captain America: Civil War, RDJ finally showcases his chops for playing a cold, conspiring, and (eventually) unambiguous bad guy in a movie. While we’d all love to see Robert Downey Jr. further demonstrate his range and take on additional roles in serious movies like Oppenheimer, we can’t help but feel inspired by his villainous portrayal of Strauss, and question if there might be a supervillain role in the actor’s future.

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