The not-so-parallel careers of Robert Downey Jr. and Will Smith

The two stars are swapping their usual roles in Dolittle and Bad Boys For Life this weekend

Will Smith and Robert Downey Jr.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Kyle Kaplan/Sony Pictures Entertainment, Universal Pictures, Aerial3/iStock)

Will Smith and Robert Downey Jr. are only three years apart in age, and have spent some overlapping time as two of the most famous movie stars in the world. Yet their career navigations that got them to this point look vastly different. Smith logged a nearly unprecedented number of global hits between 1996 and 2008, largely predicated on his ingratiating persona popping into various genres (sci-fi, action, romantic comedy, drama). As it happens, 2008 was also the year that Iron Man turned Downey into a huge star after a couple of tumultuous decades in and out of the spotlight (not always for the best reasons).

Since then, Downey has appeared on screen primarily as Tony Stark, occasionally as Sherlock Holmes, and rarely in a non-blockbuster. Smith's career, existing largely outside the comforts of a clockwork franchise like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, has been more hit-and-miss, though he's still a big name. This weekend, they're both taking another crack at big star vehicles — albeit in the safer environs of mid-January, and possibly swapping strategies. Smith reawakens a long-dormant franchise with Bad Boys For Life (a three-quel opening nearly 17 years after its predecessor), while Downey drops his famous face into something new with the family adventure Dolittle.

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Jesse Hassenger

Jesse Hassenger's film and culture criticism has appeared in The Onion's A.V. Club, Brooklyn Magazine, and Men's Journal online, among others. He lives in Brooklyn, where he also writes fiction, edits textbooks, and helps run, a pop culture blog and podcast.