Hopes fall on man of metal and mettle

April 21, 2008|By John Horn | John Horn,LOS ANGELES TIMES

He speeds into battle in a fiery flash, laying waste to all challengers. That's not just Iron Man but the film's likely box-office outcome, too.

From a surprise sneak peek at July's Comic-Con convention through its teaser trailer launch in October and TV spots during February's Super Bowl and Lost premiere, Iron Man has been assembling a towering wave of momentum. But is it a tsunami? When the first meaningful audience tracking surveys rolled in this month, Paramount and Marvel Studios had to say Iron Man sure was looking like one.

Movie studios and exhibitors are desperate for a hit. Several of the year's higher-profile releases, including films from George Clooney (Leatherheads) and Will Ferrell (Semi-Pro), faltered. Relief from some of the summer's biggest guns - The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - won't come until mid- and late May.

But when Iron Man hits theaters May 2, it may single-handedly launch what is Hollywood's most profitable season and help lift the business out of its doldrums.

As is the industry habit, both Paramount and Marvel are trying to manage expectations downward. They note that Iron Man is hardly as popular a comic-book character as Spider-Man or Hulk.

That said, some rival studio executives and producers are saying the film could be one of the summer's top hits, especially since Paramount and Marvel have spent only 30 percent of their advertising dollars so far.

Directed by Elf's Jon Favreau, Iron Man stars Robert Downey Jr. as arms manufacturer Tony Stark. Captured by Middle Eastern guerrillas who force him to build a missile, a wounded Stark instead constructs a protective iron suit that allows him to escape. Once free, Stark refines his design, turning himself into a more peace-minded crusader. His about-face might worry longtime assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), but it really ticks off business partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges). Before long, Stark's Iron Man faces a very bad boardroom revolt.

Because the character resides in the middle rungs of Marvel's superhero ladder, below not only Spider-Man and Hulk but also X-Men and the Fantastic Four, movie comparisons are problematic. Still, there's telling strength hiding inside Iron Man's audience surveys, box-office experts say. While some Iron Man doubters worry that the film's female appeal is too far behind its male interest to yield an all-demographic blockbuster (men are almost twice as interested in Iron Man as are women), a close look at the numbers tells a different tale.

With 11 days to go before the PG-13 Iron Man opens, the film's female interest is roughly comparable to where it was for Hulk, Transformers (which opened to $70.5 million last July) and the R-rated 300 (which grossed $70.9 million in its premiere in March) two weeks before those films hit theaters.

And with the acclaimed Downey and the Oscar-winning Paltrow in leading roles and mostly favorable reviews expected, Iron Man should also draw strongly among older moviegoers. There's little, in other words, to hold it back. Don't be surprised if it takes in as much as $70 million opening weekend.

John Horn writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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