He may deserve a promotion to General America. Steve Rogers, the pure-hearted war hero of 1940s comic books, proved his staying power this weekend, as Marvel Studios' Captain America: The Winter Soldier liberated the multiplexes of North America with a patriotic $96.2 million, according to preliminary studio estimates. The Captain already has his bars; now he should get his stars.
As much a political thriller as a special-effects fantasy, The Winter Soldier stars Chris Evans (who previously served two tours playing Johnny Storm the Human Torch in Marvel's Fantastic Four movies) and fellow Avengers Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, plus Robert Redford in his first-ever action adventure. In addition to its domestic bonanza, CA:TWS did gung-ho business abroad. Since opening 12 days ago, the picture has earned $207.1 million in foreign markets, including $39.2 million from China. The early worldwide total stands at $303.3 million.
(READ: Corliss's review of Captain America: The Winter Soldier)
Budgeted at $170 million, this latest installment in Marvel's series of Avengers movies registered the strongest weekend opening for any film released in April, topping the $86.2-million mark set three years ago by another potent franchise episode, Fast Five. Buoyed by the critics' enthusiasm and a sterling "A" rating from the CinemaScore survey of first-nighters, CA:TWS managed to corral two demographics that Hollywood has recently found elusive: males (64% of early attendees) and young adults (69% were between 18 and 49). It also earned about 40% of its take from 3-D and IMAX engagements, which just meant more money for Marvel.
In 2002, Marvel effectively turned the first weekend in May into the official launch time for Hollywood's rich summer season, when the original Spider-Man became the first movie to open to more than $100 million domestic. With The Winter Soldier, the Disney-owned studio has stretched summer to early spring. In this, the cruelest month, The Winter Soldier achieved the top domestic debut for a non-May Marvel movie. The previous highest gross for the first week of April was the 2009 Fast and Furious — fourth in that series — with $71 million.
Pumped up by its semi-sequel status to the global smash The Avengers, the new movie easily exceeded the $65.1-million opening for its 2011 predecessor Captain America: The First Avenger, which ultimately accumulated a worldwide total of $370.6 million. CA:TWS is more than three-quarters of the way to reaching that mark; it has already earned more abroad than the first movie's $193.9 million.
(READ: Corliss's review of Captain America: The First Avenger)
Note that the subtitle of the first Captain America movie was a teaser commercial for the all-star The Avengers due the following spring. Marvel created stand-alone films for various Avengers heroes (the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor), then forged them into a combative super-team in The Avengers, the 2012 spectacle that grossed more than $1.5 billion worldwide. Since then, the third Iron Man movie and the second Thor have benefited from being presented as extensions to the core blockbuster — a new chapter in a grand saga. CA:TWS also got the Avengers bump.
Let's say this about Kevin Feige and his cohorts at the Marvel movie operation: they are really smart. Their expertise in making and marketing their synergistic stories has given them 12 of the 42 pictures ever to tally an opening weekend of $85 million or more. For those keeping score: The Avengers, $207.4m, May 2012; Iron Man Three, $174.1m, May 2013; Spider-Man 3, $151.1m, May 2007; Iron Man 2, $128.1m, May 2010; Spider-Man, $114m.8m, May 2002; X-Men: The Last Stand, $102.8m, May 2006; Iron Man, $98.6m, May 2008; Captain America: The Winter Soldier, $96.2m, Apr. 2014; Spider-Man 2, $88.2m, May 2004; Thor: The Dark World, $85.7m, Nov. 2013; X2: X-Men United, $85.6m, May 2003; and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, $85.1m, May 2009.
With Captain America resplendent, most other movies took a dive. Noah dropped a waterfall-steep 61% from last weekend, to $17 million. Darren Aronofsky's "least biblical biblical movie" is suffering at the domestic box office from its very low "C" CinemaScore—translation: people didn't like it, and are telling other people—though it is doing well abroad, earning 60% of its $178.5-million worldwide revenue overseas. Divergent, which hopes to be the next Twilight or Hunger Games Girl Power franchise, reached $114 million in its third weekend, with most foreign markets still to open. Mr. Peabody & Sherman passed $100 million but dropped to seventh place, making this the first weekend since last Sep. 20-22 with no animated feature among the top five finishers.
Two independent movies of widely disparate intent took the fourth and fifth slots. The Christian-themed God's Not Dead, dramatizing a debate on the Almighty's existence, kept surging in its third week, earning $7.7 million in 1,758 theaters, for a $32.5-million total. And Wes Anderson's elegantly retro comedy The Grand Budapest Hotel amassed $6.3 million at 1,263 venues, bringing its five-week cache to $33.4 million. The Anderson film has been stoked by rhapsodic reviews, God's Not Dead by a canny campaign aimed at fundamentalists, and both pictures by hot word-of-mouth from their (almost mutually exclusive) constituents. That's the recipe for a hard-won indie hit.
(READ: Corliss's rave for The Grand Budapest Hotel)
For moviegoers who can't get enough of The Winter Soldier's Johansson, Under the Skin offered a very different study in Scarlett. Ostensibly a sci-fi horror thriller about an extraterrestrial who takes sultry human form to kill male Earthlings, Jonathan Glazer's murky art film goes heavy on the atmosphere, light on genre pay-offs. But it shows plenty of its star's body, and that publicity, plus very generous reviews, helped Under the Skin to an impressive start: $140,000 at four theaters. Curiosity should keeps the customers coming, to see Marvel's Black Widow as an alien widow-maker.
Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend’s top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:
1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, $96.2 million, first weekend
2. Noah, $17 million; $72.3 million, second week
3. Divergent, $13 million; $114 million, third week
4. God's Not Dead, $7.7 million; $32.5 million, third week
5. The Grand Budapest Hotel, $6.3 million; $33.4 million, fifth week
6. Muppets Most Wanted, $6.3 million; $42.1 million, third week
7. Mr. Peabody & Sherman, $5.3 million; $102.2 million, fifth week
8. Sabotage, $1.9 million; $8.8 million, second week
9. Need for Speed, $1.8 million; $40.8 million, fourth week
10. Non-Stop, $1.8 million; $88.1 million, sixth week