With audience interest already sky high and ads blanketing television and billboards, there was little doubt theaters would be packed for "Iron Man 2" when it arrived Friday.
But the line between hit and potential mega-hit was crossed Saturday, when ticket sales declined a very modest 11%. That statistic, combined with an average grade of A from moviegoers, according to market research firm CinemaScore, means that word of mouth should be extremely strong.
All told, "Iron Man 2" took in a hefty $133.6 million on its opening weekend in the U.S. and Canada, according to an estimate from distributor Paramount Pictures. Positive buzz signals that it should keep playing very well for several weeks to come.
"This movie plays like a big action adventure that's for all audiences, other than maybe young kids," said Paramount Vice Chairman Rob Moore. "It's not the kind of film that grabbed all its money on the first weekend and is done."
The Robert Downey Jr. superhero movie dominated the box office so thoroughly that it grossed more than double every other film in theaters combined. "A Nightmare on Elm Street," the No. 1 movie the previous weekend, saw its ticket sales plummet by 72%.
The "Iron Man 2" opening is the fifth highest of all time, not accounting for ticket-price inflation, and a sign that audience interest in the Marvel Entertainment character has grown significantly since the original "Iron Man" opened with $98.6 million in 2008.
Some Hollywood executives closely following pre-release audience surveys had said the highly anticipated sequel could exceed the largest opening weekend of all time: $158.4 million for "The Dark Knight" in 2008. But it fell well short of that mark.
Nonetheless, it kicked off the summer movie season — when the studios release many of their most important big-budget event pictures — with a bang, recording by far the biggest opening weekend so far this year. That's particularly impressive given that it didn't play in 3-D, thereby missing out on the $3-plus per-ticket surcharges that boosted such hits as "Alice in Wonderland" and "Clash of the Titans."
Overseas, "Iron Man 2" raked in another $57.2 million this weekend, its second in most foreign countries. That brings its international total to $194 million and worldwide take so far to $327.6 million. The movie now looks certain to exceed $400 million in gross receipts internationally and has a good shot at doing the same domestically.
Most of the benefit will flow to Marvel Entertainment, which financed "Iron Man 2" at a cost of about $170 million, and its new parent company, Walt Disney Co. Paramount gets to recoup the roughly $150 million it spent on advertising and prints and receives 8% of the movie's revenues for its distribution services.
The film's success is a good sign for Marvel as it looks to build on the "Iron Man" movies, the first two that it has produced itself, to create a series of interlocking films in the next few years. Numerous plot points and characters in "Iron Man 2" were included to tease 2011's "Thor" and "Captain America" and 2012's "The Avengers."
"We couldn't be happier to see the audience embrace this very 'comic-booky' idea of connectivity," said Marvel production president Kevin Feige.
Two years ago, Marvel seemed to be taking a risk on "Iron Man," a character not well known beyond comic book fans, as well as on Downey, who wasn't an action star. Since then, Downey has also starred in the hit reboot of "Sherlock Holmes," and "Iron Man" has become so popular that pre-release surveys were showing huge interest in the sequel even before the main advertising campaign had begun.
"I do love that the perception of 'Iron Man' has gone from the character being in the lower tier to being at the top of the heap," said Feige, who added that plans are fully on track for "Iron Man 3" to come out after "The Avengers."