Long weekend marks `X-Men' as a box-office superhero

Fan favorite ends film slump with $122.9 million opening

May 31, 2006|By CHRIS KALTENBACH | CHRIS KALTENBACH,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Like the superheroes they are, the X-Men are saving the day.

Just as Hollywood's box-office pundits were reviving their theories of gloom and doom, with the poor performance of Mission: Impossible III as proof that people just aren't going to the movies like they used to, along comes X-Men: The Last Stand to suggest there's plenty of megabucks life in movie theaters yet.

But then again, the X-Men, whether in the comic books where they originated or in the movies where their popularity has soared, have been a fan favorite for nearly three decades. Perhaps nothing they do, at least when it comes to matters of popularity, should come as a surprise.

"This has been a top-selling book forever, since the late '70s," says Marc Nathan, owner of Cards, Comics and Collectibles in Reisterstown. "Longer than anything in the history of the comics, it's been near the top."

Last Stand, the third film to chronicle the exploits of a band of super-powered and emotionally conflicted mutants created by Marvel Comics' Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1963, broke box-office records over the weekend. Its four-day total of just under $122.9 million marks the biggest Memorial Day weekend opening ever, while the $102.8 million it raked in from Friday to Sunday lands it in fourth place among the best-ever three-day openings. And the $45.1 million it earned Friday is the second-best single-day performance ever, bettered only by the $50 million Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith earned on opening day last year.

"This is what going to the movies during the summer is supposed to be all about, the big sci-fi spectacle," said Paul Dergarabedian, head of Los Angeles-based Exhibitor Relations Co., a box-office tracking house. "It's a superhero movie, it's based on a comic book, and comic-book characters have a huge built-in fan base."

The film's performance is also helping pull Hollywood out of the box-office doldrums it had been languishing in since last year, when movies took in a collective 5.2 percent less than the previous year. The total Memorial Day weekend take was up 1.3 percent from last year, and totals for 2006 are up 5 percent from 2005.

If nothing else, Last Stand's performance should compensate for the lukewarm box office of M:i:III, the Tom Cruise star vehicle that, since opening May 5, has earned $116.2 million. That may sound like a lot of money, but it's well below what was expected of the film. Through four weeks, the first Mission: Impossible grossed $145 million in 1996, the second $176.6 million in 2000.

Dergarabedian attributed much of Last Stand's unexpected success to the marketing campaign engineered by its studio, 20th Century Fox.

"Fox used their considerable marketing muscle, via their multiple media outlets, to push the film," he said. The movie's trailer, he noted, was shown during Fox's American Idol, one of the most successful shows on television.

The X-Men have also benefited from the range of characters they encompass. There are young X-Men characters (many of them are high-school age) and old X-Men characters (at least one, the evil Magneto, is a Holocaust survivor). They have powers that run the gamut from controlling the weather (Halle Berry's Storm) to controlling people's thoughts (Famke Janssen's Jean Grey), from sporting a pair of over-sized wings and possessing the power of flight (Ben Foster's Angel) to sporting blue fur and possessing superhuman strength (Kelsey Grammer's Beast).

And they have issues. Some embrace their powers, others hate them. Some want to help mankind, others to subjugate it. The X-Men don't even pretend to have all the answers.

"Most people can relate to at least one of the X-Men or X-Women," Dergarabedian says. "This franchise is so well-grounded with the consumer ... the buzz had been building for quite a while."

One of the people who professes to be the least surprised by the movie's success is Lee, whose achievements on the comics pages -- besides the X-Men, he's been responsible for Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Daredevil, the Hulk, Iron Man and the Silver Surfer -- makes him one of the most influential shapers of pop culture of the 20th century.

"The characters are so interesting," Lee says of the X-Men, which he created, but which shot to popularity in the late-'70s under the authorship of Chris Claremont (Lee and Claremont have cameos in the film). "People who get hooked on the X-Men ... it's like a soap opera on television, they want to see what happens next.

"I'm surprised that everybody in the world didn't go see it," Lee deadpans from the Beverly Hills office of his company, POW! Entertainment. "It's very strange that there are still holdouts."

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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