LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Comic book adventure "Iron Man" proved its mettle at the North America box office and topped expectations, kicking off the summer movie season with estimated weekend ticket sales of $100.75 million and marking a commercial rebound for its star, Robert Downey Jr.
The tally far exceeded expectations of an opening in the $70 million to $80 million range for the three-day period beginning Friday. All told, the film produced by Marvel Studios grossed $104.25 million, counting receipts from Thursday evening previews, according to studio figures issued on Sunday.
"Iron Man's" U.S.-Canadian haul fell just shy of the $114.8 million grossed by "Spider-Man" -- perhaps the most famous Marvel superhero of all -- in the first weekend of May 2002. That tally stands as the biggest domestic opening ever for a non-sequel film.
"Spider-Man 3" still holds the record for the biggest opening weekend of all time -- $151 million in the first weekend of May 2007.
Distributed through Viacom Inc's Paramount Pictures, the film is the first self-financed production from Marvel Studios, a division of Marvel Entertainment Inc. Costing about $150 million to make and $75 million to market, the film is being closely watched as the first major release of the summer movie season.
"It's the perfect way to start the new studio, to blast it off," Marvel Studios Chairman David Maisel told Reuters. "We're fortunate to have this powerful Marvel brand which means something for moviegoers around the world."
Drawing largely favorable reviews, "Iron Man" stars Downey, 43, as billionaire industrialist and playboy Tony Stark, who wrestles with a mid-life crisis as he invents a high-tech suit of armor that transforms him into a superhero.
The film was directed by Jon Favreau and co-stars Oscar winner Gwyneth Paltrow as Stark's personal assistant, Pepper Potts.
Previously, with films like the "Spider-Man" and "X-Men" series, Marvel merely licensed its properties to one of the major studios, Columbia Pictures or 20th Century Fox, respectively, and received a royalty. This time, it has much more exposure to any potential profits.
Paramount Pictures paid for the film's marketing and will receive a fee for its efforts.
For Downey, perhaps best known for his Oscar-nominated turn as Charlie Chaplin in 1992's "Chaplin," "Iron Man" easily marks his biggest picture yet, at least in commercial terms.
His promising career floundered in the 1990s when he succumbed to drug addictions that ultimately landed him in prison for a year. He was arrested twice more in the months following his August 2000 release but ultimately completed court-ordered rehab and has been on the comeback trail since.
His most recent films, such as "Zodiac," "Fur" and "Good Night, and Good Luck," were mostly acclaimed but largely flew under the mainstream radar.
The success of Iron Man is almost as important to Hollywood as a whole as it is to Marvel, Paramount and Downey.
Its opening marks the official start of the lucrative summer movie-going season, an 18-week stretch from May through August that can account for as much as 40 percent of the year's total box office receipts.
Going into this weekend, North American movie receipts were down 3.5 percent and attendance was off 6.5 percent from 2007.
The weekend's only other new release, "Made of Honor," opened at No. 2 with $15.5 million for distributor Columbia Pictures, a unit of Sony Corp.
The romantic comedy, starring Patrick Dempsey, a.k.a. McDreamy from the hit ABC television drama "Grey's Anatomy," attracted a mostly female audience for its opening weekend.
Last weekend's box office champ, the Tina Fey comedy "Baby Mama," fell to No. 3 with $10.33 million, taking its 10-day total to $32.33 million. The "Odd Couple"-style surrogate-pregnancy romp was released by Universal Pictures, a unit of General Electric Co.
On Friday, shares of Marvel Entertainment reached an intraday 52-week high of $30.62 before closing at $30.25, up over 2 percent, on the New York Stock Exchange. Shares are up 13 percent since January 1.
Additional reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Philip Barbara