The Best Man: Gatsby Starts Big, Finishes Second to Iron Man 3

Despite an all-star cast and strong box-office numbers, Baz Luhrmann's 'The Great Gatsby' still comes in second to 'Iron Man 3'

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Warner Bros.

Handsome Jay Gatsby stares hopefully across the bay at the green light that represents his great love, Daisy Buchanan; he comes tantalizing close to his dream but can’t quite possess it. Just so with Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. This 3-D adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, earned a near-great $51.1 million in its debut at the North American box office, according to preliminary studio estimates — a number far above its predicted gross, but not enough to dethrone last week’s winner, Iron Man 3, which took in $72.5 million. Gatsby may be the best man everyone talks about, but IM3 remains the undisputed groom.

The second weekend in May is traditionally when ambitious films with perceived marketing problems are served up as dessert for the Marvel Studios movies that opened a week before. The best that these Mother’s Day releases can aspire to is second place. Last year, Dark Shadows — another pop-culture reclamation project with a big star (Johnny Depp) and a famously eccentric director (Tim Burton) — pulled in just $29.7 million behind the behemoth that was The Avengers. In 2011, Bridesmaids, $26.2 million, came in well behind Thor; in 2010, Robin Hood, $36 million, was a distant second to Iron Man 2; in 2008, What Happens in Vegas, $20.2 million, was behind the original Iron Man; and in 2007, 28 Years Later, grossed $9.8 million in Spider-Man 3′s wake.

(READ: Richard Corliss’s review of The Great Gatsby)

Warner Bros. had planned to release Gatsby in December 2012, when it would have basked in the pre-Oscar clamor and glamour. Moving the picture to this weekend was seen as a demotion. It’s a love story without much smooching, a gangster drama with only one shooting. Sure, the film boasted a noisy, anachronistic score by rap-master Jay-Z — but did people really want to see the movie version of a book they were forced to read in high school?

(READ: Paula Mejia’s take on Jay Z’s Gatsby soundtrack)

The online mavens who predict weekend grosses foresaw only modest returns: $24 million from, $26 million from Screencrave, $27 million from, $31 million from Box Office Guru, $35 million from Rope of Silicon and $38.5 million from HSX. It’s true that the youngish guys making these educated guesses tend to underestimate the pull of “woman’s films,” but few forecasters of any stripe thought that Gatsby would hit $50 million. Final figures will be issued Monday, when we’ll be able to gauge the impact of Mother’s Day on the movie’s bankroll.

[UPDATE: Apparently some folks treated their moms to dinner instead of a show. According to Monday’s “actual” grosses, The Great Gatsby finished about 2% below the Sunday estimate, for a $50.1 million weekend total. Iron Man Three was right on target: $72.5 million. Tyler Perry Presents Peeples earned $4.6 million, 5% under its predicted number. Three of this week’s top 10 films exceeded their studios’ guesses: Oblivion at $4.1 million (up 6.5%), Mud at $2.5 million (up 8%) and Oz the Great and Powerful at $1.1 million (up 34% in its 10th week).]

Gatsby managed this mighty haul without much critical acclaim (just 48% favorable on the review-aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes) or enthusiasm from first-night attendees (a tepid “B” rating in the CinemaScore poll). After Thursday evening screenings took in an impressive $3.5 million, Friday earned $16.15 million and Saturday $17.6 million. The audience skewed predictably female (59%) and older (69% over the age of 25) — not quite the Red Hat Society demographic, but pretty much the folks who’d want to see a great book turned into lavish movie. (Only 33% paid extra for the 3-D version.) After its European premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, Gatsby opens next weekend in the rest of the world, where it should do very smartly: Luhrmann’s three previous features (Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge! and Australia) have earned an average 70% of their global gross in the international market.

(READ: Corliss’s reviews of Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge! and Australia)

Like the sailors in South Pacific, Hollywood could sing, “There is nothing like abroad” — overseas is where the big profits pile up. Virtually all movies that reach the billion-dollar worldwide goal get at least two-thirds of the swag from outside North America. The one venerable film franchise that hasn’t come near that percentage is Star Trek. For example, J.J. Abrams’s 2009 reboot amassed $257 million domestic but only $128 million elsewhere, for a misfired 33% of the total gross. That could change with Abrams’s prequel-sequel Star Trek into Darkness, which premiered this weekend to a warp-speed $31 million in seven foreign territories, including the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia and Mexico. In North America, the movie movie opens Wednesday in IMAX, Thursday in theaters nationwide.

(READ: Fan Gets Dying Wish: a Sneak Peak at the new Star Trek)

You may now imagine Tony Stark brooding in a corner of the Gatsby banquet, saying, “Excuse me? I was No. 1 again, y’ know.” Iron Man 3 did achieve the fourth all-time highest gross for a second weekend (behind The Avengers, Avatar and The Dark Knight). Its 10-day domestic total is a palmy $284.9 million, and its $949.8-million worldwide cume includes an overseas stash of $664.1 million, or a superhero 70% of the global gross. IM3 is indeed a triumph by any standard except for that of the Marvel movie that preceded it by exactly a year. By this weekend in 2012, The Avengers had broken the $1 billion mark; and its second-week drop in North American theaters was just 50.7% to IM3′s 58.4%. But then, it didn’t have to contend with the golden quartet of Leo, Baz, Jay… and Jay-Z.

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

Far down the movie food chain, Tyler Perry Presents Peeples, a family comedy that the Atlanta impresario produced but did not write, direct or star in, stumbled to an estimated $4.95 million; and the CinemaScore was a feeble B-minus, far below the usual high marks Perry’s audience gives his films. In the indie demimonde, Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley’s family-tree detective-story documentary, powered its critical favor (94% on Rotten Tomatoes) to a healthy $31,000 on only two screens.

(READ: Reviews by Mary Pols and Mary Corliss of Stories We Tell)

No One Lives, directed by Japan’s Ryuhei Kitamura, got a wider release of 53 theaters but cadged a cadaverous $45,900, for an $866 per-screen average. The star, Luke Evans, couldn’t fill seats with this twisty kidnap melodrama, but he’ll do better later this month: he’s the chief villain in Furious 6, the new entry in the Fast & Furious franchise. After Iron Man 3 and The Great Gatsby, the imminence of Star Trek into Darkness and Furious 6 should make May Hollywood’s merriest month.

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, $72.5 million; $284.9 million, second week

2. The Great Gatsby, $51.1 million, first weekend

3. Pain & Gain, $5 million; $41.6 million, third week

4. Tyler Perry Presents Peeples, $4.85 million, first weekend

5. 42, $4.65 million; $84.7 million, fifth week

6. Oblivion, $3.9 million; $81.7 million, fourth week

7. The Croods, $3.6 million; $173.2 million, eighth week

8. The Big Wedding, $2.5 million; $18.3 million, third week

9. Mud, $2.3 million; $8.4 million, third week

10. Oz the Great and Powerful, $802,000; $230 million, 10th week