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May 06, 2012

‘Avengers’ soar, ‘Harry Potter’ box-office magic now a card trick?

Posted in: Movies

Director Joss Whedon, left, and Samuel L. Jackson on the set of “The Avengers.” (Zade Rosenthal / Marvel Studios)

Turns out Hulk isn’t the only one who can deliver a big green smash. Joss Whedon just scored a Galactus-sized success with “The Avengers,” which not only topped the “Harry Potter” single-weekend record, it made the once magical Hogwarts crowd seem like, well, schoolchildren waving sticks in the air.

The sixth Marvel Studios release just completed the best opening weekend in movie history, earning $200.3 million at the domestic box office, an especially staggering number when you consider that previous mark by “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2″ was $169.2-million. More than that, with all the sparkling reviews, director and co-writer Whedon has a genuine summer cinema supernova — Tony Stark is still at the center of the Marvel Studios universe, but now he’s not the only one standing there in the warm glow of cascading cosmic rays.

The numbers are bigger the deeper you look. The North American box office total added to an already unfolding global success story; playing in 52 international markets, the movie collected $151.5 million this weekend, raising its tally abroad to $441.5 million. That means that after just two weeks in release, “The Avengers” already has sold $641.8 million worth of tickets, jumping past “The Hunger Games” on the ranking of top-grossing 2012 releases worldwide.

No one could be prouder than Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios, the Hollywood upstart that launched in 2008 with “Iron Man” with a “risky” leading man in Robert Downey Jr. and “an actor playing director” in Jon Favreau.

Downey and Favreau redefined themselves, and their success inspired Feige and his team to roll the dice again and again; he built the Thor franchise around an unknown Australian actor named Chris Hemsworth, for instance, and set the Captain America film in World War II and never swayed from the audacious ambition of weaving the Marvel movie franchises together for an all-star film (that would also throw in secret agents, monsters, aliens and a trickster god named Loki).

Chris Evans, left, and Robert Downey Jr. in “The Avengers.” (Zade Rosenthal / Marvel Studios)

From the outset, “The Avengers” success didn’t necessarily seem like a sure thing. “I am going to blow it,” declared a humble, humorous Whedon at San Diego’s Comic-Con International in 2010, when the movie’s cast assembled on stage at the expo’s expansive Hall H amid the thundering cheers of 6,000 ardent fans. “I’m not up to it,” Whedon added at the time, standing alongside Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey Jr., Jeremy Renner and Mark Ruffalo, among others.

It is true, that as movie vehicles go, this one might have been too crowded to ever gain any forward momentum. Last year, on the New Mexico set of “The Avengers,” no one was more acutely aware of the aerodynamic dangers than Whedon, the acclaimed Hollywood writer known for pitch-perfect comedy and group dialogue. (Now, for the first time, he is also know for having directed a blockbuster hit.)

“I’ve been the master of the universe on the sets I’ve walked on, but I’m not on this one,” Whedon said last year on the film’s New Mexico set as he watched Downey in his Iron Man armor prepare for a fight scene. “I was coming from a place where I was almost a playwright with things as specific as the placement of the comma, but I had to let go of that here. And what I found has been extraordinary. And the energy is just coiled in people here. Everyone wants to be great.”

Chris Hemsworth, left, and Chris Evans in a scene from “The Avengers.” (Marvel Studios)

Mission accomplished. Marvel is about to start shooting “Iron Man 3,” while “Thor 2″ is ramping and Feige seems reengaged with director Edgar Wright’s “Ant-Man” project. For the moment, though, everyone in the Marvel universe can sit back and bask in the glow of cosmic windfall — and ousted Walt Disney Studios chief Rich Ross can wonder why he got all the blame for “John Carter’s” interstellar crash  but not one huzzah for the “Avengers” conquest. (Wait, was that Ross in the credits laughing about love and death?)

On Sunday, a spokesman for Feige said that the executive was going “to lie low” and soak it all in, which made me think of Uatu standing passively on some lunar ridgeline watching the box-office reports from Earth.

There’s plenty for Feige to fret about, too: Can he actually hold this cast together after this film crosses the billion-dollar mark and all their agents reach for calculators and their cellphones?

On a more positive note, can the new crowd-pleasing version of the Hulk turn Marvel’s second-most famous character into a decent solo franchise? Is the Winter Soldier the ideal storyline for a Captain America sequel? Will director Whedon stick around long-term or will something like that Wonder Woman movie he wanted make tempt him toward other star systems? Time will tell, and plenty of people will be keeping track like an amateur Uatus.  Yes, after “The Avengers,” the whole world is watching.

– Geoff Boucher

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