Michael Shannon’s Cool Killer; Iron Man’s Terror: Movies

“A smirk and a cheesy one-liner?,” sneers a villainess during some finely choreographed mayhem in Shane Black’s “Iron Man 3.”

“Sweetheart,” replies Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man alter-ego Tony Stark, “that could be the name of my autobiography.”

Downey might well be speaking for himself.

Under all the nuts and bolts of this solid franchise installment, the actor and his old “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” director never hesitate to wink between smirks.

“Iron Man 3” has the metal-suited hero taking on a terrorist mastermind named The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley).

Comic books have been coopting real-life horror since Superman battled Hitler, and audiences will have to judge for themselves whether they’re ready, post-Boston, to see a bomb explode at a crowded Los Angeles landmark.

Black (co-writing with Drew Pearce) certainly has a knack for poking exposed cultural nerves. Limbless war veterans, terrorist videos and a mass shooting find their way into his fantasy.

No wonder Iron Man has PTSD.

Despite the calming presence of girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and loyal pal Rhodey (Don Cheadle), Stark is hardly ready for The Mandarin.

Neither, apparently, is the worldwide film market: The script perhaps too cleverly modifies the Mandarin’s racist comic book origins by morphing elements of Fu Manchu, Darth Vader and Osama bin Laden. The Mandarin is now a self-acknowledged amalgam of America’s worst fears.

The premise -- we create our own nightmares -- is workable, but like Iron Man himself, a bit soft inside.

Black seems less interested in plot mechanics. To what end, exactly, is Mandarin ally Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) blowing people up?

Better is the film’s quieter middle section. Stranded in Tennessee, Stark drags his broken-down Iron Man chassis through the snow and bonds with a smart, fatherless boy (think Elliott from “E.T.”).

“So now you’re just going to leave me here, like my dad?” says the wet-eyed kid (Ty Simpkins), as self-aware as this movie.

When the answer comes back yes, the boy smirks and says “Worth a shot.”

“Iron Man 3,” from Walt Disney Pictures, is playing across the U.S. Rating: *** (Evans)

Julianne Moore

Little Maisie’s face doesn’t give away much as her mother, a has-been rocker (Julianne Moore), and her father, a foundering art dealer (Steve Coogan), shout obscenities at each other. How much is she taking in?

Henry James wrote “What Maisie Knew” (1897) from the point of view of the bright little girl; the directing team of Scott McGehee and David Siegel keep it there. They’ve capably translated the plot -- Maisie’s respective step-parents (Alexander Skarsgard and Joanna Vanderham) bond over their attachment to the mistreated child -- to contemporary New York.

The actors are all very good. Moore, in particular, has a frightening intensity. If Maisie can deal with this banshee, she’s prepared for anything.

Whether through talent, effort or an instinct for underplaying (probably all three), six-year-old Onata Aprile easily carries the movie on her small shoulders. Her quietness never masks her intelligence.

It’s all so slyly done that it leaves you wondering why the screenwriters, Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright, didn’t follow James’s moral complexities through to the end. The novel “What Maisie Knew” ends with one of the author’s finest renunciations; the movie stops short.

Then why make it? James, of all writers, abhorred simplifications.

“What Maisie Knew,” from Millennium Entertainment, is playing in New York. Rating: *** (Seligman)

‘The Iceman’

Michael Shannon’s clenched jaw finds its ideal role in Ariel Vromen’s taut hit-man saga “The Iceman.”

Shannon (“Boardwalk Empire”) plays Richard Kuklinski, a real-life New Jersey contract killer from the 1960s through his arrest in 1986.

Called the Iceman because of his lack of emotion, Kuklinski might better be called the Compartmentalizer: He can slit a man’s throat by day, then cuddle with the wife and kids by night.

“Iceman” is as compelling as it is efficient, cutting through the years as Kuklinski builds a solid suburban middle-class life. He tells his incredibly naive wife (Winona Ryder) that the money comes from investments.

Ray Liotta, as a mob boss, matches Shannon’s scowl, and David Schwimmer, Chris Evans, James Franco and Stephen Dorff are strong in smaller roles.

“The Iceman,” from Millennium Entertainment, is playing in New York and Los Angeles. Rating: *** (Evans)

Maoist Nuttiness

Olivier Assayas’s valentine to the early ’70s, “Something in the Air,” re-creates the textures of the director’s student days in France: the rock and roll, the tie dye, the Maoist nuttiness. To read Bloomberg’s review from the New York Film Festival, click here.

“Something in the Air,” from Sundance Selects, is playing in New York and L.A. Rating: **** (Seligman)

What the Stars Mean:

***** Fantastic
**** Excellent
*** Good
** So-So
* Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Greg Evans and Craig Seligman are critics for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are their own.)

Muse highlights include Lewis Lapham on books and New York Weekend.