LOS ANGELES — Exactly one month from now, Tony Stark, Pepper Potts and the other personalities of “Iron Man” will return to make witty mayhem in the superhero sequel.
And exactly three days after that, we could have a new domestic box-office record.
Stark himself, never lacking in suave self-confidence, probably wouldn’t make such a bold boast. But it’s entirely feasible.
According to just-released tracking surveys, director Jon Favreau’s second installment in the Marvel franchise is showing astonishing levels of interest and awareness well ahead of its three-day opening next month. There are enough statistical indications to think that the first-weekend gross could top the $158.4-million haul for “Dark Knight,” the current record-holder for the biggest (non inflation-adjusted) opening weekend and the gold standards for movie debuts.
Christopher Nolan’s Batman sequel grossed that amount when it opened over a three-day weekend in July 2008. The same spring/summer period brought the release of “Iron Man.” The character was new to mainstream audiences, star Robert Downey Jr. had yet to engineer his Hollywood comeback and Favreau was riding a cold streak (“Zathura: A Space Adventure,” anyone?). The movie still opened to an impressive $98 million, and went on to gross more than $318 million domestically.
But this year’s sequel opening on May 7 should pulverize that $98 million figure. Thanks in part to Downey, the Paramount-distributed film is drawing as much (strong) interest among women over 30 as it is among women in their 20s, the tracking surveys show. Males in their teens and 20s are so keen on the film they may as well be dressing up in an iron suit. About the only people who aren’t fully sold are teen girls, but there are signs of robustness there too.
All this doesn’t even count the intangibles. The movie generated a titanic reception at last summer’s Comic-Con International in San Diego, the kind that happens only once every few years, if that. The “Iron Man 2” trailers have practically shut down YouTube. And according to one rival studio, “Iron Man” is now among the most-liked franchises in Hollywood, right up there with “Spider-Man.” (It also doesn’t hurt that ticket prices have inched upward in the past two years, although the 2-D “Iron Man 2” likely won’t touch the domestic record of $742.5 million set by last year’s 3-D “Avatar.”)
Of course, shattering a box-office record isn’t the same as making a creative breakthrough. “Dark Knight” was a singular cultural phenomenon, adored by critics, loved by the public and regarded in the fan universe as the great example of superhero movies, the Giselle Bundchen of the form. Whether “Iron Man 2” will be similarly embraced remains to be seen. From the advance material, we’re expecting more humor than we got in the Batman follow-up but not necessarily the same level of grit or complexity.
Still, a combination of pop-culture awareness, hugely appealing (and promotion-minded) actors and a smartly waged marketing campaign could send “Iron Man 2” on the path to a record. That is, for now — “Batman 3,” after all, is currently in development. And given the tendency of superhero sequels to expand audiences as they go, that movie could eventually land with even more box-office force. It’s your move, Nolan.