LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - This weekend's lineup at the U.S. box office might well be called a showdown between two Hollywood second-chances -- a remake of a superhero flop and a new film from an acclaimed director whose last movie bombed.
But if early reviews are any indication, the hands-down favorite to dominate megaplexes heading into the seventh week of the lucrative summer movie season is "The Incredible Hulk," a revival of the oversized green brute Marvel Studios first brought to theaters in 2003.
Critics say the new version, emphasizing action over introspection, is markedly superior to the brooding "Hulk" forerunner that got off to a strong commercial start but quickly fizzled as comic book fans found it lacking.
Reviews are less than kind to the only other wide release this coming weekend, "The Happening," the first offering from filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan since his "Lady in the Water" drew critical sneers and sputtered at box offices in 2006.
Still, industry watchers say Shyamalan, whose 1999 sleeper hit "The Sixth Sense" made him a filmmaking sensation, will likely give the Hulk a run for his money with his latest thriller about the outbreak of a mysterious plague.
"There's a lot of interest in this weekend because these two films have a lot to prove for very different reasons," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box office tracking service Media By Numbers.
Much is at stake for Marvel, which is seeking to build on the recent blockbuster success of "Iron Man" with what it calls a "re-boot" of another one of its most popular superhero characters, the Hulk.
The movie is believed to have cost upward of $150 million to make with a marketing budget approaching $100 million. And the focus has been "differentiating this film from the first," said Adam Fogelson, Universal's head of marketing.
"It was about knowing ... that there would be many eyebrows raised and many questions asked about why you would make a sequel to a movie that many people didn't like," he said.
Like the original directed by Ang Lee, the new incarnation from French filmmaker Louis Leterrier mixes a computer-animated Hulk with real actors playing other characters.
Edward Norton stars as the former scientist Bruce Banner who turns into the green man-beast whenever he loses his temper. Critics say the new film stays truer to the comic book character and to the 1970s hit TV series it spawned, favoring adventure over psychological conflict.
"Hulk" marks only the second fully self-financed production from Marvel Studios, which paid General Electric Co's Universal Pictures a fee to market and distribute the film. Paramount Pictures, a unit of Viacom Inc, released "Iron Man" for Marvel.
The first "Hulk," a Marvel co-production with Universal, grossed a hefty $62 million domestically its first weekend but dropped off quickly after that.
Dergarabedian said the remake should top the original, making it likely to beat "The Happening," from News Corp's 20th Century Fox, as the No. 1 film this weekend.
Shyamalan's five previous wide-release films grossed opening weekend tallies ranging from $18 million for "Lady in the Water" two years ago to $60 million for "Signs" in 2002.
But "Happening" is his first to receive an R-rating in the United States, which limits admissions to moviegoers 17 and older unless accompanied by an adult.
Still, Dergarabedian said no one should count Shyamalan out, given the curiosity that usually accompanies his work.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Sandra Maler