In "The Incredible Hulk," the not-so-jolly green giant faces an adversary familiar to fans of the Marvel Comics superhero: the Abomination. In "The Happening," the latest gotcha-twist thriller from M. Night Shyamalan, an unexplained threat to humanity is the movie's core mystery.
For months, however, both films were beset by the same off-screen foe: bad buzz.
The difference is that "The Incredible Hulk," from Marvel Studios and Universal Pictures, appears to have overcome the negative vibes, unlike "The Happening," from 20th Century Fox.
"The Incredible Hulk," which opens today, should rank No. 1 with $45 million or so in ticket sales this weekend. Barring a Shyamalan-style surprise, "The Happening" is likely to be No. 3 with around $20 million.
Both pictures are haunted, in a sense, by a predecessor from the not-too-distant past.
"The Incredible Hulk," starring Edward Norton, is a franchise reboot for Marvel, which hopes to reinvigorate one of its core brands in the wake of the tepid response to 2003's "Hulk," an oddity from art-house director Ang Lee. "The Happening," starring Mark Wahlberg, is Shyamalan's follow-up to 2006's "Lady in the Water," a flop from the writer-director of "The Sixth Sense," "Unbreakable" and "Signs."
Made on a budget of close to $150 million, "The Incredible Hulk" is Marvel's second self-financed superhero spectacle, on the heels of the hit "Iron Man." Norton plays Bruce Banner, a brilliant, mild-mannered scientist who turns into a raging hulk of fury when riled -- like Projector when his editor starts messing with his stories.
Universal, which will also distribute the PG-13-rated film in most overseas territories, gets a cut of the grosses after recouping its marketing costs, although most of the risk, and upside, stays with Marvel.
The previous "Hulk," which starred Eric Bana, left many fans cold, though it wasn't a box-office disaster. It opened to $62.1 million and ultimately grossed $245.4 million worldwide, but word of mouth led to a quick fade in the U.S.
When Marvel, flush with new capital, decided to make its own "Hulk" film -- a do-over while the original was fresh in the minds of moviegoers -- the general reaction was, "Huh?"
"There was a fairly unanimous consensus that it couldn't work," said Adam Fogelson, Universal's marketing president. "But in many ways it already has. The response to the movie has been overwhelmingly favorable."
Marvel took a more traditional approach to the superhero genre, accenting the action instead of the angst and staying faithful to the "Hulk" comic books and TV show from the late 1970s and early '80s. Reviewers say it delivers -- 70% of notices were positive as of midday Thursday, according to RottenTomatoes.com.
Back in March, however, the reaction from moviegoers and media outlets to the first trailer was harsher, reinforcing the initial skepticism. Entertainment Weekly called the computerized effects "totally fake-looking" and visitors at movie message boards piled on.
Media reports of "creative differences" between Marvel, which wanted a tighter edit, and Norton and director Louis Leterrier, who supposedly wanted a longer cut, added to fears of another dud.
But the tide has turned. Newer trailers and TV ads have been better received, and rave test-screening reviews have popped up at movie sites like Ain't It Cool News.
Marvel has gotten cross-promotional pushes from partners like 7-Eleven, which is selling green Slurpees, and Kmart, which offers "Incredible Dad" gift cards (ahem, Projector Jr.).
Tracking polls show that overall interest in "The Incredible Hulk" is similar to last fall's "Live Free or Die Hard," which opened to $33.4 million. But among males under 25, the film had 99% awareness and 51% "definite interest" in one survey this week, indicating that eager fans might fuel a better-than-expected showing.
Although the new "Hulk" isn't likely to flex as much box-office muscle as the first one on the opening weekend, in part because of the disappointment many fans felt last time, Universal believes it will show stronger legs as word of mouth takes hold.
Based on tracking, R-rated "The Happening" could open to $30 million, according to executives at rival studios.
But only 12% of reviews were positive, per Rotten Tomatoes, which could hold it back. The strongest demographic for the film is adult females, a group that tends to read reviews.
Fox, which says it financed the $48-million production with partners UTV Motion Pictures and Spyglass Entertainment, expects an opening in the high-teen millions.
The studio, whose marketing has played up Shyamalan's first R rating (earned for "violent and disturbing images") and the director as a brand ("We've Sensed It. We've Seen the Signs," the poster reads. "Now . . . It's Happening"), declined to comment on the campaign.
Shyamalan built up goodwill with audiences after his early successes, starting with 1999's "The Sixth Sense," but "The Village" drew mixed reactions and "Lady in the Water" was slammed en route to a $72.8-million global gross -- his worst result for a major film.
In May, a review of "The Happening" at the website Collider.com, from someone claiming to have seen a test screening of the full film, prompted widespread cringing by calling the picture "bad in a jaw-dropping, 'they-can't-really-be-serious,-can-they?' kind of way."
Not everyone dislikes the movie. Shyamalan, introducing an online clip, calls it his "scariest" film and makes allusions to "The Exorcist," "The Godfather," "The Birds" and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."
Sunday newspaper ads quoted Dan Storey of MTV News UK calling the film "a brilliant, nail-bitingly ferocious thriller. A welcome return to form for Shyamalan."
Snarky bloggers took notice -- quotes from obscure reviewers can signal trouble. But a Fox spokesman called Storey a "well-known voice" in Britain, a personality "like a Ryan Seacrest or a Larry King."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
"The Incredible Hulk," from Marvel Studios and distributor Universal Pictures, is expected to lead the box office this weekend. These figures are The Times' predictions. Studios will issue weekend estimates Sunday and final results Monday.
Movie (studio): 1. The Incredible Hulk (Universal)
3-day prediction (millions): $43.4
Through the weekend: $43.4
Movie (studio): 2. Kung Fu Panda (Paramount)
3-day prediction (millions): $35.9
Through the weekend: $120.7
Movie (studio): 3. The Happening (20th Century Fox)
3-day prediction (millions): $22.2
Through the weekend: $22.2
Movie (studio): 4. You Don't Mess With the Zohan (Sony)
3-day prediction (millions): $20.0
Through the weekend: $73.7
Movie (studio): 5. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Paramount)
3-day prediction (millions): $11.9
Through the weekend: $274.0
Movie (studio): 6. Sex and the City (Warner Bros.)
3-day prediction (millions): $10.6
Through the weekend: $120.6
Movie (studio): 7. The Strangers (Universal)
3-day prediction (millions): $4.4
Through the weekend: $45.9
Movie (studio): 8. Iron Man (Paramount)
3-day prediction (millions): $4.3
Through the weekend: $296.6
Movie (studio): 9. The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (Disney)
3-day prediction (millions): $2.9
Through the weekend: $131.7
Movie (studio): 10. What Happens in Vegas (20th Century Fox)
3-day prediction (millions): $1.8
Through the weekend: $75.9