LOS ANGELES - "The Incredible Hulk" was a box-office bruiser, yanking in $54.5 million over opening weekend and laying to rest the stigma of his unappreciated big-screen adventure five years ago.
"The Hulk got a second chance, got angry and came back with a vengeance," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Media By Numbers. "This was a big question mark going in. The film had a history or a checkered past."
Ang Lee's "Hulk" opened in 2003 with a whopping $62.1 million weekend but then rolled over and died in subsequent weeks amid terrible word of mouth. That movie crawled to $132.2 million in sales, seemingly a respectable total but actually meager considering its huge first weekend.
Marvel Studios, which financed "The Incredible Hulk," and distributor Universal hope the new movie, starring Edward Norton as the scientist who turns into the Hulk when maddened, will have a longer shelf life and eventually top out with better numbers than its predecessor.
Also rebounding off a bad last movie was director M. Night Shyamalan, whose fright flick "The Happening" with Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel opened at a sturdy No. 3 with $30.5 million.
Shyamalan, whose blockbusters include "The Sixth Sense" and "Signs," flopped two years ago with "Lady in the Water."
"Night rocked," said Chris Aronson, distribution executive for 20th Century Fox, which released "The Happening," a tale of an airborne toxin that prompts people to kill themselves in ghastly ways. "Any time you're coming off an effort like `Lady in the Water' that was perceived as a disappointment, movie-goers and critics tend to be a little gun-shy, but the numbers speak for themselves."
Fans and critics definitely were gun-shy on "The Incredible Hulk," some expecting the movie to bomb because of the bad taste "Hulk" left in audiences' mouths.
"With all the naysayers, this is a huge accomplishment," said Nikki Rocco, head of distribution for Universal. "For months, they thought this was going to be a bomb."
The new movie is not a sequel to 2003's "Hulk" but, in Marvel's terms, a reboot. Fans found the earlier movie too dark and brooding.
This take is more action-oriented, casting Norton's Bruce Banner as a fugitive in the vein of "The Incredible Hulk" TV series starring Bill Bixby in the 1970s and '80s.
Despite solid reviews and fan buzz, "The Incredible Hulk" did nearly $8 million less over opening weekend than "Hulk." That gap widens even more factoring in today's higher ticket prices.
But the new flick still put up some of the best numbers ever for a movie opening in June. The studio's exit polls show audiences are recommending the movie to friends, giving it a good shot to surpass the total gross of "Hulk," Rocco said.
The movie also pulled in $31 million in 38 other countries, putting its worldwide total at $85.5 million.
DreamWorks Animation and Paramount's "Kung Fu Panda," the previous weekend's No. 1 movie, slipped to second place with $34.3 million, raising its total to $118 million.
A solid June lineup has pushed Hollywood ahead of last year's record box office pace. Since the first weekend of May, domestic grosses total $1.46 billion, up 4.6 percent from 2007's, according to Media By Numbers. Factoring in higher ticket prices, actual movie attendance this summer is up 1.6 percent.
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Media By Numbers LLC. Final figures will be released Monday.
1. "The Incredible Hulk," $54.5 million.
2. "Kung Fu Panda," $34.3 million.
3. "The Happening," $30.5 million.
4. "You Don't Mess With the Zohan," $16.4 million.
5. "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," $13.5 million.
6. "Sex and the City," $10.2 million.
7. "Iron Man," $5.1 million.
8. "The Strangers," $4.1 million.
9. "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian," $3 million.
10. "What Happens in Vegas," $1.7 million.
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