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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The God of Thunder reigned at the North American box office as "Thor" became the latest Marvel comic book superhero to leap to the big screen.
According to studio estimates issued on Sunday, the Marvel comic book 3D adaptation sold about $66 million worth of tickets during its first three days of release across the United States and Canada, in line with industry forecasts.
It ranks as the second-biggest opening of the year, a week after "Fast Five" set a new record with its $86 million start.
The films traded places internationally, with "Fast Five" earning $87 million during the weekend and "Thor" $46 million.
The action duo is leading Hollywood's tentative recovery from a dismal year that has seen North American ticket sales plunge about 14 percent. But the industry hopes to gain more ground in coming weeks with new sequels for "Pirates of the Caribbean," "The Hangover" and "Kung Fu Panda."
"Thor," starring Australian actor Chris Hemsworth in the title role, was directed by Kenneth Branagh, a British actor and filmmaker best known for his deft handling of Shakespearean material.
Critics generally approved of the movie, and movie-goers polled by the survey firm CinemaScore gave it a solid B-plus rating, according to Paramount. Men accounted for almost two thirds of the audience.
But its $66 million opening fell far short of the first installments of other movies in the Marvel stable, such as 2002's "Spider-Man" ($115 million) and 2008's "Iron Man" ($99 million).
Somewhat ominously, it barely exceeded the $62 million start for "Hulk" in 2003, the first of two failed attempts to turn the angry green man into a movie franchise.
On the other hand, "Thor" handily exceeded the openings of 2000's "X-Men" ($54 million) and 2005's "Fantastic Four" ($56 million).
"It's a good start and a solid place for this franchise to be," said Don Harris, executive vice-president of distribution at Paramount Pictures.
The Viacom Inc unit distributed the $150 million film on behalf of Walt Disney Co's Marvel Studios.
"Fast Five," the fifth installment in the street-racing series, dropped to slipped to No. 2 with $32.5 million, taking its North American total to $140 million. It replaced the animated "Rango" ($120 million) as the biggest release of the year so far.
Its international total rose to $185 million, ahead of "Thor" with $176 million. The biggest international release so far this year is the animated "Rio," with sales of $292 million after just a month.
"Fast Five" was released by Universal Pictures, a unit of Comcast Corp-controlled NBC Universal.
Two other new releases, both wedding-themed comedies targeted at women, entered the fray in North America.
"Jumping the Broom" opened at No. 3 with $13.7 million, doubling its $6.6 million production cost. "Something Borrowed" followed at No. 4 with $13.2 million. Both were expected to open in the $11 million range.
"Jumping the Broom" was released by TriStar Pictures, a unit of Sony Corp. "Something Borrowed" was released by Warner Bros. Pictures, a unit of Time Warner Inc.
Reporting by Dean Goodman; Editing by Vicki Allen and Laura MacInnis