Marvel’s Pumping Iron Man Three Flexes Its Worldwide Muscles

A week before it opens in the U.S., the Robert Downey Jr. superhero caper smashes records abroad

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From Left: Actors Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr. arrive at the premiere of Walt Disney Pictures' Iron Man 3 at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood on April 24, 2013.
Kevin Winter / Getty Images

From Left: Actors Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr. arrive at the premiere of Walt Disney Pictures' Iron Man 3 at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood on April 24, 2013.

“Their American dream is bigger than yours,” proclaim the ads for Pain & Gain, the true-crime comedy about some Miami Beach bodybuilders. But Michael Bay’s satirical ode to greed was a 97-pound weakling that shivered in the mammoth shadow of Iron Man Three. The Marvel sequel, released by Disney, opened abroad to numbers that not only outmuscled Pain & Gain, it also topped the overseas premiere of The Avengers, last year’s supersmash from the Marvel masterminds. Their global dream is bigger than anybody’s, and they know how to turn superhero fantasy into billion-dollar reality.

For the second year in a row, the last weekend of April saw a movie that hadn’t opened in North America earn about 10 times as much as one that had. In 2012, The Avengers, which premiered in 39 foreign markets a week before its Stateside debut, amassed a record $185 million, dwarfing the $17.6 million earned by the domestic winner, Think Like a Man. This weekend, Iron Man Three, which opens May 3 in the U.S. and Canada, shattered The Avengers’ offshore mark, registering $195.3 million in 42 territories, while Pain & Gain won at home with a flabby $20 million, according to preliminary studio estimates.

(READ: Richard Corliss’s take on The Avengers)

The genius of the Marvel Studios’ grand plan — which spent four years producing separate movies about the franchise’s comic-book characters Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America before uniting the team in The Avengers — was not just to make a multi-hero megahit movie, or even a boffo series. It was to bring worldwide box-office luster to each individual superhero film to come after it.

If the studio had any disappointment with the 2008 and 2010 Iron Man movies, starring Robert Downey Jr., as Mensa industrialist Tony Stark, it was that they grossed most of their money in the U.S. and Canada. Even The Avengers earned only 59% of its $1.5 billion overseas. Why grouse about where the money comes from? Because most other billion-dollar-plus movies — Avatar, Titanic, the final Harry Potter episode, the most recent James Bond film — have taken in about 70% of their revenue abroad. So Marvel needed to prime the international audience to be as excited as the domestic crowd about the first Avengers followup.

(READ: Robert Downey Jr. Gets RecordBreaking Birthday Card)

Consider it done. Iron Man Three established all-time records in the Asian Pacific region (including Hong Kong, Taiwan, Indonesia and Singapore) and Latin America. The movie earned more money ($21 million) in the United Kingdom, which has one-fifth the population of the U.S., than Pain & Gain did in all of North America. And the Stark Express has yet to invade the huge territories of China (where it opens May 1) and Russia (May 2). Marvel has prepared a special edition for China, featuring scenes with actress Fan Bingbing that are not in the international version. As we said, these guys are smart.

(READ: Lily Rothman on Iron Man Three‘s Chinese connection)
Pain & Gain is the story of some dumb guys who only think they’re smart. Shot for just $26 million by Bay, whose three Transformers movies have had budgets of up to $200 million, the picture stars Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Thompson; but their middling star wattage couldn’t help their new effort reach the $23 million that industry forecasters had projected for it.

(READ: Richard Corliss’s review of Pain & Gain)

Indeed, Pain & Gain could be considered a winner only in comparison with The Big Wedding, an R-rated comedy starring AARP stalwarts Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon and Robin Williams. Made for $35 million, this matrimonial melange opened to a spinsterish $7.5 million — again well under the pre-release estimate ($11 million). Both movies received a weak C-plus rating from the CinemaScore survey of early attendees, indicating that they won’t factor importantly in next weekend’s results, when Iron Man Three monopolizes the multiplexes…

…But maybe not the art houses. Mud, starring Matthew McConaughey as an Arkansas outlaw and Reese Witherspoon as the girl he left behind, landed in 11th place with $2.2 million on a thrifty 363 screens. Witherspoon’s DUI arrest a week ago didn’t hurt the movie, and may have given it some free publicity, for Mud played well in big cities and rural areas; the city with the second biggest weekend gross, after New York, was Little Rock. Earning a rapturous 98% favorable score in the Rotten Tomatoes aggregate of critics’ reviews, Mud also clicked with audiences: the film’s take jumped 53% from Friday to Saturday. The picture won’t outgross IM3 next weekend, but it should keep sailing for weeks, perhaps months to come, as McConaughey’s performance stokes early Oscar chat.

(READ: Mary Corliss’s review of Mud)

In a busy week for indie films, the widest opening (248 theaters) was for Arthur Newman, starring Colin Firth as a family man who fakes his own death and creates a new life with Emily Blunt; it found no identity of its own, earning just $108,000 for a dismal $435 per-screen average. Two very limited openings did well: Mira Nair’s terrorism-tinged The Reluctant Fundamentalist, with $32,700 on three screens; and Kon-Tiki, the Oscar-nominated docudrama about Thor Heyerdahl’s 1947 raft voyage across the Pacific, which grossed $22,300 at two theaters. Far behind these promising debuts was At Any Price, starring Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron as two generations of a farming family. Ramin Bahrani’s agribusiness screed harvested just $26,600 at four venues.

(READ: Mary and Richard Corliss’s review of The Reluctant Fundamentalist)

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

1. Pain & Gain, $20 million, first weekend
2. Oblivion, $17.4 million; $64.7 million, second week
3. 42, $10.7 million; $69.1 million, third week
4. The Big Wedding, $7.5 million, first weekend
5. The Croods, $6.6 million; $163 million, sixth week
6. G.I. Joe Retaliation, $3.6 million; $116.4 million, fifth week
7. Scary Movie 5, $3.5 million; $27.5 million, third week
8. Olympus Has Fallen, $2.8 million; $93.1 million, sixth week
9. The Place Beyond the Pines, $2.7 million; $16.2 million, fifth week
10. Jurassic Park, $2.3 million; $44 million, fourth week of rerelease