Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark character in "Iron Man," the wealthy arms dealer, swinger and superhero alter ego, asks: "Is it better to be feared or respected? And I say, 'Is it too much to ask for both?' "
Fortunately for Marvel Studios, which financed and produced the adaptation of its comic book, and distributor Paramount Pictures, the answer is no, it's not too much to ask. The giddiest box-office analysts predict an opening of $100 million for "Iron Man," which launches today at 4,105 theaters in the U.S. and Canada after advance screenings Thursday night at many locations, although $75 million strikes Projector as more realistic.
Only Sony Pictures is daring to open a movie against the summer's first effects-driven spectacle: the Patrick Dempsey romantic comedy "Made of Honor," the season's first female-oriented, so-called counter-programming effort.
Film critics haven't been this fired up about a superhero flick since "Batman Begins" three years ago. In "Iron Man," Stark battles Afghan insurgents and his villainous business partner, Obadiah Stane, played by a shaven-headed Jeff Bridges. But the only real challenge facing the approximately $140-million film at the box office this weekend is Hollywood's arch nemesis: Mr. Expectations.
Paramount, which gets a slice of the grosses after recouping its tens of millions in marketing costs, has been scrambling to talk down expectations for the film even as movie-geek websites have been fueling the buzz. The fear is that a solid opening weekend of, say, $65 million could be seen as a disappointment.
In early April, a studio official phoned the Projector Hotline to underscore everything "Iron Man" is not: a sequel, with a built-in audience including those who saw the previous one on DVD; a so-called A-list property in the Marvel comics universe, like Spider-Man; a Will Smith vehicle; or a once-in-a-lifetime movie about Jesus.
The first "Spider-Man," after all, is the only non-sequel to ever debut above $100 million, and the opening weekends of "The Passion of the Christ" and "I Am Legend" are among the few to top $75 million.
To their credit, Paramount bigwigs aren't buying one harebrained theory that a meaningful number of video-game enthusiasts will be too entranced in the "Grand Theft Auto IV" underworld to come up for air, let alone head to the movies.
The game is expected to sell 4 million copies in the U.S. this week, but there's no evidence that those consumers are incapable of doing more than one thing in a single weekend.
Executives on Melrose Avenue acknowledge that filmgoers are craving the summer popcorn fare that begins every year in early May, but they say "crazy" forecasts for "Iron Man" reflect wishful thinking for an industry that hasn't seen a $200-million blockbuster since December's "I Am Legend."
Consumer tracking for the PG-13-rated "Iron Man" points to a three-day opening of about $72 million, plus $4 million from Thursday night, although Paramount insiders, not surprisingly, say they expect less and would be thrilled by anything north of $60 million. And this time they swear they are not just playing the expectations game.
The PG-13 "Made of Honor," which Sony produced for nearly $40 million, should be a distant but respectable No. 2 with about $18 million for the weekend.
Last year's first counter-programming release, "Lucky You," opened to a disastrous $2.7 million as "Spider-Man 3" raked in a record $151.1 million.
Beverly Hills-based Marvel Studios, a division of Marvel Entertainment Inc., secured $525 million three years ago through Merrill Lynch to venture into feature production after watching its flawed, colorful heroes Spider-Man and the X-Men rack up big ticket sales for Sony Pictures and 20th Century Fox.
Marvel's second effort, a "Hulk" do-over starring Edward Norton, comes out in June via Universal Pictures, although early buzz on that one is mixed.
"Iron Man" is shaping up as what Hollywood types call a "3 1/2 quadrant" hit. Guys are stoked for the "Transformers"-style metal-on-metal action, and older females are intrigued by the handsome, wisecracking Downey.
But interest remains lukewarm among young females, partly because of a marketplace packed with romantic comedies.
In its trailers and TV spots, Paramount is playing up the humor and teasing the relationship between Stark and his sassy assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), but action junkies are clearly the core audience.
"Iron Man" was the first choice among 58% of moviegoers who said they were definitely headed for the multiplex this weekend, according to one industry survey.
Among females under 25, however, only 17% favored "Iron Man," while 43% picked "Made of Honor" and 19% named last weekend's box-office leader, "Baby Mama."
The R-rated "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," holding up well as it enters its third weekend, also figures to compete for females.
As Projector remembers, such competition can be brutal.
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"Iron Man," which opened Thursday night with advance screenings at many theaters, is expected to launch Hollywood's summer season in style, dominating the box office this weekend. These figures are The Times' predictions. Studios will issue estimated weekend grosses Sunday and final results Monday.
*--* -- Movie 3-day prediction Total through Weeks -- (studio) (millions) the weekend
1 Iron Man (Paramount) $72.0 $76.0 1
2 Made of Honor (Sony) 18.0 18.0 1
3 Baby Mama (Universal) 9.5 31.8 2
4 Harold & Kumar Escape 8.2 27.7 2 From Guantanamo Bay (Warner Bros.)
5 Forgetting Sarah Marshall 6.7 45.6 3 (Universal)
6 The Forbidden Kingdom 5.6 46.8 3 (Lionsgate/Weinstein)
7 Nim's Island (20th 3.3 43.2 5 Century Fox)
8 21 (Sony) 3.0 80.0 6
9 Prom Night (Sony) 2.5 41.5 4
10 88 Minutes (Sony) 2.1 16.0 3 *--*
Source: Times research
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At the movies
Top-grossing summer kickoffs
*--* Movie 3-day (Release opening year) (in millions) Spider-Man 3 ('07) $151.1 Spider-Man ('02) 114.8 X2: X-Men United ('03) 85.6 The Mummy Returns ('01) 68.1 Van Helsing ('04) 51.7 Mission: Impossible III ('06) 47.7 The Mummy ('99) 43.4 Deep Impact ('98) 41.2 Gladiator ('00) 34.8 Kingdom of Heaven ('05) 19.6 *--*
Sources: Media by Numbers