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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A bigger, meaner "The Incredible Hulk" crushed the competition at North American weekend box office with a $54.5 million take, but still fell short of its predecessor, according to studio estimates on Sunday.
The action-oriented film revival starring the hulking green superhero is only the second self-financed production from Marvel Studios, which paid General Electric Co's Universal Pictures a fee to market and distribute the film.
Marvel and Universal brought the first "Hulk" to theaters in 2003, but that more introspective version failed to follow through on its muscular $62 million debut after disappointing comic book fans. Its ticket sales fell quickly and the movie ended its run with $137 million at domestic box offices.
The new film stars Edward Norton as former scientist Bruce Banner, who morphs into the green beast when his attempts at anger management fail. Banner's love interest is played by Liv Tyler. William Hurt and Tim Roth take turns as villains.
It has received moderately better reviews and advance buzz on fan Web sites. Its $15,500 average ticket sales per theater from slightly more than 3,500 theaters also beat competitors.
The weekend's other new entry, M. Night Shyamalan's "The Happening," landed in the No. 3 spot with a weekend take of $30.5 million and a per theater average of $10,200 from just under 3000 theaters. It was released by 20th Century Fox, a unit of News Corp..
"Happening" turned in the third-largest opening for the director who wowed audiences with "The Sixth Sense" in 1999 but disappointed with his 2006 film "Lady in the Water."
DreamWorks Animation's "Kung Fu Panda," last week's No. 1, remained a top performer fighting its way to a second place finish with a weekend tally of $34.3 million.
Still, the opening for the new "Hulk" was widely watched because of the disappointing overall run for the 2003 version, as well as Marvel's decision to spend up to $150 million to restart the franchise so soon afterward.
"It seems like 'Hulk' has smashed those questions to pieces," said David Maisel, chairman of Marvel Entertainment division Marvel Studios.
Maisel added that "Hulk" was the second-strongest Father's Day weekend opening behind $58.1 million for last year's "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer," also based on Marvel superheroes.
Paul Dergarabedian of Los Angeles-based box office tracker Media By Numbers, said the movie industry overall is on a roll with year-over-year sales up three straight weeks.
This weekend's top 12 movies grossed $174.3 million, up nearly 25 percent from a year ago.
Columbia Pictures' "You Don't Mess with the Zohan," starring Adam Sandler, fell two spots to No. 4 with $16.4 million. "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," distributed by Paramount, was No. 5 after collecting $13.5 million to boost its domestic total to $275.3 million.
Viacom Inc-owned Paramount also distributes DreamWorks productions. Columbia Pictures is a unit of Sony Corp.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte