Winter may be the harshest season, but spring didn’t prove all that kind to Hollywood, which saw movie ticket sales fall 12 percent from 2012 with films that ranged from disappointing (A Good Day to Die Hard) to disastrous (Jack the Giant Slayer). Clearly, what the box office needed was an intervention of superheroic proportions. Enter Iron Man 3. The Disney spectacle, which opened May 3, pulled in a total that would impress even Tony Stark: $174.1 million in its debut weekend, the second-best start in domestic box office history, after The Avengers‘ $207.4 million bow the same May weekend a year ago. ”We knew that folks would enjoy the film, but I think you can never expect a $175 million opening weekend,” says Dave Hollis, Disney’s head of distribution. ”If there’s any surprise, it’s just how big ‘big’ can ultimately be.”
Internationally, Iron Man 3 has lifted off even faster. The film surpassed Iron Man 2‘s total overseas box office haul in just nine days, and so far it’s earned $678.9 million worldwide, thanks in part to massive business in China. (Incidentally, this means that Robert Downey Jr. has now starred in a film grossing more than $500 million in each of the past six years.)
With a fleet of mega-franchise flicks on the horizon, summer 2013 should be one of the strongest box office seasons ever. Here are our bold predictions of what the domestic top 10 could look like by the time we hit Labor Day:
1 IRON MAN 3
The Marvel marvel has a clear shot at winning the summer. With its A CinemaScore, it should garner better buzz than Iron Man 2, which earned $312 million in 2010. Throw in an additional boost from IMAX and 3-D ticket prices, and the film has a solid chance at being the only $400 million hit this year.
2 MAN OF STEEL
Superman Returns, which many knocked for being overly reverent (read: boring), barely made it to $200 million in 2006. But Man of Steel looks darker and grittier (read: better). Plus, it has the cachet of Christopher Nolan as producer, and when it comes to superhero movies, any association with The Dark Knight is good for business.
3 STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS
J.J. Abrams endeared himself to the Trekkie community with 2009’s Star Trek, which earned $258 million. That goodwill — along with the ongoing mystery of whether Benedict Cumberbatch does, in fact, play Khan — could make Darkness an even stronger contender.
4 MONSTERS UNIVERSITY
The Pixar prequel is arriving 12 years after the much-beloved Monsters, Inc., which grossed $256 million. Millennial fans of the original will definitely be checking it out, alongside a new crop of kids and their parents.
5 DESPICABLE ME 2
The original, Despicable Me, became a word-of-mouth sensation and grossed $252 million. The sequel should match its predecessor’s gross, but with plenty of animated competition (Monsters University arrives two weeks before, Turbo two weeks after), it may not be able to climb much higher.
6 FAST & FURIOUS 6
Six movies in, the Fast franchise shows no signs of decelerating. Fast Five marked a critical and financial high point for the series, with a $210 million finish. Fast & Furious 6 should race to an even better gross thanks to its over-the-top trailer and massive social-media buzz.
7 THE HANGOVER PART III
Unlike the Fast films, the Hangover franchise is on a downswing after The Hangover Part II‘s tepid reception. That film still earned $254 million (down from the original Hangover‘s $277 million), but it damaged the series’ appeal. Part III will be just fine, but expect another decline.
8 THE WOLVERINE
People are so excited for the upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past that they seem to have forgotten what a mess the first Wolverine was — and that’s a good thing for Hugh Jackman’s sequel. Plus, it should do big business in Asia due to its Japanese setting.
9 WHITE HOUSE DOWN
When Roland Emmerich destroyed the White House in Independence Day, he scored a $306 million hit. So it’s no wonder he’s pulling that stunt again in White House Down, which seems to nail the same mix of big-budget action and laughs (courtesy of Jamie Foxx and Channing Tatum). And as Olympus Has Fallen demonstrated, it never hurts to play the patriotism card.
10 PACIFIC RIM
Guillermo del Toro’s monsters-vs.-robots action flick is the biggest question mark on the summer schedule. It has fanboys riled up, but since it’s not part of a franchise, casual moviegoers will need to be convinced. If Pacific Rim turns out to be great, it could have an Inception-y run and climb past $200 million. If the response is just meh, it’s looking at a finish more in line with Prometheus, perhaps around $110 million.
HONORABLE MENTION: THE HEAT
Could it break into the boys’ club of the top 10? Definitely, maybe. The buddy-cop comedy stars two beloved actresses (Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock), but it’ll have to do Bridesmaids business to make the list. That means something in the neighborhood of $169 million — which, for comedy, is a very, very exclusive neighborhood.
WHAT DIDN’T MAKE THE LIST (AND WHY)
WORLD WAR Z
Marc Forster’s zombie epic underwent a drastic — and public and expensive — overhaul during production. Did the shift in focus from geopolitics to geo-popcorn work? Nobody knows yet. We haven’t even seen a single zombie. Which means that, as of now, the fate of the movie (as well as the world) rests on Brad Pitt’s shoulders.
THE LONE RANGER
Between the Pirates films and Alice in Wonderland, Disney and Johnny Depp have a rich history, but Westerns are a notoriously tough sell. (Howdy, Cowboys & Aliens.) Depp fanatics are legion, but he’s not the title character of this $200 million-plus adventure…even if the marketing campaign wishes he were.
Will Smith’s box office appeal is undeniable, and his star power alone should push the film above $100 million (and much higher overseas). But after a string of misses, director M. Night Shyamalan is a living, breathing question mark.