Will Iron Man be the summer’s strongman?

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

HE speeds into battle in a fiery flash, laying waste to all challengers. That’s not just “Iron Man” but the film’s likely box-office outcome too.

From a surprise sneak peek at July’s Comic-Con convention through its teaser trailer launch in October and TV spots during February’s Super Bowl and “Lost” premiere, “Iron Man” has been assembling a towering wave of momentum. But is it a tsunami? When the first meaningful audience tracking surveys rolled in early last week, Paramount and Marvel Studios had to say “Iron Man” sure was looking like one.

Movie studios and exhibitors are desperate for a hit, with 2008 attendance down more than 6% compared with a year ago and last weekend’s total grosses down almost 20% versus the same weekend in 2007, according to the research firm Media by Numbers. Several of the year’s higher-profile releases, including films from George Clooney (“Leatherheads”), Will Ferrell (“Semi-Pro”) and Jodie Foster (“Nim’s Island”), all faltered. Relief from some of the summer’s biggest guns -- “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian” and “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” -- won’t come until mid- and late May.

But when “Iron Man” hits theaters on May 2, it may single-handedly launch what is Hollywood’s most important (and profitable) season and help lift the business out of its doldrums.

As is the industry habit, both Paramount and Marvel are trying to manage expectations downward. They note (accurately, as it turns out) that Iron Man is hardly as popular a comic book character as Spider-Man or Hulk, that almost all school-age kids will still be in classes when the film opens and that this weekend’s “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and May 2’s “Made of Honor” will grab some of “Iron Man’s” harder-to-get female patrons.

That said, some rival studio executives and producers -- having looked at “Iron Man’s” strong tracking numbers -- are now saying the film could be one of the summer’s top hits, especially since Paramount and Marvel have spent only 30% of their advertising dollars so far.

Directed by “Elf’s” Jon Favreau, “Iron Man” stars Robert Downey Jr. as arms manufacturer Tony Stark. Captured by Middle Eastern guerrillas who force him to build a missile, a wounded Stark instead constructs a protective iron suit that allows him to escape. Once free and back in Malibu, Stark secretly refines his design, turning himself into a more peace-minded crusader. His about-face might worry longtime assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), but it really ticks off business partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges). Before long, Stark’s Iron Man faces a very bad boardroom revolt.

Because the character resides in the middle rungs of Marvel’s superhero ladder, below not only Spider-Man and Hulk but also X-Men and the Fantastic Four, equivalent movie comparisons are problematic. “X-Men,” which helped launch the modern comic-book revival, premiered with $54.5 million in 2000. Two years later, the first “Spider-Man” opened to $114.8 million, followed a year later with “Hulk” at $62.1 million. In 2005, “The Fantastic Four” opened with receipts of $56.1 million.

All of those films except “Spider-Man” (which came out May 3) opened in the middle of the summer when only 3% of grade-school kids are still in school and 9% of college students are hitting the books. The conventional wisdom is that kids in school are less likely to go see movies during the week, and that hurts weekday and Sunday night attendance.

Still, there’s telling strength hiding inside “Iron Man’s” audience surveys, box-office experts say. While some “Iron Man” doubters worry that the film’s female appeal is too far behind its male interest to yield a true, all-demographic blockbuster (men are almost twice as interested in “Iron Man” as are women), a close look at the numbers tells a different tale.

With 14 days to go before the PG-13 “Iron Man” opens (it will start showing in many venues a minute past midnight that Thursday night), the film’s female interest is roughly comparable to where it was for “Hulk,” “Transformers” (which opened to $70.5 million last July) and the R-rated “300" (which grossed $70.9 million in its premiere in March) two weeks before those films hit theaters.

And with the acclaimed Downey and the Oscar-winning Paltrow in leading roles and mostly favorable reviews expected, “Iron Man” should also draw strongly among more discriminating -- older, put less diplomatically -- moviegoers. There’s little, in other words, to hold it back.

Paramount, which is marketing and distributing the movie that Marvel paid for as its first self-financed production, notes that only two non-sequels (“Spider-Man” and “The Passion of the Christ”) have ever grossed more than $80 million in their first three-day weekends. Even if “Iron Man” (which cost $135 million to make) grosses $50 million in its first weekend, it will be headed toward profitability and have everybody at Paramount and Marvel beaming.

Ads for “Iron Man” say “Heroes aren’t born. They’re built.” And Paramount and Marvel have constructed their own box-office behemoth. Don’t be surprised if it takes in as much as $70 million on opening weekend.