LOS ANGELES — It was a weekend that made Hollywood stand back and marvel. “The Avengers,” from Walt Disney’s Marvel Studios, didn’t just break the record for the best opening weekend in Hollywood history — the film smashed through it Hulk style, grabbing up big green fistfuls of money.
The Joss Whedon-directed movie, riding stellar reviews and a tsunami of Twitter love, piled up $200.3 million at theaters in the U.S. and Canada, according to an estimate from Disney. That total was turbocharged by pricier IMAX and 3-D tickets, as about 52 percent of those who saw the movie opted to shell out a few extra bucks to watch it in 3-D. IMAX theaters even ran out of seats to sell to moviegoers.
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.
Headlined by a slew of A-list stars, including Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson and Samuel L. Jackson, “The Avengers” has grossed more worldwide than any of Marvel’s previous pictures, including “Iron Man 2,” which sold $623.9 million worth of tickets in 2010. The movie, which brings together an international peacekeeping agency of superheroes to help protect the world from otherworldly invaders, also has earned the best reviews since 2008’s “Iron Man,” notching a 94 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
A number of critics have singled out Whedon’s guiding vision as vital to the film’s success. Yet with a handful of characters such as Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and the Hulk all jockeying for screen time in “The Avengers,” the filmmaker initially worried that the movie might collapse under the weight of so many super-personas. In fact, last year, on the New Mexico set of the film, no one was more acutely aware of that danger than the Hollywood writer known for pitch-perfect comedy and group dialogue.
“Coming in, I was worried about Robert Downey Jr.,” Whedon said, as he watched the actor prepare for a fight scene decked out in his Iron Man armor. “There’s that reputation, that he wants to rewrite everything. ... I’ve been the master of the universe on the sets I’ve walked on, but I’m not on this one.”
“The Avengers” represents a career hallmark for Whedon, who co-wrote the screenplay with Zak Penn. Despite an ardent fan base and plenty of critical acclaim and industry respect, the creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” had yet to have a breakout hit film — though he did receive an Oscar nomination as a screenwriter on Pixar’s “Toy Story.”
Comic book fans had waited ages to see this grouping of characters on the screen, and Marvel had plotted to bring the heroes together over four separate movie franchises, dating to “Iron Man.” That same year, “The Incredible Hulk” struggled to find equal success — that film’s green monster, Edward Norton, has since been replaced by Mark Ruffalo — but last summer’s “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger” were bigger box office hits.
“You have to step back and appreciate how you get to a place like this — and a lot of the credit goes to the years of work that it took to create traction for these characters,” said Dave Hollis, Disney’s executive vice president of distribution. “Through each of the characters’ films, a string of equity was built, and that ultimately paid off with this culmination.”
Disney’s decision to open the film overseas before it hit U.S. theaters helped to turn the movie’s debut into a worldwide event. Indeed, many Hollywood studios are increasingly beginning to open movies abroad first to capitalize on international ticket sales, which often account for the majority of the overall gross on big-budget event films.
“We had 70 percent of the international business open a week ago, and coming out of that space with such strong grosses signaled that this was not just a fan movie — not just a guy movie — but a movie for everyone,” said Hollis.
Heading into the weekend, pre-release audience surveys indicated the 3-D film would have a massive domestic opening of at least $150 million, giving it one of the top five highest U.S. debuts ever. Instead, the movie soared and the once-magical $169.2 million record set during the opening weekend of 2011’s “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2” now seems a quaint card trick. “The Avengers” also raked in more money in its first three days than strong performers such as “The Dark Knight,” “The Hunger Games” and “Spider-Man 3,” all of which collected more than $150 million on their debuts.
The movie appealed to a wide swath of moviegoers; half the audience was younger than 25, and 60 percent of the crowd was male.
As if the news weren’t already positive enough for Marvel and parent company Disney, moviegoers loved the film, assigning it a perfect average grade of A-plus, according to market research firm CinemaScore. That score indicates that the movie will generate excellent word of mouth in the weeks to come, helping to propel the movie into the billion-dollar club at the worldwide box office — an elite group comprising just 11 films, led by James Cameron’s “Avatar” and “Titanic.”
Word of mouth helped bring out more than a few moviegoers who were waiting for Sunday afternoon screenings of “The Avengers” at Regal Cinemas L.A. Live. Stadium 14. “Everyone was posting on Facebook, and everything saying that it was soooo good. And then, there was Scarlett Johansson,” Juan Rodriguez, 21, of Los Angeles said of why he decided to check out the film.
“All of my friends said it was good, and I heard it was good, so I came to see it,” echoed 13-year-old Marvin Jacobs, also of Los Angeles, before his mother, Michelle Jacobs, 47, clarified, “And I brought him because I don’t let him go to the movies alone!”
“It was good action, and it was age-appropriate for a 13-year-old,” she added.
“The Avengers” is the first Marvel film being marketed and released by Disney, which in 2010 bought the rights to Marvel’s remaining two movie projects in its six-picture distribution deal with Paramount Pictures. Paramount had been earning only a distribution fee on the Marvel titles, whereas Disney retains the majority of the films’ profits.
Marvel and Disney spent roughly $220 million to produce “The Avengers.” That’s by far the biggest budget for the famously thrifty Marvel, whose most expensive project had been 2010’s “Iron Man 2,” which was made for about $170 million. “The Avengers” cost more to produce because it had a star-studded cast whose characters — one of them a digitally created green giant, another wearing a high-tech suit of armor — required a variety of special effects.
Marvel is about to start shooting “Iron Man 3,” while “Thor 2” is ramping up and Marvel’s president, Kevin Feige, seems re-engaged with director Edgar Wright’s “Ant-Man” project.
While speculation swirls around whether Whedon will direct an “Avengers” sequel, the filmmaker, who co-scripted and produced the recent horror film “The Cabin in the Woods,” is set to release a version of “Much Ado About Nothing” this year.
No word on whether the Hulk will have a cameo.
(Times staff writer Jevon Phillips contributed to this report.)