Fox's "X-Men: First Class" debuted to a solid if unspectacular $21 million Friday, putting the $160 million franchise reboot on pace to meet pre-release predictions of around $55 million, according to studio estimates.
Fox, for its part, had more conservativley predicted an opening of around $50 million for the film, which is not in 3D.
Some box-office outliers had forecasted an over-performance of over $60 million, given the film's late critically driven buzz, but that doesn't appear like it's going to happen.
The fifth X-Men movie — produced by Bryan Singer, director of the first two movies, and directed by Matthew Vaughn — features an entirely overhauled cast and an origins story arc. It made $3.4 million in midnight showings early Friday.
The film has been exceptionally well-reviewed for a super-hero movie, scoring 87 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
The Legendary co-produced comedy sequel "Hangover Part II" finished second Friday with $10.6 million and is on pace to drop about 60 percent from its premiere weekend.
Universal is set to pass two benchmarks this weekend, with "Bridesmaids" grossing $3.6 million Friday and due to pass $100 million domestically by Sunday; also, "Fast Five," which grossed $962,000 Friday, will surpass $200 million domestically.
Meanwhile, the limited release realm remained especially active.
Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris," expanding by 89 locations to 147 houses, grossed an estimated $704,000 Friday. The Sony Classics-distributed comedy should finish the weekend with around $2.6 million, giving it $6.6 million after three weeks of very limted play.
Fox Searchlight's "Tree of Life," expanding by 16 outlets to 20 theaters, grossed $180,000 Friday — that's a solid pace that will give the Terrence Malick Palme d'Or winner around $600,000 this weekend, leaving it just outside the top 10.
Also, Weinstein's lightly promoted "Submarine," debuting at four locations Friday, grossed just $10,000 Friday, while Focus Features' "Beginners" — also very much under the radar — took in a soft $38,000 at five locations.
By Daniel Frankel & Joshua L. Weinstein
Overlooked by many as a tired comic book movie sequel debuting amid a flood of superhero films, "X-Men: First Class" could very well be the X factor at the summer box office.
But "X-Men: First Class” is suddenly getting the kind of critical buzz that stands out in a summer box-office that includes such comics-themed titles as "Thor," "Green Lantern" and "Captain America."
Might Fox have the sleeper hit of the popcorn movie season on its hands?
By late Thursday, the fifth X-Men movie — which features an entirely overhauled cast with a Cold War narrative — had rated 86 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, exceptional for the superhero genre.
Critics including the Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern raved. "Preaching mutant pride with endearing fervor, 'X-Men: First Class' proves to be a mutant in its own right — a zestfully radical departure from the latter span of a sputtering franchise," Morgenstern wrote.
Directed by "Kick-Ass'" Matthew Vaughn and featuring an entirely overhauled cast that includes James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne, January Jones (left) and Kevin Bacon, the fifth "X-Men" movie will have to beat unspectacular pre-release projections first.
Bryan Singer — who directed the first two X-Men installments — produced the film.
Fox executives expect the movie, opening at 3,641 locations Friday, many of them showing the film at midnight, to open in the neighborhood of $50 million.
Fox executive VP of distribution, Chris Aronson compared "First Class" to Paramount's J.J. Abrams-produced reboot of "Star Trek" two years ago. "They completely re-invented that franchise, and they were very successful," Aronson noted.
Aronson acknowledged that his movie suffered from negative buzz but noted, “That negativity has been dispelled.”
"First Class" was shot for around $160 million with the help of co-financers Dune Capital Management and Ingenious Media.
So how did Singer and Vaughn do it? This isn’t a kiddie movie.
Vaughn made a smart prequel for adults that features a strong cast and an intriguing, if odd, setting: the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Indeed the villain, Sebastian Shaw, played by Bacon, “is right out of a Bond movie,” Erik Childress, of efilmcritic.com, told TheWrap. “He’s a guy bent on world domination, a new world order. He’s got a hot chick beside him in scantily clad clothes and he’s brokering deals … Daniel Craig could be fighting this guy.”
There are other things going for it, too. It’s the only significant release of the weekend, and because it’s not in 3D, ticket prices will be affordable. A year ago, that might have been a strike against it, but films like “Kung Fu Panda” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” both of which logged stronger 2D debuts than 3D, have shown that the excitement for the format has diminished.
And while the cast, with the exceptions of McAvoy and Bacon, is relatively unknown, it includes some of Hollywood’s best emerging stars, including Fassbender, Byrne, Lawrence, Zoe Kravitz and Caleb Landry Jones.
Meanwhile, tracking for the film — which had been obscured by the heavy clouds of "Pirates of the Caribbean 4" and "The Hangover Part II" in recent weeks — has perked up of late.
Among males younger than 25, the movie is registering solid 93 percent total awareness, with 57 percent of that group indicating definite interest in seeing the film and 23 percent reporting it as their first choice to see in theaters.
Granted, those aren't "Hangover II" numbers, but they compare very competitively to Marvel's Paramount-distributed "Thor," which debuted to $65.7 million a month ago.
Once more, "X-Men 5's" "first choice" in tracking studies has perked up about 9 percent among young males in the last week, so the trend lines are going in the right direction.
The last "X-Men" movie — 2009's "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," which happened to be the last franchise installment starring Jackman — debuted to $85.1 million and ultimately made $373 million worldwide.
Other factors working towards a possible "X-Men: First Class" over-performance: there are no other movies opening widely this weekend.
The Legendary Pictures co-produced "Hangover II" is expected to have another big weekend, with weekend-No. 2 predictions coming in at over $40 million.
Beyond that, the box office news revolves around limited releases.
Focus Features R-rated Ewan McGregor drama "Beginners" will start out in five art houses, while Weinstein will debut the well-regarded by lightly promoted comedy "Submarine" in four locations.
In terms of the two holdovers already doing big arthouse business, Fox Searchlight will expand Terrence Malick's "Tree of Life" from four to 20 locations. The Palm d'Or winner yielded Searchlight's biggest per-screen average ever last weekend.
Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris," meanwhile, will have one weekend of limited release before going wide next weekend.