For weeks, superhero fans have aligned themselves with either Team Captain America or Team Iron Man ahead of the release of the latest Marvel adventure. No matter who prevails on the big screen, there's one surefire winner — Walt Disney Co.
"Captain America: Civil War," produced by the Disney-owned comic book powerhouse Marvel Studios, is on track to become the biggest movie of the year, providing a powerful kickoff to the summer blockbuster season and extending the Burbank entertainment giant's box-office winning streak.
The $250-million picture, which pits two of Marvel's most popular characters against each other in an epic struggle, is expected to gross more than $200 million in the U.S. and Canada during its opening weekend, according to people who have reviewed pre-release audience surveys.
If it tops $208 million, the movie would replace 2012's "The Avengers" as the biggest-ever debut for a Marvel movie. If "Civil War" reaches $209 million, it would surpass last year's "Jurassic World" for the second-largest film opening of all time, behind "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."
A huge opening for "Civil War" is "the best thing that could happen to set the stage and the tone for a great summer," said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior box-office analyst for data firm ComScore.
That would be welcome news for a movie industry that faces an uphill battle to replicate last summer's box-office success. Theatrical releases generated $4.48 billion from May 1 through Labor Day last year in the U.S. and Canada. Analysts have remained doubtful that Hollywood can top that tally this summer.
Shares of movie theater chains took a hit on Wall Street last week when executives warned that the studios' new movies may not be as successful as last year's summer hits such as "Furious 7" and "Jurassic World."
The upcoming months include major studio gambles, including Universal Pictures' video game adaptation "Warcraft," 20th Century Fox's "Independence Day" sequel, Warner Bros.' "The Legend of Tarzan" and Sony Pictures' "Ghostbusters." Even Disney has some relatively risky offerings, namely Steven Spielberg's "The BFG" and the live-action remake of the 1977 fantasy "Pete's Dragon."
"All of these films could go either way," said box-office analyst Bruce Nash of Nash Information Services. "Whether any of them can turn into $300-million to $400-million hits is a big question."
What is certain is that "Civil War" will give a boost to movie ticket sales in the U.S. and Canada. The industry is coming off a stronger-than-expected start to the year, thanks to hits such as Fox's "Deadpool" and Warner Bros.' "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice." Movie ticket sales reached $3.6 billion from Jan. 1 through May 1, up 7.4% from the same period a year earlier, according to ComScore.
Analysts are hedging their predictions, noting that some had expected a record summer turnout in 2015, though the results came up short of the $4.75-billion benchmark set in 2013. Some experts maintained that ticket sales this summer could top last summer's results if certain movies break out at the multiplexes, including the dark Warner Bros.-DC Entertainment film "Suicide Squad."
Disney in particular has a robust schedule including "Alice Through the Looking Glass" — a follow-up to the live-action "Alice in Wonderland" from 2010 that grossed more than $1 billion — and Pixar's long-awaited "Finding Nemo" sequel "Finding Dory."
So far this year, Disney's movies have accounted for about 25% of the total domestic box office, the highest of any studio. If "Civil War" meets expectations for ticket sales, it will represent another success for Disney, which is riding high from back-to-back hits. The computer-animated "Zootopia" has racked up $932 million globally so far, while the company's new version of "The Jungle Book" has sailed past $700 million. Both have a shot of eventually hitting the coveted $1-billion benchmark.
"I think the domestic box office has just decided to climb up on the shoulders of Disney and allow them to carry it forward," said Barton Crockett, media analyst at FBR Capital Markets.
There are additional promising omens for "Civil War." According to Fandango, pre-sales for the film have outpaced every other superhero movie in the online ticket seller's 16-year history, besting "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" and "Avengers: Age of Ultron." Many showings around the country have already sold out.
Though technically a "Captain America" movie, "Civil War" is being marketed like the first two "Avengers" films, by emphasizing the return of beloved characters. Besides Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man and Chris Evans' title character, the new picture features Marvel heroes such as Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow, Don Cheadle's War Machine and Paul Rudd's Ant-Man. It also introduces Tom Holland as Spider-Man, which was teased in the trailer.
"It's featuring all these fantastic characters, and it's playing more like an 'Avengers' movie," said Dave Hollis, head of distribution for Disney. The studio is projecting a more conservative estimate of about $175 million from the domestic opening.
Disney's ambitions already are paying off overseas, where "Civil War" has generated $224 million in ticket sales so far. It opens in China, Russia, Italy and India this week.
For the global marketing push, the studio played off the film's central internal struggle. Captain America-Steve Rogers and Iron Man-Tony Stark took their fictional teams on two competing global promotional tours, colliding at the film's London premiere.
Reviews have been largely favorable, indicated by a 93% positive rating on the movie review website Rotten Tomatoes. What's more, there's little competition on the immediate horizon. This weekend has no other wide openings, and next week's highest-profile debut is Sony's "Money Monster," an adult-skewing thriller starring George Clooney and Julia Roberts.
"We think there's going to be a ton of repeat business on this film," Hollis said about "Civil War."