Beyond Marvel-ous: The Avengers Smashes Records with $200.3 Million

The all-star superhero movie leaves "Harry Potter" as roadkill, scoring the top opening weekend in North American movie history

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Zade Rosenthal / MVLFFLLC / Marvel

Holy Incredible Captain Iron-Thor! Marvel’s The Avengers became the all-time weekend superhero, earning $200.3 million at the North American box office, according to preliminary estimates by Disney, the movie’s ecstatic distributor.

That number not only eclipses but utterly obliterates the $169.2 million debut for the previous record holder, last July’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. If the total holds when final figures are issued on Monday, The Avengers will have reached $200 million two days faster than any other movie; both the Potter finale and The Dark Knight, now in third place, took five days to hit the double nine-figure mark (Deathly Hallows 2 with $202.6 million, Dark Knight with $203.8 million). Add the domestic stash to the $441.5 million earned from 12 days in the international market and you get a $641.8 million global gross — $24 million more than the year’s first blockbuster, The Hunger Games, has banked in seven weeks.

[UPDATE: According to final figures released Monday, The Avengers did even better than Disney dared hope: $207,438,708, to be exact. It then earned another $18.9 million on Monday, for a four-day total of $226.3 million at theaters in the U.S. and Canada. Combined with its overseas receipts, the movie has grossed $702.1 million worldwide in less than two weeks — an incredible hulk of money.]

Back home in North America, The Avengers started big and kept on building through the weekend. The film’s revenue from Thursday midnight showings was the eighth best ever; its Friday take of $80.5 million was second only to Deathly Hallows 2. Then it registered the biggest Saturday gross ($69.7 million) and is headed for a Sunday record of $50.1 million. A 2-D movie converted after shooting to 3-D, The Avengers persuaded 52% of the weekend audience to pay extra to see the movie with glasses and fleeced $15 million from customers who coughed up another surcharge for the Imax process (275 screens). Promise them movie heaven, and they’ll pay the earth to see it.

(MORE: Corliss’s review of The Avengers)

The first weekend in May has been golden for Hollywood ever since 2002, when Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man became the first movie to gross more than $100 million on its opening weekend. Over the succeeding decade, Marvel proved its megahit chops with Spider-Man sequels, the X-Men franchise and a bunch of Avengers prequels. The only question for the new movie’s premiere: How high is up? Box-office analysts had forecast an opening in the range of $150 million to $170 million. In the over-under game, few swamis dared go higher, though Jeff Bock of Exhibitor Relations made a tentative prediction of $200 million. “It would take a perfect storm,” Bock told the Wrap, “but all the elements are there.”

(MORE: Steven James Snyder on How Marvel Botched The Avengers)

The chief element was the union of four main characters from earlier Marvel adventures: two Iron Man movies and two Incredible Hulks, plus Thor and Captain America. The six films had established the series’ fan base, earning $1.255 billion in the U.S. and Canada and nearly $2.5 billion worldwide — still less than the $2.782 billion that James Cameron’s Avatar made on its own, but a great haul nonetheless. All The Avengers did was to earn more in three days than last year’s Thor or Captain America, or the 2003 Hulk movie or its 2008 makeover, had amassed in their entire domestic runs.

(MORE: TIME’s reviews of Iron Man, Thor and Captain America)

And the perfect storm? A canny orchestration of the Marvel superhero psyche by Avengers director and co-writer Joss Whedon. The pop-culture video savant (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Dollhouse) threw his four bulky stars into a confined space, added two others (“Black Widow” Natasha Romanoff and “Hawkeye” Clint Barton) and sent the gigantic egos splattering like cracked eggs before letting them save midtown Manhattan from Thor’s sulky brother Loki.

Disney publicized the movie expertly, in a bid to erase the bad karma lingering from its previous superhero movie, John Carter, which cost at least $250 million to produce and earned an underwhelming $271.2 million worldwide. The Avengers, with a $220 million production cost, already is in the black, with no ceiling in sight.

The demographic splits for the first-weekend domestic audience were 60 to 40 male to female, with half of the huge crowd under 25, half 25 or older. And the early viewers’ rapturous A-plus rating in a CinemaScore survey — a mark that usually goes to such female-angled inspirational tales as TangledSoul Survivor and The Help — indicates that The Avengers will spread through word of mouth to the few souls who thought they could sit this one out. Expect the movie to join the 11 current members of the worldwide billion-dollar-gross club by, oh, the end of the month. That would set another record: speediest climb to the box-office stratosphere.

(MORE: Before The Avengers Hit America, It Conquered the World)

Many of the other films in the weekend’s top 10 sound like a low-rent band of Marvel villains: the Pirates, the Raven, Chimpanzee and the Three Stooges. The $8 million taken in by the No. 2 finisher, Think Like a Man, was just one twenty-fifth of The Avengers gross. If you went to the movies this weekend, the odds are about 9 to 1 that you went to The Avengers. In the nano-world of indie films, the senior-skewing comedy-drama The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel opened to a Viagrrreat $750,301 in 27 theaters. Starring Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy as retirees moving to India, the movie has already earned $72.4 million abroad, including $31.4 million in the U.K. and an amazing $18.9 million in Australia, or nearly a dollar for each of the continent’s inhabitants. Hotel sold out many shows over its first weekend — as did the ballet documentary First Position, which rang up $51,000 at just five venues. At this rate, the movie will match The Avengers’ opening-weekend gross in 10 years, seven months and 13 days. Keep on dancing as fast as you can, First Position.

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

1. Marvel’s The Avengers, $200.3 million, first weekend

2. Think Like a Man, $8 million; $73 million, third week

3. The Hunger Games, $5.7 million; $380 million, seventh week

4. The Lucky One, $5.5 million; $47.9 million, third week

5. The Pirates! Band of Misfits, $5.4 million; $18.5 million, second week

6. The Five Year Engagement, $5.1 million; $19.2 million, second week

7. The Raven, $2.5 million; $12 million, second week

8. Safe, $2.5 million; $12.8 million, second week

9. Chimpanzee, $2.4 million; $23 million, third week

10. The Three Stooges, $1.8 million; $39.6 million, fourth week