Captain America Iron Man
Credit: Zade Rosenthal

Can seven superheroes take down a teenage wizard? That’s the question every box-office prognosticator is facing this weekend, as The Avengers smashes into theaters looking to score the biggest opening weekend ever, an honor that currently belongs to last summer’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2, which debuted to an otherworldly $169.2 million.

Part of me simply wants to say The Avengers will gross $170 million so that if it does break the record, I can yell, “Toldja!” But the statistician in me is more concerned with getting this prediction right, and the indicators for this being the biggest opening ever are not quite in place. It’ll be huge, don’t get me wrong — I’m forecasting the second-largest debut to date, behind only Deathly Hallows — Part 2. And The Avengers could grab the record. It may be very close. This all makes for an incredibly exciting weekend. But when it comes to that over-under bet, I’m opting for under. Here’s why:

1. The Avengers: $160 million

First, let’s assemble some numbers. Since The Avengers consists of characters from prior Marvel films, it’s worth noting how those individual pictures performed. When adjusted for ticket-price inflation, here’s what the recent Marvel flicks opened to:

Iron Man: $108.9 million

The Incredible Hulk: $61.2 million

Iron Man 2: $128.9 million

Thor: $64.7 million

Captain America: The First Avenger: $65.0 million

That’s an average adjusted-for-inflation opening of $86 million. Clearly the main appeal of The Avengers is seeing all of these superheroes together for the first time, and it’s that appeal that pretty much assures the movie will debut to at least Iron Man 2‘s $128.9 million. But can we find enough reasons to boost that figure to a record-breaking $170 million? Let’s try.

First, The Avengers is generating tremendous buzz. The reviews, while not as glowing as those earned by Spider-Man 2 or The Dark Knight, are still very positive. All week long, we’ve been hearing about all the money the movie is raking in overseas — as of this morning, its one-week overseas tally stood at $281.1 million, which is bigger than the final overseas totals for Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and The Incredible Hulk. And Disney’s marketing campaign has been firing on all cylinders.

Then you got your 3-D and IMAX surcharges. Of its 4,349 theaters — the seventh-widest release ever — 3,364 of them are playing The Avengers in three dimensions, much to the dismay of the eyepatch-wearing Nick Fury. And 275 of those theaters are IMAX 3D screens. Although Deathly Hallows — Part 2 was released in 3-D, the majority of moviegoers opted for the 2-D version; after all, they had already seen seven Potter movies in 2-D, so why make the switch now? And Deathly Hallows was a visually dark movie that became even murkier with 3-D glasses on.

The Avengers doesn’t have that problem — it’s visually bright and full of Transformers-esque city destruction. Furthermore, Marvel started preparing audiences for this 3-D film by releasing Thor and Captain America in 3-D. So while 3-D screens accounted for only 43 percent of Deathly Hallows — Part 2‘s opening weekend, The Avengers should expect a larger portion of its gross to come from 3-D showings.

If there’s anything working against The Avengers, it might be older women. That segment of the audience is the most likely to shun superhero movies, and it’s unclear to what extent older women will gladly join their husbands/children/friends to check out The Avengers its very first weekend. This most likely won’t be an issue, but it’s worth mentioning and keeping an eye on as the weekend progresses.

And then there’s this worrisome statistic. As of this writing, the online ticket site Fandango is reporting that The Avengers has sold out 1,300 showtimes. The Hunger Games, by comparison, had already sold out 3,000 showtimes by this point. It makes sense that The Avengers may not be as front-loaded as The Hunger Games. People have already seen Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and the Hulk in previous movies, whereas The Hunger Games was the first opportunity for a passionate core of fans to finally watch Katniss on the big screen. But having said that, I’m still surprised The Avengers hasn’t sold out more showings.

All of these considerations would lead me to project an opening of about $150 million — or slightly less than The Hunger Games‘ debut of $152.5 million. But then I’m reminded of how nutty the box office has been in 2012, and how many movies have overperformed this year. The Hunger Games was one example; my prediction of $130 million was on the optimistic side, and then it went ahead and grossed nearly $23 million more than that. Will that happen again with The Avengers? And to what degree? It’s that possibility of overperformance that’s making me bump up my prediction to $160 million — the second-biggest debut of all time and just slightly better than The Dark Knight ($158.4 million).

Of course, regardless of whether The Avengers opens to $150 million or $160 million or $170 million, its opening is going to be a colossal victory for Disney. The studio could use a celebration after the money-losing debacle that was John Carter, and the Hulk has already popped open the champagne.

2. Think Like a Man: $9 million

3. The Hunger Games: $7 million

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