Superhero film "Captain America: The First Avenger" got off to a solid start at the domestic box office Friday, grossing $25.6 million, according to one rival-studio estimate.
The first-day total put the $140 million Marvel film on pace to meet opening-weekend projections of over $60 million. The PG-13-rated movie, which stars Chris Evans and was directed by Joe Johnston, opened in 3,715 locations in the U.S. and Canada, most showing it in 3D.
One other film opening widely this weekend, Sony R-rated romantic comedy "Friends With Benefits," grossed $6.8 million Friday. That put it off the pace to meet pre-release projections of just over $20 million.
Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis star in the $34 million comedy, which was directed by "Easy A's" Will Gluck.
Meanwhile, coming off the biggest opening ever, Warner's "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2" dropped 91 percent week-to-week to $14.6 million
Paramount officials are expecting a first-weekend gross somewhere between $55 million to $65 million — roughly somewhere between where Fox's "X-Men: United" opened in early June ($55.1 million) and where the last Marvel/Paramount collaboration, "Thor," started in May ($65.7 million).
Opening wide alongside "Captain America," Sony rom-com "Friends With Benefits" will further ponder the age-old "can sex friends stay best friends" conundrum, with box-office watchers projecting an opening around $20 million. The R-rated comedy was directed by Will Gluck ("Easy A"), stars Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis, and cost around $34 million to produce.
Limited debuts this weekend will include Mike Cahill's Sundance hit "Another Earth," which Fox Searchlight will open in four locations.
Oh, and there's also a holdover that's coming off the biggest domestic, foreign and global starts in cinematic history: "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2," which should decline steeply from its humungous $169.2 million North American premiere last weekend.
"Certainly, there's competition when you come into a marketplace that already has a movie that has set two or three records," noted Don Harris, general manager of distribution for Paramount.
Huge Potter openings, however, are usually followed by weekend-to-weekend drops in the 60 percent-plus range, with the franchise's rabid fans rushing out to see the movie during the first weekend.
With that in mind, "Captain America" — which comes in with a decent 71 percent Rotten Tomatoes score, as of mid-day Thursday — should win the weekend.
Among males under 25, the film is scoring 92 percent total awareness, according to the latest surveys from research firm NRG, with 59 percent of young dudes listing "definite interest" in seeing the film, and a solid 20 percent describing it as their first choice to see next time they buy a movie ticket.
That's comparable to the 94 percent awareness, 57 percent definite interest and 18 percent first choice NRG scores from the least of this summer's superhero movies, Warner's "Green Lantern," right before it opened to a disappointing $53.2 million in June, so tracking might not be all it's cracked up to be.
With the major studios launching or rebooting a range of comic properties this summer — Thor, X-Men, Green Lantern, Captain America/The Avengers — that are familiar to comics fans but maybe not as much to mainstream audiences as the triumverate of Superman, Batman and Spider-Man, there have been some successes.
"Thor," for example, has grossed $445.7 million to date at the global box office and paved the way for a sequel; and "X-Men: First Class" has taken in a respectable $346.8 million worldwide while breathing creative life back into a decade-old Fox franchise.
None of these films, however, have sparked the moviegoer imagination — and wallet — like the film that inspired their gestation, Marvel/Paramount's 2008 revelation, "Iron Man."
Grossing $585.2 million worldwide, "Iron Man" spawned a 2010 sequel that grossed even more ($622.1 million), giving rise to the notion that, if a so-called "second-tier" superhero like Iron Man can make it big, so can any other crime fighther in tight-fitting suit.
This discussion certainly took place at Disney's corporate offices in Burbank two years ago, right before the Mouse paid $4 billion to acquire Marvel.
With so many superheros crowding the multiplex this summer, and none of their expensive films reaching the lofty, and perhaps, somewhat unreasonable to expect, bar of $500 million globally, there is growing speculation within the movie business that the market might be tiring on the genre. At least just a bit.
"The era of the superhero franchise flick is fading," one studio research executive said to TheWrap Thursday.
Of course, we'll check back on July 20 next year, when Warner and Christopher Nolan debut "The Dark Knight Rises" to kick the tires on that notion. Or, we'll gauge it when Sony reboots "Spider-Man" next July, or when Warner launches its Superman reboot, "Man of Steel" in 2013.
If Batman, Superman or Spider-man can't gross more than $500 million globally, probably no one in tights can.
As for this weekend's rom-com debut, Sony should make out fine on "Friends With Benefits," if director Gluck's limited track record continues to bare itself out. ("Easy A" grossed $75 million last year on a budget of $8 million.)
Scoring a 57 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, "Friends With Benefits" is scoring 91 percent total awareness among females under 25, according to NRG, with 40 percent definite interest and 10 percent reporting it as their first choice.
For what it's worth, Paramount plundered similar narrative ground earlier this year with the Ivan Reitman-directed "No Strings Attached" (which paired Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman), coming away with a solid $147.8 million global performance on a modest production spend of $25 million.
Possible takeaway: 2012, and the Summer of the Sex-Buddy Comedy. Lets hope that's more exciting.