Friday, March 20, 2015

Robert Downey Jr., Superhero

Robert Downey Jr. won the internet last Thursday, posting on his Facebook page a touching video of his presentation of an Iron Man-style robotic limb to a young Florida boy born with an underdeveloped arm.

The previous weekend, first-grader Alex Pring, whose right arm ends just above his elbow, was ushered by his parents into an Atlanta hotel room where his mom had told him they would meet with Albert Manero and another specialist working on an upgraded robotic arm for the boy. Manero is a University of Central Florida engineering PhD student who started the volunteer group Limbitless Solutions to make free bionic arms for kids through 3-D printing technology (is there nothing 3-D printing can’t do?). Alex had received his first robotic arm last summer, then later had it upgraded to resemble a Transformers arm.

Alex’s mom wanted to get him one of the bionic limbs because of all the teasing and awkward attention he suffered. “Whenever people saw him, they’d say, ‘What’s wrong with your arm?’” she said. “Now it’s, ‘Your arm is amazing, you’re so cool... It helps educate people to maybe think twice before saying something like, ‘Why are you like that’?”

Albert Manero is something of a superhero himself, considering the life-changing work he is giving to the world for free, but Alex was taken aback to be greeted in the hotel room by his hero Iron Man – or at least, Downey Jr. slipping into his Tony Stark persona. The actor’s subsequent short video captured their meeting. 

In the video we see Downey greet Alex and present him with matching cases marked “Stark Industries” (specially made for the event by the Marvel movie prop master). Downey opens them to reveal identical Iron Man arms, one for Downey from the movies and a working robotic arm for Alex. The boy’s barely suppressed smile is heartwarming.

They try on their arms. “This is even cooler than I thought,” says the star. At the end of the video they fist bump with their mechanical limbs. Afterward, Downey reportedly invited Alex to hang out with him in Atlanta this summer while he films the new Captain America movie, an awesome experience that would make Alex the envy of everyone who might once have teased him.

But Downey came away equally impressed: “Had the absolute privilege of presenting a brand spanking new 3D-printed bionic Iron Man arm to Alex, the most dapper 7-year-old I’ve ever met,” the actor commented on his video, referring to Alex’s red bow tie. “Special thanks to Albert Manero, OneNote, and #‎CollectiveProject for their work making artificial limbs like this more affordable for families with kids who want to show the playground how badass they are,” he continued. “Check out to learn more about this incredible project. #‎goodcause

As of this writing, less than 1o hours after the video was posted, it has accumulated nearly 14 million views. It was also posted by Microsoft, which arranged the meeting as part of its Collective Project campaign, celebrating students working to change the world through technology.

While Manero and his team are the real heroes behind Alex’s arm, it is Downey’s fame that drew attention to the project. This is what superheroes are for: not just saving the world from fictional galactic evil on the big screen, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars for the movie studios, but serving as real world role models and inspiration for their fans. Not coincidentally, this is also what celebrity should be for. Downey’s simple act of kindness to Alex is the sort of gesture that does more good in the world than Iron Man taking out any number of movie villains.

Downey is an inspiration in other ways, too. He has a notoriously troubled past – years of substance abuse, arrests, prison, rehab, and relapse that derailed his first marriage and nearly derailed his career – but he has also worked hard to rise above those troubles, with the help of his current wife Susan, with whom he is, by all reports, happily married and has two children.

Getting his life and career together is an inspirational tale of redemption, but even more inspiring is Downey’s willingness to use his real-world superpower – celebrity – for good.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 3/19/15)