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'Iron Man 3': Six lessons from its box office success

Early audience tracking told us that "Iron Man 3" was going to be a big hit. But until the numbers started floating through inboxes and Twitter feeds in the past week, it didn’t hit home just how big that hit would be.

With $175.3 million worth of tickets sold on its first U.S. weekend (the second-highest total in box-office history) and nearly $700 million worldwide in just 10 days of release, the Robert Downey Jr. film is an eye-popping success. The numbers more than validate Marvel Studios' decision to move ahead with a third Tony Stark film, and offer something of a rejoinder to director Jon Favreau, who decided against same.

Does "Iron Man 3" rank as the most successful threequel of all time? Time will tell, but it’s easy to imagine how it will. The superhero film will certainly land in the upper echelon of threequels, alongside films such as “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” ($423 million U.S., $1.07 billion worldwide), “Toy Story 3” ($415 million U.S., $1.06 billion worldwide) and “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” ($377 million U.S, $1.12 billion worldwide). All of this, of course, doesn’t count inflation or the fact that these movies were in a lot more theaters globally than a threequel from a previous era, such as 1989’s “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”

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So what to take away from this movie minting more money than Stark industries? Here are six lessons among many.

Director dally. It's hard to avoid the Favreau factor in analyzing the success of “Iron Man 3.” When the man who helped turn a relatively unknown superhero into a household name in 2008 opted to leave after "Iron Man 2," many thought the franchise done for. Enter the veteran screenwriter Shane Black who, like Downey back in '08, was looking for a little redemption of his own (he'd had an underperforming directorial debut, also with Downey, in 2005's "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.") Many thought the switch wouldn't work -- even leaving aside Black's limited track record, most successful threequels ("Pirates," "LOTR," the Jason Bourne films) continued with the director of the previous installment. Turns out you can make a switch lmidstream. And speaking of switches. ...

Tonal tweaks. The conventional wisdom about threequels is that to work on a big scale they need to pick up where the previous film, left off or at least keep the same tone in place. The third “Lord of the Rings” was in many respects the culmination of what came before, and "Toy Story 3" (one of the few blockbuster threequels to make a change behind the camera) offered a continuity of tone. But “Iron Man 3,” as Times critic Kenneth Turan noted, went darker and more thematic, posing questions of identity along the way. Yet audiences ate it up, giving the movie an A Cinemascore.

Franchise renaissance. A third movie in a series rarely tops its predecessors at the box office after the second film showed a dip. Basically, if you lose the momentum, it's hard to get it back. But “Iron Man 3” demonstrated that it's possible to do just that. “Iron Man 2” tallied $312 million domestically to “Iron Man’s” $318 million. This film, though, will easily eclipse both of them.

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You don’t need the supergroup. When Kevin Feige and Marvel came up with this world-of-heroes concept, the idea was that single-superhero titles such as "Iron Man," "Thor" and "Captain America" would one day build to a massive throw-em-all-together movie. That thinking was proven correct last year when "The Avengers" became the biggest hit of the year and one of the highest-grossing films in history. The single-superhero films would look paltry by comparison after that, wouldn't they? Not so fast.  When all is said and done "Iron Man 3" may finish slightly behind the global $1.5 billion of "Avengers." But it will be a lot closer than you might have guessed -- and on a per-superhero (and per-salary) basis, "Iron Man" is actually the stronger performer.

Downey dabbling. Robert Downey Jr. shouldn't play anyone besides Tony Stark ever again. Well, OK, he will. And  surely there's an Oscar-y passion project out there ("Wonder Boys 2"?) But with the massive success of "Iron Man 3," the gulf between this character and everything else he does is widening. Downey's Sherlock Holmes is flagging, “Due Date” was a modest performer and he opted out of "Oz: The Great and Powerful." But his four movies as Tony Stark have brought in $3.4 billion -- a number not only equivalent to the GDP of many small countries but a figure that, soon enough, will surpass the ultimate pairing of star and global franchise, Johnny Depp and his quarter of “Pirates" pictures ($3.7 billion).

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At home abroad. So far, this has been a year when middling domestic performers have become powerhouses overseas, while hits at home have had trouble traveling. “A Good Day to Die Hard,” “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” and “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters” all were decent or worse in the U.S. but did big numbers overseas. By contrast, the biggest U.S. hit, “Oz: The Great and Powerful,” didn’t stir up much more business overseas. Iron Man and his superhero ilk, on the other hand can pull off both: “Iron Man 3” will do well home and away.
 
ALSO:

‘Iron Man 3:' Movie Review

Iron Man 3’ rockets to second biggest opening ever

'Iron Man 3': Solid with some cracks in the armor

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