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The Underrated Robert Downey Jr. Movie Getting A Second Life On Netflix

Robert Downey Jr., a staple of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and award-winning star of recent projects like "Oppenheimer," is one of the biggest actors in Hollywood these days ... but you might have forgotten about one of his mid-2010s films that's making a splash on Netflix now.

"The Judge," one of Downey Jr.'s projects that was released during his time as Iron Man in the MCU, has been lighting up the Netflix charts lately, which feels a bit surprising considering that it's definitely one of the actor's more low-profile projects. The film, which was written by Nick Schenk ("Gran Torino") and Bill Dubuque ("The Accountant") and directed by David Dobkin (known for much more lighthearted projects like "Wedding Crashers" and "Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga"), stars Downey Jr. alongside industry heavyweights like Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, future "Succession" star Jeremy Strong, Billy Bob Thornton, and Vincent D'Onofrio, and tells the story of a big-time lawyer who has to return to his hometown to deal with familial legal troubles.

So did critics like "The Judge" when it came out? Is it perhaps bolstered by Downey Jr.'s time as Tony Stark and appearance in the Oscar sensation "Oppenheimer?" Here's what you need to know about "The Judge" if you're considering checking it out on Netflix.

What is The Judge about?

At the beginning of "The Judge," Robert Downey Jr.'s character Hank Palmer, a successful lawyer, is living in Chicago far from his hometown in Indiana — and though his professional life is in a solid place, his personal life is not. His wife Lisa (Sarah Lancaster) cheated on him shortly before the narrative begins, and as Hank grapples with that and prepares for a divorce, he receives word that his mother has passed away ... so he heads home.

While Hank is home with his family — including his brothers Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio) and Dale (Jeremy Strong) — he also visits his father, Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), with whom he has a seriously contentious relationship due to the fact that Judge Palmer sent Hank to a juvenile facility as a teenager after a car accident. The two briefly interact, at which point Hank notices apparent lapses in his father's mental state, but plans to return to Chicago anyway. That plan is destroyed when Glen calls Hank and reveals that Judge Palmer hit and killed a man that he previously sent to prison — which means that Hank has to represent his father in court.

As the case proceeds, Hank also must grapple with his ex-girlfriend Samantha (Vera Farmiga) and their history, and also brings his daughter Lauren (Emma Tremblay) to meet his father for the first time. Hank successfully argues for a charge of voluntary manslaughter for his father, who was clearly suffering from mental deficiencies at the time of the accident, and after Judge Palmer returns home thanks to a compassionate release, he and Hank finally set their differences aside before the Judge peacefully passes away. Hank takes over his father's seat, becoming the titular Judge.

What did critics think of The Judge when it first released?

Despite its recently popularity on Netflix, the truth is that "The Judge" received decidedly middling reviews when it was first released. The film has a 49% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with the critical consensus saying, "Solidly cast and beautifully filmed but thoroughly clichéd, 'The Judge' seems destined to preside over a large jurisdiction of the basic cable afternoon-viewing circuit." So what did specific critics say about the Robert Downey Jr. film?

Peter Bradshaw at The Guardian didn't hate the film but did point out that it felt as if it was vying for awards, writing, "There are plenty of emotional fireworks in this big, soupy but entertaining picture, which is obvious Oscar bait." David Edelstein at New York Magazine agreed, saying, "This is not by any means a bad movie. The script has its bright patches, the setting is picturesque, and the cast is full of actors you'll want to see." Peter Travers, however, vehemently disagreed with those critics in Rolling Stone and insulted another 2014 film in the process: "An overstuffed, overlong slog of a legal drama. Director David Dobkin coats every cliché with cheap theatrics. Go ahead, see The Judge just for Downey and Duvall. But to cite another recent dud, this is where I leave you." At The New York Times, A.O. Scott agreed with Travers, calling the film "a sprawl of narrative that is as unconvincing as the suspiciously sprawl-free, nostalgia-tinged town where it all takes place."

These days, Robert Downey Jr. is an Oscar winner

It's been ten years since "The Judge," and it's safe to say that Robert Downey Jr.'s star has only risen since he starred alongside Robert Duvall in the film. In 2019, after "Avengers: Endgame" officially killed off Tony Stark at the end of the MCU's enormous Phase 3 battle against Josh Brolin's Thanos, Downey Jr. left his super-suit behind and exited the MCU ... but his choices may have made fans nervous for at least a moment there (remember "Dolittle?").

Luckily for Downey Jr. and his most fervent fans, the actor struck gold in 2023 when he played a major supporting role in Christopher Nolan's historical epic "Oppenheimer." Downey Jr. portrays real-life figure Rear Admiral Lewis Strauss in the film, who, after feeling insulted by Cillian Murphy's J. Robert Oppenheimer early in their work together, engineers a campaign against the scientist which leads to constant questioning about whether or not Oppenheimer is a secret Communist. Strauss is ultimately unmasked for his villainous work behind the scenes, which derails the hearings regarding whether or not he'll become Secretary of Commerce and effectively ruins his political career. Thanks to his incredible performance as Strauss, Downey Jr. won his first-ever Oscar at the Academy Awards in 2024, cementing his legacy in Hollywood and proving that the actor is unstoppable when he's given the right role and project.

"The Judge" is streaming on Netflix now.