Ender’s Game Win Muted by the Distant Hammers of Thor

A Marvel movie abroad out-thunders kid-angled sci-fi film at home

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It’s harder to start a movie franchise than to sustain one. That lesson got pounded home this busy November weekend, in the long-distance battle between two science-fiction epics — one a Marvel, one not.

Ender’s Game, based on Orson Scott Card’s acclaimed novel about a precocious boy leading a war against an alien planet, won the weekend at North American theaters with $28 million, according to preliminary estimates. Meanwhile, in 36 markets abroad, Marvel Studios’ Thor: The Dark World earned nearly four times as much: $109.4 million. Buoyed by the appearance of the Marvel hero (Chris Hemsworth) and villain Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in last year’s smash hit The Avengers, this sequel to the 2011 Thor begins its domestic run Thursday evening. Expect a thunderous opening.

(READ: How The Avengers brought people back to the movies)

[MONDAY UPDATE: According to final figurers issued this afternoon, Ender’s Game earned $27 million, down 3.5% from the Sunday estimate. Of the top-10 entries, the only films to increase their grosses were 12 Years a Slave (up 4% to $4.8 million) and The Counselor, whose actual $3.4 million vaulted it into ninth place over Carrie (down 4% to $3.3 million).]

Budgeted at $110 million, and “starring” the child actors Asa Butterfield (Hugo), Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) and Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine), along with grumpy Harrison Ford and a Ben Kingsley hidden behind Maori face tattoos, Ender’s Game held plenty of risks for its sponsors at Summit and OddLot. But with Summit’s five-film Twilight Saga having expired last year, betting on another kid-friendly fantasy franchise seemed a gamble worth taking.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Ender’s Game)

For Summit, the top spot on the box-office leader board is about the only good news. That $28 million is the lowest winning gross in six weeks (since Prisoners won the Sep. 20-22 frame with $20.8 million). And the audience for the PG-13 film turned out to be more venerable than anticipated: 58% over the age of 25, and 58% male — not so much the kids needed for a young-adult blockbuster as the older adults who fell in love with the book since its original publication in 1985. They gave the movie a tolerable B-plus in the CinemaScore survey of early attendees.

A protest against Card’s curious views on gay marriage fizzled; but apathy, not outrage, seemed the prevailing tone toward the movie. With no 3-D surcharge to hype the take, and with Thor: The Dark World storming in next weekend and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire following a fortnight later, there’s little prospect that the film will roll up big numbers here or abroad. (It took in a meager $9.1 million this weekend from 28 markets.) Does that mean the end of Ender’s Game?

(READ: The Flaming Lips play with the Ender’s Game score)

Two other wide releases sought opposite demographics and found similar earnings. Last Vegas, promoted as a Hangover for the Medicare set, earned $16.5 million from its teaming of Robert De Niro, Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline on a Casino City spree. The alter kocker audience, with 83% over the age of 25, also skewed female (53%) and awarded the PG-13 comedy a benevolent A-minus on CinemaScore. Since the picture cost just $28 million to produce (old stars work at Walmart-greeter wages), it should be in profit shortly. No lost wages for Last Vegas.

The animated feature Free Birds cadged a $16.2 million opening gross and, like Last Vegas, an A-minus on CinemaScore. But with a budget of $55 million, the first-weekend take was, relatively speaking, chicken scratch. This comic fable, about two modern turkeys who time-travel back to the 17th century to liberate their species from the dinner menu of the first Thanksgiving, gets to hang around theaters until Turkey Day, when parents can try explaining to their traumatized kids why the hero of a movie they’ve just seen is about to be devoured.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Free Birds)

Kids and grownups got their full servings this weekend: Free Birds and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 for the very young, Ender’s Game for the elder, and Last Vegas — plus the holdover hits Gravity and Captain Phillips, and the art-house favorite 12 Years a Slave — for the elderly. That left a huge slice of prime-age moviegoers for Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa. Last weekend’s top movie, this spinoff from Johnny Knoxville’s guys-being-stupid docu-comedies dropped just 34% in its second frame, and could twerk its way to $100 million.

(READ: Joel Stein on the High Art of Jackassery)

In limited release, the woozily romantic comedy About Time earned a demure $1.1 million at 175 theaters, though the North American market is not essential to an inexpensive English film that has already pulled in $43.2 million abroad. Writer-director Richard Curtis’s last rom-com, Love, Actually, amassed 76% of its $246.9 million worldwide booty in foreign markets.

(READ: Corliss’s review of About Time)

In just nine theaters, Dallas Buyers Club found $264,000: a solid opening for the fact-based drama of a Texas electrician (Matthew McConaughey) who bucked the medical establishment to secure helpful drugs for himself and fellow AIDS sufferers. McConaughey and Jared Leto, the other star of this $5-million bio-pic, have already received warmth from critics. If the movie can stay in theaters until Jan., they may also get it from the Oscar voters.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Dallas Buyers Club

Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend’s top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:

1. Ender’s Game, $28 million, first weekend
2. Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, $20.5 million; $62.1 million, second week
3. Last Vegas, $16.5 million, first weekend
4. Free Birds, $16.2 million, first weekend
5. Gravity, $13.1 million; $219.2 million, fifth week
6. Captain Phillips, $8.5 million; $82.6 million, fourth week
7. 12 Years a Slave, $4.6 million; $8.8 million, third week
8. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2, $4.2 million; $106.2 million, sixth week
9. Carrie, $3.4 million; $32 million, third week
10. The Counselor, $3.25 million; $13.4 million, second week

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