Box Office Battle of the Hunks: Jackman KO’s Clooney

This weekend, Hugh Jackman needed a boxing robot to help Real Steel win the box office battle, while George Clooney's political drama The Ides of March came in second

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Who’s a movie star anymore? Is Jackman huge? Is Clooney real George? Both actors are considered top-of-the-line celeb material, for their smiling dreamboatness and mastery of talk-show banter. Jackman successfully hosted the Oscars and the Tonys, and the other guy is George freakin’ Clooney. But fame and sex appeal don’t always translate into movie gold. This weekend, Jackman needed a boxing robot to help his new film, Real Steel, earn $27.3 million — and win the box office battle at North American theaters, according to preliminary studio estimates — while Clooney’s political drama The Ides of March, which he also directed and co-wrote, just ootched into eight figures with a $10.4 million take.

The good news: Real Steel was the first debut movie to gross that much in a weekend since Rise of the Planet of the Apes in early August; only the rerelease of The Lion King, three weeks ago, has done better. And the Steel-Ides tandem was the first pair of new films to finish at the top since late July, when Cowboys & Aliens and The Smurfs rode high. Real Steel also achieved the best opening to date for a Jackman film in which he didn’t play a wolfman (four X-Men films as Wolverine) or a vampire hunter (the 2004 Van Helsing). The other news: $27.3 million does not represent a fabulous launch for an action film that cost $110 million to produce. No fair counting Happy Feet, for which Jackman contributed the voice of the father penguin.

Real Steel, with its science-fiction premise of a man who manages bot boxers, is based on the short story “Steel” by Richard Matheson, whose fiction has spawned more than a half-century of fanciful movies — The Incredible Shrinking Man, Somewhere in Time, What Dreams May Come, I Am Legend, The Box — and such terrific ’70s TV films as Duel, The Night Stalker and the Karen Black Trilogy of Terror. (Oh, to be a 9-year-old scared witless watching Black fight off the Zuni fetish doll!) The movie version of “Steel” junks Matheson’s nuanced theme of winning by losing and piles father-and-son bonding on top. The cheesy sentiment apparently worked: Real Steel‘s audience was 66% men, many of them dutifully bringing their kids; and moviegoers polled by CinemaScore awarded the film a sterling A.

Instead of having a cyber-pugilist for an acting partner, Clooney had perpetual star-of-the-future Ryan Gosling; yet this intergenerational pairing earned less in its opening frame than Gosling’s stand-alone entry Drive did three weeks ago ($11.3 million). Ides, in which Gosling plays a young campaign manager who gets lessons in presidential and sexual politics from candidate Clooney, won enthusiastic reviews but tepid audience marks [EM] a gentleman’s B from CinemaScore. Astonishingly, the ad campaign, featuring a TIME cover and both men’s faces, did not trigger a stampede to the box office. But the Ides demographic did match the magazine’s: 60% of paying customers were over 35.

The movie cost just $12.5 million to produce (about a ninth of Real Steel‘s budget), so it needn’t do boffo business to be profitable. But its mild reception does indicate Clooney’s problem: being the suavest human since Cary Grant doesn’t guarantee long lines at the multiplex. In the past decade, with the exceptions of his films with Brad Pitt (the three Oceans films and the Coen brothers caper Burn After Reading), Clooney’s opening weekends have been soft. Leatherheads, Michael Clayton, The Men Who Stare at Goats and The American all opened at about $13 million. Even his sort-of hit Up in the Air ($83.8 million total North American gross) cadged just $11.3 million on its first big weekend.

Clooney’s trouble in finding bigger audiences mirrors the plight of midrange, adult-angled movies in a blockbuster age. Suggestion to the man whom TIME called “the last movie star”: since everyone admires you for your wit and sex appeal, you might want to make a straightforward romantic comedy, which you haven’t tried in eight years (the Coens’ Intolerable Cruelty). We say, when it comes to being funny and huggable, let George do it.

Elsewhere, Dolphin Tale held strong and 50/50 hung in there. The Christian-themed Courageous finished sixth in about half as many theaters as any other film in the top five. And the Anna Faris comedy What’s Your Number? sank to ninth place in its second week after a pathetic opening. Call that one numb and number.

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

1. Real Steel, $27.3 million, first weekend

2. The Ides of March, $10.4 million, first weekend

3. Dolphin Tale, $9.1 million; $49.1 million, third week

4. Moneyball, $7.5 million; $49.25 million, third week

5. 50/50, $5.5 million; $17.3 million, second week

6. Courageous, $4.6 million; $16 million, second week

7. The Lion King, $4.55 million; $86 million, third week of rerelease

8. Dream House, $4.5 million; $14.5 million, second week

9. What’s Your Number?, $3.05 million; $10.3 million, second week

10. Abduction, $2.9 million; $23.4 million, third week