Box Office: Thank God It's Thorsday

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Mark Fellman / Marvel Studios

Chris Hemsworth in Thor

Thunder of the low, distant variety shook movie theaters and lightning bolts pulsed out from 3-D screens as Thor earned $66 million at North American theaters to win the year's first full May weekend, according to early studio estimates. The latest in Marvel Studios' master plan to make a blockbuster film out of every character who has appeared in the company's comic books over the past 50 years, Thor easily trounced the weekend's two romantic comedies, Jumping the Broom and Something Borrowed, while dumping Mel Gibson's comeback film The Beaver into indie hell. The Marvel god-dude registered the second highest opening gross of 2011, behind the $86.3 million scored last weekend by the automotive-heist film Fast Five.

Not so much a muscle car of a movie but more a muscle chariot, Thor is the rare Marvel project to borrow its superhero from classical antiquity. Battling his scheming brother Loki (Tim Hiddleston) and their dad Odin (Anthony Hopkins), Thor (Aussie gargantuan Chris Hemsworth) strides out of the Norse heavens, as reimagined in 1962 by Marvel mythmaker Stan Lee, and into modern-day New Mexico, where he finds new adversaries and a terrestrial girl friend (Natalie Portman). The movie marks the first episode in Marvel's Avengers series, with Captain America opening in July, The Avengers due this same weekend next year and Nick Fury in the summer of 2012. If the grand scheme works, Marvel could have enough preternatural tough guys to populate a dozen megamovies in the next few years.

Box office results for Thor were massive but muted. Like Fast Five, the film accomplished its primary goal of luring young males — 63% of its weekend audience — back to movie theaters after an absence of many moons. Thor also cadged 60% of its total from 3-D screenings (including 3-D Imax venues), proving that viewers will still pay higher prices for certain films in the process. Its B-plus grade from CinemaScore's poll of Friday-night moviegoers suggests that the film won't collapse after its first few days — that it will have, in industry parlance, "decent legs," if not the massive limbs of its star.

Thor's debut take naturally suffer from comparison with that of other Marvel superhero spectaculars: way below Spider-Man's $114.8 million in 2002 and Iron Man's $98.6 million in 2008, let alone the nine-figure opening grosses of Iron Man 2 and Spider-Man 3. But those franchises, as well as the X-Men series, benefitted from the built-in audience of Saturday-morning cartoon series of yore. Marvel's 2003 Hulk and its 2008 corrective The Incredible Hulk were next-generation versions of the company's once popular live-action prime-time series. Thor did spawn an off-network cartoon series in 1966, but that lasted only 13 episodes, not long enough to create a cult audience among today's dads and their comic-loving kids.

Absent this brand recognition, Thor did O.K. Its opening $66 million is most similar to the first-weekend take of the 2005 Fantastic Four, which earned $56.1 million — $68.4 million in today's dollars. But the new movie's true rival is the year's one other big-budget action film, Fast Five. Though its second-weekend take dropped 62% from last week, in part because it surrendered its Imax screens to Thor, the Vin Diesel picture took just nine days to rev into first place at the year's domestic box office (elbowing Rango out of that slot). It has also topped Thor in foreign countries, where both pictures have been playing for the past few weeks. Numbers are not exactly comparable, since some markets have not yet been tapped, but Fast Five has so far earned $184.8 million abroad, to Thor's $133.4 million.

Raw numbers don't always tell the whole story. The weekend's two other wide releases, both comedies with a wedding theme, amassed similar stats: $13.7 million for Jumping the Broom to $13.2 million for Something Borrowed. But Broom, dramatizing the racial tensions between the bride's buppie family and the groom's working-class brood, was made for just $6.6 million. Financed by Black Entertainment Television (which airs the corollary sitcom The Game) and promoted by TV super-pastor T.D. Jakes, Broom connected with its intended demographic of black females; 70% of the audience was women, who gave the movie an A on the CinemaScore scale. Borrowed, in which Ginnifer Goodwin falls for best friend Kate Hudson's fiancé just before the big day, cost about $35 million and demonstrated that Hudson can't keep making the same bad movie (cf. 2009's Bride Wars, with Anne Hathaway) and expect her dwindling fan base to show up.

But no star's fan base is baser than Mel Gibson's, so tested have his admirers been by his tabloid antics of domestic abuse and anti-Jewish rants. The Beaver, a strange parable about a toy manufacturer who battles severe depression by speaking through a rodent hand puppet, was meant to test the audience's tolerance for an actor they supported for a burly quarter-century. Directed by and co-starring Jodie Foster, the movie earned a meager $104,000 in 22 theaters, on a limited platform before its wider release in two weeks. If this is Gibson's big comeback vehicle, it has stalled in the garage.

Even in his movie-star years, Gibson took occasional detours with risky indie projects: he graced Wim Wenders' meta-flaky Million Dollar Hotel, did a cameo in the Robert Downey Jr., film version of The Singing Detective and played a misanthrope hermit in The Man Without a Face, which he also directed. It's likely that The Beaver would find few patrons no matter who took the leading role. If Hollywood moguls really cared to test Gibson's tarnished allure, they'd put him in a Mad Max or Lethal Weapon sequel. But no movie studio is likely to take an expensive flyer on a 55-year-old who can't control his hands or mouth. Mel Gibson is no Thor.

Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend's top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:

1. Thor, $66 million, first weekend
2. Fast Five, $32.5 million; $139.9 million, second week
3. Jumping the Broom, $13.7 million, first weekend
4. Something Borrowed, $13.2 million, first weekend
5. Rio, $8.2 million; $114.9 million, fourth week
6. Water for Elephants, $5.6 million; $41.6 million, third week
7. Tyler Perry's Madea's Big Happy Family, $3.9 million; $46.8 million, third week
8. Prom, $2.4 million; $7.8 million, second week
9. Soul Surfer, $2.1 million; $36.7 million, fifth week
10. Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil, $1.9 million; $6.7 million, second week