The summer blockbuster season arrived in emphatic style at the weekend as Iron Man 3 stirred up a torpid US box office to deliver the second biggest weekend launch in history on an estimated $175.3m.
Only Marvel Studios stablemate The Avengers has done better, opening almost exactly a year ago on $207.4m, a figure so far ahead of everything else that it seems as if the only movie that stands a chance of beating it is its own sequel, due in 2015.
But that should take nothing away from the latest adventures of Tony Stark and his thrilling alter ego. Reunited with his Kiss Kiss Bang Bang director Shane Black when Jon Favreau stepped aside after the first two Iron Man blockbusters, Robert Downey Jr has lost none of his allure in the title role. The question now is, will he don the suit again?
The final caption, as UK viewers will know only too well, promises that Iron Man will return. Downey Jr has fulfilled his contractual obligation to play the character and it seems inconceivable that he would be absent from The Avengers 2. However, the character's level of introspection in Iron Man 3, combined with the shifts in the Marvel universe as the storylines of each property bleed into one another, make the situation far from cut and dried.
In a worthwhile read in this week's Entertainment Weekly it transpires that Iron Man 3 heralds phase two of the Marvel movies masterplan, which will include the November release Thor: The Dark World, 2014's Captain America: The Winter Soldier and 2015's The Avengers 2. These movies, we are told, introduce significant changes.
The article also makes it clear that Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige wants Iron Man to run and run. "I believe there will be a fourth Iron Man film and a fifth and a sixth and a 10th and a 20th," says Feige, adding: "I see no reason why Tony Stark can't be as evergreen as James Bond. Or Batman, for that matter." Downey Jr seems to be having too much fun in the role, even if he did break his ankle during a stunt in Iron Man 3 that halted production for six weeks.
Marvel and its owners Disney would presumably have no issues with giving the actor at least another bite or two at the cherry. He still looks great, is thoroughly believable and has the chops to deliver a complex character in ways that few could. The numbers speak for themselves: the North American gross was approximately half of the weekend's $351.2m worldwide haul as global box office surged to $680.1m after 12 days.
Of this amount, approximately $63.5m has come from the first five days in China, whose DMG Entertainment co-financed the movie and orchestrated special extra footage for the China-only version. If that's ever allowed out of China it would surely become a DVD must-have for collectors.
Iron Man 3 looks likely to stay top for another couple of weeks. Warner Bros/Village Roadshow's The Great Gatsby, which is scheduled to open the Cannes film festival on 15 May, will not have enough firepower to usurp Marvel when it opens in North America on Friday. Paramount's Star Trek Into Darkness arrives on 17 May and by then Iron Man 3 will have done most of its damage and it could be time to make way for Spock and co.
North American top 10, 3-5 May 2013
1. Iron Man 3, $175.3m
2. Pain & Gain, $7.6m. Total: $33.9m
3. 42, $6.2m. Total: $78.3m
4. Oblivion, $5.8m. Total: $75.9m
5. The Croods, $4.2m. Total: $168.7m
6. The Big Wedding, $3.9m. Total: $13.2m
7. Mud, $2.2m. Total: $5.2m
8. Oz the Great and Powerful, $1.8m. Total: $228.6m
9. Scary Movie 5, $1.4m. Total: $29.6m
10. The Place Beyond the Pines, $1.3m. Total: $18.7m
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image: © Vincent Wei