Batman Beats Total Recall, But the Real Dark Knight Is Michael Phelps

Movie superheroes are no match for the Aquaman star of the NBC Olympics

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Warner Bros. / Everett

The blockbuster sequel beat the lackluster remake. The Dark Knight Rises earned $36.4 million in its third weekend to win the battle at North American theaters, according to preliminary studio estimates. Christopher Nolan’s conclusion to his Batman trilogy overcame the new challenge of Total Recall, with Colin Farrell taking the role — of the futuristic rebel with an identity crisis — that Arnold Schwarzenegger had played in the 1990 original.

(READ: Corliss’s review of The Dark Knight Rises)

Business was down about 25% from the same weekend last year, when Rise of the Planet of the Apes rang up $54.8 million. That was to be expected, in part because Farrell has never proved his metal as a box-office magnet: his prestige star turns a few years back, in Oliver Stone‘s Alexander and Terrence Malick’s The New World, persuaded hardly any viewers to buy tickets. Also, the new Total Recall had little to offer other than its novelty of being the rare PG-13-rated movie to feature the sight of a woman exposing her breasts — three of them. (That moment, like so many others in Len Wiseman’s remake, was also in Paul Verhoeven’s R-rated original.) Earning $26 million over the weekend, the new film attracted an audience that was 58% male and 53% older than 30, or pretty much the demographic of guys trying to relive a favorite movie experience from 22 years ago. That attempt failed, with attendees polled by CinemaScore giving the film a woeful C-plus mark. Their response was near-total recoil.

(READ: Corliss’s review of the new Total Recall)

But the main reason for sparse multiplex attendance was the chance for American viewers to watch a veteran superhero, all-time Olympics record-winner Michael Phelps, and a new princess, U.S. gymnast Gabrielle Douglas. Through its first five nights of Olympics coverage, NBC averaged 35.6 million viewers, the highest in 40 years for any Summer Games not held in North America. That’s about 100 hours of Must See TV to keep prospective movie audiences at home. Stay home they did, and do, every four years. In 2008, the first two movie weekends that coincided with Olympics coverage from Beijing showed a 21%, then a 10% revenue drop from the respective Aug. 2007 weekends. The higher falloffs this year — 25% last weekend, 28% for the current frame — can be attributed to the spike in Olympics viewers from Beijing to London.

(SEE: Gabrielle Douglas’s rise to Olympic triumph)

And not just viewers on traditional TV. Aside from Americans following the action on the Peacock Network and its NBCSN, MSNBC, CNBC and Bravo cable affiliates, millions more have tuned in on their Internet thingies. “Across the online, mobile and tablet platforms, there have been 75 million total video streams, 34 million live streams (already more than the entire Beijing Olympics), 744 million page views, and 31.5 million unique users (web only),” Amanda Kondolojy reported Friday on the TV by the Numbers website. “There have also been more than six million downloads of the NBC Olympics Live Extra and NBC Olympics apps, peaking at No. 1 and No. 2 as the Top Free apps for iPhone and iPad on App Store.” That’s the equivalent of a movie like The Dark Knight Rises pulling killer grosses in theaters while being available for free on TV and online.

(READ James Poniewozik’s Online Defeats TV! by subscribing to TIME)

Some parents — those who didn’t care about swimming or gymnastics any more this week than they do in the rest of the quadrennial cycle — took their children to Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days, episode three in the series made from Jeff Kinney’s stick-figure kids’ books. Its $14.7-million, third-place opening wasn’t bad for a movie that cost only $22 million to produce; and the young-girl audience (58% female, 62% under the age of 25) awarded Dog Days a puppy-warm A-minus on CinemaScore, hinting that the film will continue to cadge lunch money till school starts. But the weekend tally was far below the $22.1 million and $23.8 million the first two installments opened to. Also, the international market for the Wimpy Kids franchise is negligible — less than a quarter of the first two films’ domestic gross — so there’s little foreign upside.

(READ: TIME’s 10 Questions for Wimpy Kid creator Jeff Kinney)

The minimal impact of the two debut films left viewers with leftovers. Consider this weekend’s top eight finishers: a second sequel (TDKR), a remake (Total Recall), a second sequel (Dog Days), a third sequel (Ice Age: Continental Drift), two “original” comedies (The Watch and Ted), another third sequel (Step Up Revolution) and a reboot (The Amazing Spider-Man). After 17 days, TDKR has passed the $350-million threshold at the domestic box office and has more than equaled that number abroad for a worldwide $733 million. Just behind it in global revenue, at $715.9 million, is Continental Drift; the fourth in the series of animated features has earned more than 80% of its worldwide take abroad. That’s great news for Fox and Blue Sky, but didn’t provide much want-see for the weekend’s more adventurous movie customers.

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Ice Age; Continental Drift)

A few of them went to the art houses, where the star-laden comedy Moonrise Kingdom earned $1.23 million at 687 theaters for 11th place and a cumulative $40.75 million in its 11th week, and the no-star drama Beasts of the Southern Wild took in $1.175 million at just 318 theaters to finish 12th with a six-week total of $5.9 million — an impressive achievement so far for such an unusual film. Anecdotal evidence of Beasts’ surprising reach: at a Manasquan, N.J., beach party yesterday, two teens visiting from San Francisco said they’d seen the movie and luvvvvved it.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Beasts of the Southern Wild)

Among the new indie releases, Rashida Jones (The Office) and SNL graduate Andy Samberg clicked on the big screen in the romantic comedy Celeste and Jesse Forever, which earned $112,000 in just four venues — a hefty $28,000 per-screen average — for the strongest limited opening since Beasts. Another rom-com, the Taiwanese Girlfriend Boyfriend: GFBF, amassed less ($27,933) at 11 theaters catering to the Chinese diaspora. 360, a globe-hopping drama directed by City of God’s Fernando Meirelles and starring Anthony Hopkins, Rachel Weisz and Judy Law, took in just $12,600 on two screens; it’s also available on Video on Demand, which does not report its movies’ revenue.

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Celeste and Jesse Forever)

Finally, any box-office story of the past three weekends has been obliged to mention the Colorado shootings during a midnight showing of TDKR and to muse on this event’s influence on the slumping midsummer box office. That connection doesn’t really exist, as we demonstrated in last weekend’s report. But, just for the record: The Aurora Effect.

(READ: What Aurora Effect?)

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

1. The Dark Knight Rises, $36.4 million; $354.6 million, third week

2. Total Recall, $26 million, first weekend

3. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days, $14.7 million, first weekend

4. Ice Age: Continental Drift, $8.4 million; $131.9 million, fourth week

5. The Watch, $6.35 million; $25.4 million, second week

6. Ted, $5.5 million; $203.4 million, sixth week

7. Step Up Revolution, $5.3 million; $23.1 million, second week

8. The Amazing Spider-Man, $4.3 million; $250.6 million, fifth week

9. Brave, $2.9 million; $223.3 million, seventh week

10. Magic Mike, $1.4 million; $110 million, sixth week