Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man 3IRON MAN 3

Iron Man 3 begins with narration by Tony Stark, the superheroic multi-billionaire voiced and eventually embodied, as always, by Robert Downey Jr. His tone is steady and somber as he makes ominous pronouncements about the uncertain state of the world and how we each create our own demons and such, but before long, Stark's more expectedly breezy, wise-ass nature takes over - he stumbles over his words and realizes his blathering isn't really going anywhere, and quickly puts a kibosh on the opening address. The whole routine is reminiscent of Woody Allen's hilariously neurotic "Chapter one ... " intro at the start of Manhattan, and immediately suggests that this second sequel to 2008's effects-laden blockbuster will be both deathly serious and happily insouciant. And it is. I'm just not completely convinced, in the case of Iron Man 3, that that's a good thing.

Living as we do in an era that generally finds comic-book movies designed for maximum portentousness, Downey's Iron Man, when he first appeared in 2008's franchise-starting blockbuster, was a breath of fresh air - a costumed crime fighter whose planet-saving duties, and the effects they had on his private life, didn't weigh heavily on his soul. Quite the opposite, really; the charismatic, carefree Tony Stark loved showing off in his metal jumpsuit, and was so casually confident about his abilities (and blithely unconcerned about personal ramifications) that the movie even ended with him revealing his alter ego at a national press conference. Iron Man, in director Jon Favreau's original film and 2010's Iron Man 2, was a sardonically cheerful superhero turned on by his own awesomeness, and Downey - especially when bantering with Gwyneth Paltrow's gal Friday Pepper Potts - vibrated with currents of comic electricity. Yet while some of that charge can still be felt in Iron Man 3, it doesn't really mesh with the new film's overall design, which finds Stark prone to debilitating panic attacks and forced to combat a bin Laden-esque terrorist with a yen for explosives. (Until, that is, a late plot twist sneakily shifts the true threat elsewhere.) Directed and co-written by Shane Black, this follow-up wants to be both a lightweight diversion and a grave, post-9/11 meditation in the vein of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, but the blend doesn't work given Downey's blithe, motor-mouthed conception of his character; the actor attacks his dramatic moments admirably enough, yet when Stark suffers, there's nothing at stake.

Having said that, and despite a major, nefarious subplot involving Guy Pearce that I never quite wrapped my head around, it's easy enough to have a good time at Iron Man 3. A few of the movie's more complexly choreographed set pieces - particularly Iron Man's rescue of 13 passengers free-falling from a crashing jet - border on the extraordinary, as do many of the effects, and while this comic-book offering runs a typically bloated two-hours-plus, at least it's never dull; there's nearly always a clever visual gag or wisecrack or Rebecca Hall reading to keep things lively in between detonations. A narrative detour that finds Stark trapped, without a functioning Iron Man suit, in rural Tennessee leads to some intensely charming comic byplay between Downey and the relaxed, gifted young performer Ty Simpkins. (The duo's mentor/mentee relationship, which could have been uncomfortably mushy, instead crackles with the same quick-witted energy that permeated Downey's scenes with Paltrow in the first two Iron Mans ... yet, sadly, not this one.) And while I wouldn't dream of giving away the surprise of his role as The Mandarin (our bin Laden doppelgänger), suffice it to say that Ben Kingsley upends his potentially stock figure with inspiring, infectious zeal. Speaking in not one but two of those geographically unfathomable accents he's famous for, Kingley is madly entertaining here, and suggests the joyously subversive outing Iron Man 3 might have been if it wasn't also struggling so hard for a mood of epic grandeur. Sometimes funny is enough.


Space Junk 3DSPACE JUNK 3D

The Putnam Museum's latest documentary is titled Space Junk 3D, and never in my life have I felt so guilty about having a cell phone and cable-TV subscription. Offering viewers a look at the thousands of satellites and other man-made objects orbiting the earth, and the space-flight and environmental perils resulting from these ever-thickening encirclements of debris, director Melissa R. Butts' 40-minute edu-tainment is a swift, informative, and mostly fascinating piece of work, narrated by Tom Wilkinson with just the right mixture of solemnity and awe. As a cautionary tale, it might not be enough to make you want to ditch your GPS entirely. But I guarantee that Space Junk 3D will make you think twice about the sheer tonnage of material floating overhead, and wonder if all of our satellite-based conveniences are really worth the formation of an Earth that's starting to more closely resemble Saturn.

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