Though Spider-Man beat all comers in this weekend's box-office duel, Iron Man actually stands to benefit most.
Before I explain that, the facts: Spider-Man 3, the latest installment of Marvel Entertainment's (NYSE: MVL ) billion-dollar celluloid franchise, set a record this past weekend with an estimated $148 million in domestic box-office receipts. Overseas, Spidey took in $227 million in 107 countries.
Studio partner Sony (NYSE: SNE ) , which had expected a $120 million opening, couldn't be more pleased. "The majority of audiences we polled like this one better than the first two," distribution head Rory Bruner told Box Office Mojo in an interview.
I've yet to see the film, so I can't comment on its content. But the comic-book collector in me knows that Spider-Man 3 features three of Spidey's more colorful and difficult foes: the shape-shifting Sandman, the revenge-obsessed Venom, and the heir apparent to the Green Goblin, expertly played by Willem Dafoe in the first film.
In the comics, this sort of convocation of clashes makes for great cover art and decent, if not spectacular, storytelling. But it can get messy in filmmaking. Sadly, that's how some reviewers saw Spider-Man 3: as a mess.
"Spider-Man 3 has an identity crisis. It's often thrilling but never scary, and at times it's pure camp. If there's going to be a Spider-Man 4, here's hoping Spidey ditches the boring girlfriend and meets up with some worthy opponents," writes reviewer Richard Roeper for the Chicago Sun-Times.
Fortunately, critical acclaim has meant little at the box office when it comes to Marvel's flicks. Witness Ghost Rider. The mostly panned anti-hero epic starring Nicolas Cage and Eva Mendes has earned a very respectable $115 million at the domestic box office and a total of $224 million worldwide.
Now mix in Spidey's $375 million worldwide debut. To me, that says audiences like the adrenaline rush that the superhero flicks provide, and they're willing to pay to be thrilled.
But, of course, that's how it has always been. California's governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger, created a $1.6 billion movie franchise out of enticing one-liners. Today's audiences appear to expect little more from Marvel's cast of heroes.
That's a wonderfully low bar for Iron Man, the 2008 action-adventure featuring Marvel's armor-clad avenger. Expect stars Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow to clear it -- and then some -- and for investors to profit in the process.
More pulse-pounding Foolishness awaits, dear reader:
- What will Marvel's earnings be like? Check out our Foolish forecast.
- Spidey is set to spin a Web on the Great White Way.
- A titanic team-up is in Marvel's future.
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Fool contributor Tim Beyers is ranked 6,430 out of more than 28,400 ranked players in our Motley Fool CAPS investor-intelligence database. At the time of publication, he owned more than 2,000 comic books but no shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article. All of his portfolio holdings can be found at Tim's Fool profile. His thoughts on Foolishness and investing may be found in his blog. The Motley Fool's disclosure policy is a hero to your portfolio.