LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A bigger, better "Incredible Hulk" crushed the North American weekend box office with a $54.5 million take, according to studio estimates.
The action-oriented film revival starring the hulking green superhero is 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 film failed to follow through on its muscular debut after disappointing comic book fans.
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, while actors William Hurt and Tim Roth take turns as villains.
Marvel Studios had creative control over "The Incredible Hulk," and the film won positive reviews, but critics did question why Marvel was returning to the green monster so soon.
"It seems like 'Hulk' has smashed those questions to pieces," said David Maisel, chairman of Marvel Entertainment division Marvel Studios.
Maisel added that the film was the second-strongest Father's Day weekend open.
"Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer," also starring Marvel superheroes, rode the wave to No. 1 on Father's Day weekend 2007 with box office of $58.1 million, according to tracking firm Media By Numbers.
"Iron Man," Marvel's first self-financed film, came in at No. 7 after hammering home weekend sales of $5.1 million. The film has been in theaters for seven weeks and has pulled in domestic sales totaling $297.4 million.
Media By Numbers' Paul Dergarabedian said the movie industry is on a roll, noting that year-over-year sales have been up for three weekends in a row.
This weekend's top 12 movies grossed $174.3 million, up nearly 25 percent from a year ago.
"The slate of films has been very strong, particularly in the last few weeks," said Dergarabedian, who added that higher revenue and attendance are boosting this summer's results.
DreamWorks Animation's "Kung Fu Panda," last week's box office champion, remained a top performer.
The film fought its way to a second-place finish with a weekend tally of $34.3 million. It stars comedian Jack Black as the voice of Po, an aspiring Dragon Warrior, Dustin Hoffman as his wise advisor and Ian McShane as an evil kung fu master.
M. Night Shyamalan's "The Happening" landed the No. 3 spot with a weekend take of $30.5 million. That was the third-largest opening for a movie from the director, who wowed audiences with "The Sixth Sense" in 1999 but disappointed with his 2006 film "Lady in the Water."
Chris Aronson, senior vice president of distribution at News Corp-owned 20th Century Fox, said the filmmaker's first R-rated horror film "exceeded expectations, both ours and the industry's."
Columbia Pictures' "You Don't Mess with the Zohan," starring Adam Sandler as an Israeli commando-turned-New York hairdresser, fell two spots to No. 4 with a weekend total of $16.4 million.
"Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" was No. 5 after collecting ticket sales of $13.5 million. The Paramount-distributed adventure film, which held the No. 3 position last weekend, has cumulative domestic box office sales of $275.3 million.
"Sex and the City: The Movie" continued to draw female fans of the HBO series. The New Line Cinema romantic comedy landed at No. 6 with sales of $10.2 million, taking its three-week total to $120.0 million.
Viacom Inc-owned Paramount also distributes DreamWorks productions. Columbia Pictures is a unit of Sony Corp. New Line is a division of Time Warner Inc's Warner Bros. Pictures.