December 19, 2021 12:40 PM EST

Spider-Man fans jammed theaters across North America, shattering the opening-weekend record for a movie released during the pandemic, even as Covid cases surged in many places.

“Spider-Man: No Way Home” generated $253 million in U.S. and Canadian ticket sales in its domestic debut, Sony Group said in a statement. The film, made in conjunction with Walt Disney Co.’s Marvel division, had the third-highest opening weekend of all time, beating Boxoffice Pro’s forecast of $224 million, as well as Sony’s own projections.

International theaters brought in an additional $334.2 million, Sony said.

Cinemas have longed for a blockbuster capable of reaching a broad audience — and “Spider-Man” delivered. The biggest North American debut of pandemic times had been the $90 million opening achieved almost three months ago by Sony’s “Venom: Let There Be Carnage.” By comparison, six films topped $100 million in their first weekends in 2019.

Theater chains hope the success of “Spider-Man” portends a strong 2022, when a number of films delayed by the pandemic are scheduled for release, including new installments of “Top Gun” and “Jurassic World.” But this weekend’s results may prove to be a one-off success.

The industry’s recovery has been uneven — and theaters face a new threat in the omicron variant. The disappointing debut this month of the well-reviewed “West Side Story” remake from Steven Spielberg again underscored that older audiences aren’t rushing back to cinemas.

“No Way Home” continues a strong run for the Spider-Man franchise. Tobey Maguire’s debut as the character in 2002 was the first movie to exceed $100 million in its Friday-to-Sunday opening weekend, according to Comscore.

The new film is the third in the latest round of pictures starring Tom Holland as the title character and directed by Jon Watts. It benefited from a great deal of social media buzz, including a trailer viewed 356 million times in its first day, as well as reports the film may, or may not, be Holland’s last appearance.

The presence of another Marvel character, Doctor Strange, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, also likely sparked excitement from fans. In the film, Strange casts a spell to help Spider-Man after his secret identity is revealed, but the magic backfires, unleashing new villains. Alfred Molina, who plays the creepy Doctor Octopus, Jon Favreau and Marisa Tomei are also in the cast.

Some 94% of critics recommended the picture, according to the website Rotten Tomatoes.

Another new movie — “Nightmare Alley” from Disney’s Searchlight Pictures — made $3 million in its domestic debut, the studio said. The crime thriller stars Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. About 80% of critics recommended it.

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