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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Hollywood studios are counting on actor Robert Downey Jr. and his big-screen incarnation as "Iron Man" to blast them out of a box office slump as the lucrative summer movie season opens this weekend.
The latest Marvel comics adventure is expected to gross $60 million to $80 million or more during its initial Friday-through-Sunday run in North American theaters, experts said, buoyed by heavy promotion and largely favorable reviews.
That would fall far short of the $151 million all-time record opening that "Spider-Man 3" notched during the same weekend last year, thanks to the frenzy surrounding a highly anticipated sequel to an established blockbuster franchise.
The first "Spider-Man" film still holds the record for biggest domestic opening by a non-sequel movie -- $114.8 million in the first weekend of May 2002.
"Iron Man" will probably rank more on par with yet another Marvel superhero drama, "X2: X-Men United," which opened the first weekend of May 2003 with about $85 million in receipts.
While unlikely to quite match Spidey's box-office clout, "Iron Man" is no lightweight.
It cost a reported $150 million to make, sports plenty of nifty special effects, and stars Downey as a wealthy weapons executive and playboy wrestling with a mid-life crisis as he invents a powerful high-tech suit of armor to fight bad guys.
The film marks a key turning point in Downey's once-clouded career -- his first lead role in a high-profile, big-studio picture since his 1997 incarceration for violating probation on drunken driving and drug possession charges.
The PG-13 film, the first production fully financed by Marvel Studios, is likely to enjoy an added boost from a super-sized "preview" roll-out in more than 2,000 theaters on Thursday night, before its formal weekend opening on Friday in just over 4,100 theaters.
Marvel and its distribution partner, Viacom Inc's Paramount Pictures, are banking on buzz and positive word-of-mouth to help usher in large weekend audiences.
"I think that reflects how important a film this is, and how confident Paramount is that there's a huge audience out there for the movie," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box office tracking service Media By Numbers.
"Iron Man" also will benefit from relatively mild competition. The only other new wide-release movie in U.S. and Canadian theaters is romantic comedy "Made of Honor," starring Patrick Dempsey, which Columbia Pictures, a unit of Sony Corp, is offering in a "counter-programming" move.
Marvel and Paramount are not alone in wishing for a robust "Iron Man" launch. Hollywood as a whole is rooting for the film to jump-start the summer movie season, an 18-week period that can account for as much as 40 percent of annual ticket sales.
So far this year, North American movie receipts are down about 3.5 percent from 2007 and attendance is off 6.5 percent.
A crowd-pleaser in May is seen as crucial to reinvigorating the box office and generating audience excitement. "That's how you build audience goodwill, repeat business and momentum," Dergarabedian said.
He said living up to last summer's record $4.1 billion box office will be tough, however, given 2007's glut of blockbuster sequels and "threequels" led by "Spider-Man 3," "Shrek the Third" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End."
But this summer has its own succession of big-event titles besides "Iron Man." They include "Speed Racer," "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian," "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" and "Sex and the City."
The summer of 2008 has one other ironic factor in its favor -- a gloomy economy, which in years past has often proven to be a box office boon as downtrodden Americans flock to the cinema to seek solace in big-screen adventures and comedy.
According to the Los Angeles Times, theater attendance has actually risen during three of the last four recessions.
"In this world of economic uncertainty the movies offer a lot of escapism for the buck," Dergarabedian said.