Can ‘Iron Man’ stop the 3-D conversion menace?

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Expectations are a funny thing in the movie business. Generate too few and your film comes and goes quietly. Generate too many and you’re in an even tougher spot -- basking in the limelight but also fielding the hard questions and the second-guessing.

It’s impossible to call the $128.1 million that “Iron Man 2" raked in this weekend anything less than a smashing success. That number is enviable for any sequel, let alone a movie that was handcrafted on set by its director and lead star, as so many of the reports had Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. doing.


But the movie fell notably short of the opening-weekend numbers yielded by several other superhero sequels, including of course “The Dark Knight” and “Spider-Man 3.” That inevitably has raised the Monday-morning quarterback question of whether “Iron Man 2" might have gone the “Dark Knight” distance if it had gotten a “Clash of the Titans"-style 3-D conversion, boosting grosses with higher ticket prices. At a time when every movie’s gross is being vaulted by a surf in the 3-D world, the argument goes, “Iron Man 2" could have ridden the wave and met those (admittedly very high) box-office expectations.

In an interview with Ben Fritz on The Times’ Hero Complex blog, Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige said that the company had considered a conversion but, among other things, didn’t feel it had enough time before the May 7 release date to do that conversion justice.

Like all studios, Marvel is at the center of some strong cross-currents, with so many competitors rushing headlong into 3-D. So it’s understandable that Feige and his company would have explored the option. But the point Feige’s own movie makes is that if studios are rushing forward, audiences aren’t rushing with them, While it’s impossible to know exactly how fans would have felt about a 3-D version of “Iron Man 2,” they certainly embraced this version, giving it an A on the all-important word-of-mouth measurement tool CinemaScore. Certainly showing the movie in 2-D didn’t hurt. One could even make the case that it might have helped, with audiences liking it as much as they could because they didn’t feel a new technology was being waved in their face (literally).

The argument from the top of studios’ corporate ladders has been that their business needs 3-D to to eliminate risk and stay solidly profitable. But “Iron Man 2" did all that, earning not just an eye-popping amount -- a 30% gain over the first picture, up there with the best of the second installments -- but doing it in the most generous way possible. The movie’s distribution plan, and revenue splits, allowed it to spread the love to distributor Paramount, to its own coffers and to new owner Disney, who all will come out well in the black. And that’s not even getting into the international numbers.

Marvel is looking at 3-D for its other films -- “We will be doing it at some point,” Feige said -- and we have a nagging feeling that “Iron Man 3" will add a third dimension as well. Let’s hope that any 3-D treatment at least applies only to movies that haven’t begun shooting, like said “Iron Man” sequel and “Captain America,” not “Thor,” which has (and which Marvel would be forced to convert).
And here’s hoping that maybe the studio chooses to avoid the whole craze and opts to rake in the cash the old-fashioned way, or at least the old-fashioned tentpole way: with a movie people want to see. A $128.1-million weekend has a way of making a strong case, in any dimension.

--Steven Zeitchik (follow me on Twitter at @ZeitchikLAT)

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