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‘Iron Man 2' eyes ‘The Dark Knight’s’ record

Exactly one month from Wednesday, Tony Stark, Pepper Potts and the other personalities of “Iron Man” will return to make witty mayhem in the superhero sequel. And exactly three days after that, we could have a new domestic box-office record.

Stark himself, never lacking in suave self-confidence, probably wouldn’t make such a bold boast. But it’s entirely feasible. According to just-released tracking surveys, director Jon Favreau’s second installment in the Marvel franchise is showing astonishing levels of interest and awareness well ahead of its opening next month. There are enough statistical indications to think the first-weekend gross could top the $158.4-million “Dark Knight” haul, the record-holder for the biggest (non inflation-adjusted) opening weekend.

Christopher Nolan’s Batman sequel grossed that amount when it opened over a three-day weekend in July 2008. The same spring/summer period brought the release of “Iron Man.” The character was new to mainstream audiences, star Robert Downey Jr. had yet to engineer his Hollywood comeback and Favreau was riding a cold streak (“Zathura: A Space Adventure,” anyone?). The movie still opened to an impressive $98 million, and went on to gross more than $318 million domestically.

But this year’s sequel opening on May 7 should pulverize that figure. Thanks in part to Downey, the Paramount-distributed film is drawing as much (strong) interest among women over 30 as it is among women in their 20s, the tracking surveys show. Males in their teens and 20s are so keen on the film they may as well dress up in an iron suit. About the only people who aren’t fully sold are teen girls, but there are signs of robustness there too.

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And all this doesn’t even count the intangibles. The movie generated a titanic reception at last summer’s Comic-Con International in San Diego, the kind that happens only once every few years, if that. The “Iron Man 2" trailers have practically shut down YouTube. And according to one rival studio, “Iron Man” is now among the most-liked franchises in Hollywood, right up there with “Spider-Man.” (It also doesn’t hurt that ticket prices have inched upward in the last two years, although the 2-D “Iron Man 2" likely won’t touch the domestic record of $742.5 million set by last year’s 3-D “Avatar.”)

Of course, shattering a box-office record isn’t the same as making a creative breakthrough. “Dark Knight” was a singular cultural phenomenon, adored by critics, loved by the public and regarded in the fan universe as the great example of superhero movies, the Giselle Bündchen of the form. Whether “Iron Man 2" will be similarly embraced remains to be seen. From the advance material, we’re expecting more humor than we got in the Batman follow-up but not necessarily the same level of grit or complexity.

Still, a combination of pop-culture awareness, hugely appealing (and promotion-minded) actors and a smartly waged marketing campaign could send “Iron Man 2" on the path to a record. That is, for now -- “Batman 3,” after all, is currently in development, and given the tendency of superhero sequels to expand audiences as they go, that movie could eventually land with even more box-office force. Your move, Nolan.

Sing a song of Miley Cyrus

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With “The Last Song” performing respectably at the box office this weekend, grossing $25.6 million over five days, it’s fair to wonder whether Miley Cyrus isn’t entirely delusional in thinking that a serious, or at least a commercial, acting career lies ahead of her.

The tween pin-up has said repeatedly that over the coming years she wants to eschew singing in favor of acting. (“I’m really good at comedy,” she recently told my colleague Amy Kaufman.) Producers, their hearts a-twitter at the fan following Cyrus comes with, have done their part; in recent months, they’ve attached Cyrus to projects including an action-comedy called “Family Bond” and a remake of the Sarah Jessica Parker ‘80s dance movie “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”

“Miley is coming of age as an actress, and you’re seeing her fans follow her even when she’s doing something that has nothing to do with ‘Hannah Montana,’ ” Disney executive Chuck Viane recently said.

Of course, if you’re trying to make this kind of transition, talent helps too. Like that of other emerging tween stars, Cyrus’ acting isn’t without promise, but it’s not without shortcomings either. In “The Last Song,” she’s perfectly fine playing to type as a pouty, lovelorn teenager but runs into trouble when she’s trying something more substantial.

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Cyrus may also want to keep in mind that the path has been rocky for the many Disney Channel stars who’ve tried to walk it before. Zac Efron (and before him, in a slightly different way, Shia LaBeouf) parlayed his exposure and fan base into a significant film career.

But most of the others to come from the network’s crop of shows and movies this last decade have thus far failed -- personalities like Vanessa Hudgens, Hilary Duff and Ashley Tisdale (whose careers have given us the combined cinematic output of “Bandslam,” “Material Girls” and “Aliens in the Attic”).

There’s an issue for Disney Channel stars trying to make the jump to movies, even frilly ones. The network’s shows give their actors plenty of exposure, but they don’t exactly showcase their best acting. Even good acting gets lost there.

So it’s almost impossible for anyone casting these movies to know what an actor can or can’t do. And it may be unreasonable for the rest of us to expect that because someone is a star there they’ll be a star anywhere else.

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With last weekend’s box-office performance, Cyrus will get at least one or two more cracks at big film roles; look for at least one of the 17-year-old’s development projects to gain some new elements and momentum. But it’s a long road from life as a stadium pop star to life as a film celebrity. Cyrus could well wind up being good at comedy. Let’s just hope it’s not the unintentional kind.

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com


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