Stark Love: Iron Man Three Grabs the Global Gold

Marvel's brainiest superhero makes $175.3 million at home and may have broken the all-time opening record worldwide

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The kids keep pestering Tony Stark about his last adventure, in The Avengers, but he doesn’t want to talk about it: he’s preoccupied with his brand-new world-saving mission. Tony needn’t have worried about the comparisons. Iron Man Three, starring Robert Downey Jr. as the brilliant, arrogant industrialist, earned $175.3 million at North American theaters, according to preliminary estimates by Marvel Studios and its parent company, Disney. That’s the second best-ever weekend debut, behind the $207.5 million for Marvel’s The Avengers exactly a year ago, but ahead of the $169.2 million scored by the previous runner-up, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, in July 2011.

[MONDAY UPDATE: According to final figures issued today, Iron Man Three earned $174.1 million at domestic theaters, to retain its all-time no. 2 status among weekend openers. It also exceeded The Avengers’ 11-day worldwide take, and can claim the biggest two-weekend opening ever: $678.9 million. Pain & Gain, 42 and Oblivion grossed a bit less than reported, Oz the Great and Powerful quite a bit more (up 16%). Among indie titles, The Iceman, Love Is All You Need  and What Maisie Knew all finished more than 5% below their Sunday estimates.]

Internationally, the Stark Express was untoppable: $500.4 million in 11 days, beating the $450 million or so that The Avengers opened to last year. IM3 broke records in Russia, and throughout Latin America and East Asia. China alone accounted for $63.5 million since premiering Wednesday — its success spurred by three minutes of additional scenes in Mandarin with Mainland actress Fan Bingbing. When all the dollars, Euros, rubles and Renminbi are counted, and final figures are issued Monday, IM3 may have achieved the strongest worldwide opening of all time.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Iron Man Three)

Saturating the U.S.-Canada movie marketplace at 4,250 theaters (and on multiple screens at many venues), IM3 earned 45% of its take from the surcharged 3-D version and 9% in IMAX auditoriums. Its demographics mirrored those of The Avengers: 61% male, 45% under 25 years of age. (A further breakdown: 52% were couples, 27% families, 21% teens.) The pearly word-of-mouth, primed by an “A” rating in the CinemaScore survey of early attendees (The Avengers had pulled an A-plus), sustained IM3 through the weekend. After chalking up $15.6 million in Thursday evening showings, the movie earned $52.7 million Friday and, in a nice little surprise, bounced higher to $62.2 million Saturday. Disney guesses or hopes for a $44.8-million Sunday.

(SEE: The Heroes and Villains of Iron Man Three)

Numerically, IM3 is a followup to the 2008 and 2010 hits with the same name. And unlike The Avengers, which bonded Tony with the Marvel-franchise fantasy mutants Thor, Captain America and the Incredible Hulk to do galactic battle against an alien invasion, director Shane Black’s new movie dispenses with the other superheroes and restricts the villain cast to various terrestrial evil geniuses. It’s basically Tony and his usual posse (Pepper Potts, Col. James Rhodes and Happy Hogan) against the ghost of Osama bin Laden. Yet Marvel cannily pushed the notion that IM3 was an organic sequel to the third highest-grossing movie of all time — The Avengers’ $1.5 billion global gross trails only the earnings for James Cameron’s Avatar and Titanic — and the worldwide audience bought it.

(READ: Is Iron Man the Only Interesting Marvel Superhero?)

Why is this important? Because Marvel’s earlier episodes featuring Iron Man, Captain America and the Hulk had earned less than half their total income from abroad, a crucial market for any movie with the biggest box-office ambitions. (Of the 15 films that have earned more than $1 billion worldwide, all made at least half their money overseas except for the 2008 The Dark Knight, at no. 15.) International filmgoers often jump later onto a franchise than domestic viewers do, giving Marvel reason to expect that future sequels focusing on other Avengers heroes will reap the big bucks abroad. And Downey, whose deal with Marvel has now expired, can expect to become a zillionaire, should he choose to don the red flying suit for more movies. When asked by Jon Stewart last week if he planned a Stark return, he flashed a broad wink — presumably translating as Hell yeah.

(READ: Robert Downey Jr. Gets Record-Breaking Birthday Card)

Rarely has the bottom nine of a box-office top-10 list been as irrelevant as this weekend. This time last year, The Avengers earned 25 times as much as the second-place finisher, Think Like a Man. This weekend, if numbers hold, IM3 will have taken in 23 times as much as the musclebound caper comedy Pain & Gain. Tom Cruise’s future-world space chase, Oblivion, crash-landed exactly there in its third week ($5.8 million), finishing behind the Jackie Robinson bio-pic 42 ($6.2 million). The entire back nine earned less than $35 million this weekend, underlining the laggard state of the box office so far this year.

So paltry were the grosses for any movie not named Iron Man Three that a pair of two-hour-plus indie films secured spots in the top 10. Mud, starring Matthew McConaughey as an outlaw trying to reconnect with lady-love Reese Witherspoon, was no. 7; it earned $2.15 million at a thrifty 576 theaters, for the second highest per-screen average ($3,733) of any picture in the weekend’s top 25. The Place Beyond the Pines, with Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper as the audience lures, finished 10th, with a $1.3 million take.

(READ: TIME’s reviews of Mud and The Place Beyond the Pines)

In new indie releases, pride of place went to The Iceman, the true-crime thriller starring Michael Shannon as real-life hit-man Richard Kuklinski; it amassed $93,100 at four theaters, for a robust $23,275 per-screen average. The European rom-com Love Is All You Need managed $39,000 at four sites. What Maisie Knew, with Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan heading the cast, opened promisingly, with $23,200 at one venue.

(READ: TIME’s reviews of The Iceman, Love Is All You Need and What Maisie Knew

The makers of these small films, and of virtually every other picture at the multiplexes this weekend, might wish they knew what Marvel knows.

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

1. Iron Man Three, $175.3 million, first weekend
2. Pain & Gain, $7.6 million; $33.9 million, second week
3. 42, $6.2 million; $78.3 million, fourth week
4. Oblivion, $5.8 million; $76 million, third week
5. The Croods, $4.2 million; $168.7 million, seventh week
6. The Big Wedding, $3.9 million; $14.2 million, second week
7. Mud, $2.15 million; $5.2 million, second week
8. Oz the Great and Powerful, $1.8 million; $228.6 million, ninth week
9. Scary Movie 5, $1.4 million; $29.6 million, fourth week
10. The Place Beyond the Pines, $1.3 million; $18.8 million, sixth week