LOS ANGELES – "Iron Man 3" was the heavy-lifter at theaters with a colossal overseas debut that overshadowed a gang of mercenary bodybuilders in a sleepy pre-summer weekend at the domestic box office.
The Marvel Studios superhero sequel starring Robert Downey Jr. got a head-start on its domestic launch next Friday with a $195.3 million opening in 42 overseas markets, distributor Disney reported Sunday.
That topped the $185.1 million start for Marvel's "The Avengers," which opened in 39 markets over the same weekend last year a week ahead of its record-breaking domestic debut of $207.4 million.
"You don't know that you could ever repeat the kind of experience we had a year ago, and here the Marvel team brought together another incredible movie," said Dave Hollis, head of distribution for Disney. "We've had this as a pattern for Marvel films to kind of let momentum internationally help signal to the domestic audience that the film is coming, something big is coming."
Director Michael Bay's true-crime tale "Pain & Gain" muscled into first-place domestically with a $20 million debut.
The Paramount release starring Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie knocked off Tom Cruise's sci-fi adventure "Oblivion" after a week in the No. 1 spot. Universal's "Oblivion" slipped to second-place with $17.4 million, raising its domestic total to $64.7 million.
Lionsgate's all-star nuptial comedy "The Big Wedding" tanked at No. 4 with just $7.5 million. The ensemble cast includes Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton, Robin Williams, Susan Sarandon and Katherine Heigl, but the movie was almost universally trashed by critics and held little interest for audiences.
Paramount, which distributed the earlier "Iron Man" movies and still has a financial stake in the comic-book flicks after Disney bought Marvel, had a small-scale success with "Pain & Gain."
A passion project for Bay, who has made Paramount a fortune with his "Transformers" franchise, "Pain & Gain" was shot for a modest $26 million, spare change compared to the director's usual budgets.
The movie has the director taking a breather from his usual sci-fi action spectacles for a story based on a kidnapping-extortion caper carried out by bodybuilders in the 1990s. Yet "Pain & Gain" still has Bay's usual visual flair, and the reviews generally were better than what he's used to.
"With that kind of budget, to open to $20 million the first weekend is a very strong opening," said Don Harris, Paramount's head of distribution. "You see what a director really in his prime, at the top of his game, can do with a small budget, what he can make a movie look like."
"Oblivion" was down a fairly steep 53 percent from the movie's $37.1 million domestic debut the previous weekend.
Overseas, "Oblivion" took in $12.8 million to lift its international haul to $134.1 million and worldwide total to just under $200 million.
Hollywood's domestic downturn continued, with revenues totaling $90 million, off 18.5 percent from the same weekend last year, when "Think Like a Man" led with $17.6 million, according to box-office tracker Hollywood.com.
Receipts have trailed 2012's for most of the year, with 2013 domestic ticket sales running at $2.9 billion, nearly 12 percent behind last year's.
That pattern could continue as Hollywood opens its summer season domestically this coming weekend. Despite a huge haul expected for "Iron Man 3," the film will be competing against that gigantic start over the same weekend last year for "The Avengers," the only movie to open with more than $200 million domestically.
"Iron Man 2" debuted with $128.1 million over the first weekend in May 2010. Hollywood.com analyst Paul Dergarabedian has been pegging the "Iron Man 3" potential at $125 million-plus, though the mammoth international start could fire up domestic prospects even higher.
"This ups the ante in a big way for "Iron Man 3," Dergarabedian said. "It just raises the profile of the film. It raises expectations. But to expect something in the realm of $207.4 million? Well, the fact that we're even talking about it is really amazing."
Said Disney's Hollis: "I wouldn't even want to get ahead of ourselves on something like that. But to say we're encouraged by the results this weekend would be a gross understatement."
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Hollywood.com. Where available, latest international numbers are also included. Final domestic figures will be released Monday.
1. "Pain & Gain," $20 million.
2. "Oblivion," $17.4 million ($12.8 million international).
3. "42," $10.7 million.
4. "The Big Wedding," $7.5 million.
5. "The Croods," $6.6 million ($13.1 million international).
6. "G.I. Joe: Retaliation," $3.6 million ($10.2 million international).
7. "Scary Movie 5," $3.5 million.
8. "Olympus Has Fallen," $2.8 million.
9. "The Place Beyond the Pines," $2.7 million.
10. "Jurassic Park" in 3-D, $2.3 million ($410,000 international).