A Declawed Wolverine Slouches into First Place

X-Man Hugh Jackman extends the run of underwhelming summer superheroes

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Ben Rothstein / Marvel & 20th Century Fox

In like a wolf, out like a Weimardoodle. The Wolverine, which returns Hugh Jackman to the Logan character he played in the X-Men trilogy and his 2009 stand-alone X-Men Origins: Wolverine, won the weekend at North American theaters with $55 million, according to a preliminary estimate by its studio, 20th Century Fox. That sounds like a decent chunk of change: it’s the first action picture since World War Z, four weeks ago, to open at more than $40 million. But industry expectations were much higher — between $65 million and $80 million — for a Marvel movie that will end up selling the fewest first-weekend domestic tickets of any X-Men episode.

[MONDAY UPDATE: According to final stats issued today, The Wolverine earned $53.1 million, or more than 3% less than its Sunday estimate, for the weakest opening of the six X-Men films, in real or inflated dollars. The actual figures for the other movies in the top five were slightly above the preliminary predictions.]

Last week’s winner, The Conjuring, dropped just 47% — a remarkable hold for an R-rated horror film — to take second place with $22.1 million. Universal’s animated comedy Despicable Me 2, which landed in third place with $16 million, has registered $306.4 million in the U.S. and Canada In 24 days, and another $354.6 million abroad, for a very picable $660.9 million worldwide gross. DM2 is now the year’s third highest-earning release, after Iron Man Three ($1.211 billion) and Furious 6, which took in $24 million this weekend in its China debut and has ascended to a global total of $741.1 million.

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Despicable Me 2)

Hollywood could be pleased with this weekend’s North American total revenue of $171 million — 27% higher than the same frame last year, when The Dark Knight Rises won in its second weekend — if it weren’t that most moviegoers stayed home that Friday evening to watch the London Olympics’ opening night, thus severely depleting the three-day total. Compare this weekend to the one in 2011, when the opening attractions were Cowboys & Aliens and The Smurfs, and the total gross is down about 5%.

(READ: How the 2012 Olympics spectacle dented the summer box office)  

After the poor debuts for White House Down, The Lone Ranger, Pacific Rim and R.I.P.D. — four action films with a cumulative price tag of $550 million, not including marketing costs, and an first-weekend average of $26 million — The Wolverine’s opening take can be called respectable. It’s not a catastrophe, but more of a mild but real disappointment. Consider that the first X-Men movie, in 2000, opened to $54.5 million (about $80 million in today’s dollars), followed by $85.6 million for X2 in 2003, $102.8 million for the 2006 X-Men: The Last Stand and $85.1 million for the Jackman-only X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The 2011 prequel X-Men: First Class, in which Jackman’s character had an amusingly obscene cameo, managed a three-day opening total of $55.1 million. Suddenly the new movie’s $55-million premiere, pumped up by inflated ticket prices and 3-D and IMAX surcharges, looks relatively puny.

(READ: Corliss’s review of The Wolverine)

On the bright side, this PG-13 Wolverine didn’t cost a clawed arm and a hairy leg: its $120-million budget is low for a Marvel movie with a big star. Critics liked the film, with a 67% “fresh” rating on the Rotten Tomatoes website of aggregate reviews, and so did audiences: the early crowd (58% male, 58% 25 or older) gave it a pearly A-minus grade in the CinemaScore poll. Further, since the picture has a definite, almost defiant international air — it’s set mostly in Japan and supports Jackman with a predominantly Japanese cast — it can be expected to do well abroad. It already has. This weekend The Wolverine grabbed a robust $86 million in virtually all foreign markets except for China … and Japan. So we won’t yet say sayonara to Logan. Besides, he’ll be back next summer with a full complement of costars (Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, Halle Berry, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen) in X-Men: Days of Future Past. If that one bombs, get the smelling salts ready for the Marvel executives.

(READ: When Hugh Jackman said The Wolverine would be his best X-Men movie)

Back home, moviegoers paid to see animated features — Turbo came in just behind Despicable Me 2 for fourth place, though it could prove to be the lowest-grossing DreamWorks cartoon since the 2006 Flushed Away — and comedies. Grown Ups 2 reached $101.7 million, becoming Adam Sandler’s 13th live-action film to pass the $100-million mark at the North American wickets. And The Heat, starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, inched up to $141.2 million, making it the year’s top-grossing live-action comedy. In second place: Identity Thief, with Jason Bateman and … Melissa McCarthy.

(READ: Mary Pols’ reviews of The Heat and Identity Thief)

One R-rated comedy, The To Do List starring Parks and Recreations gamine Aubrey Plaza, earned back its budget — $1.5 million — at 591 theaters; its “A” CinemaScore may corral more viewers and put this rowdy rom-com in the black. Woody Allen, an old comedy master, turned to drama with Blue Jasmine and hit the jackpot in limited release: $613,000 at just six venues, for the year’s best per-screen average. The critically lauded film (85% on the Rotten Tomatoes website of aggregate reviews) won special praise for Cate Blanchett’s performance, and could stick around into the year-end awards period.

(READ: Cate Blanchett on working with Woody Allen)

Two other indie films ventured into wider release with encouraging results. Fruitvale Station, whose true story of a young black man killed by a transit officer bears stark similarities to the Trayvon Martin case, boldly expanded from 34 to 1,064 theaters and earned $4.7 million, enough to vault it into the weekend’s top 10. The coming-of-age comedy The Way, Way Back fanned out to 886 screens for a $3.3-million take, good for 11th place.

(READ: Mary Pols’ reviews of Fruitvale Station and The Way, Way Back)

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

1. The Wolverine, $55 million, first weekend
2. The Conjuring, $22.1 million; $83.9 million, second week
3. Despicable Me 2, $16 million; $306.4 million, fourth week
4. Turbo, $13.2 million; $55.8 million, second week
5. Grown Ups 2, $11.5 million; $101.7 million, third week
6. Red 2, $9.4 million; $35.1 million, second week
7. Pacific Rim, $7.5 million; $84 million, third week
8. The Heat, $6.85 million; $141.2 million, fifth week
9. R.I.P.D., $5.9 million; $24.4 million, second week
10. Fruitvale Station, $4.7 million; $6.3 million, third week