"Man of Steel" may have set a June record with the estimated $113.1 million it earned from Friday to Sunday ($125.1 million since Thursday), but its success was far from a sure thing. After all, it featured a little-known star (Henry Cavill) and a narrative that seemed to divide both fans and critics, in a reboot of a franchise not seen on screen for seven years. Even its own distributor, Warner Bros., predicted an opening in the modest $75 to $80 million range, while only a few pundits predicted an opening above $100 million.
How, then, did Cavill and his Superman reboot manage to leap over all that negative buzz in a single bound? Love it or hate it, here's what "Man of Steel" did right:
It's the Character That's the Star. Going with an unknown lead really isn't that big an obstacle. Christopher Reeve was an unknown before he starred in the benchmark "Superman" movie series of the '70s and '80s. So was every actor who's ever played Superman on TV (Tom Welling, Dean Cain, George Reeves). And so was Brandon Routh, who, whatever you thought of 2006's "Superman Returns," managed to sell nearly $400 million worth of tickets worldwide once he donned the red cape.
It's the Behind-the-Camera Team That's the Star. Warners did a good job making sure everyone knew that the creative team behind "Man of Steel" was producer Christopher Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer, the gurus who gave us Warners' bleak blockbuster Batman trilogy. The prospect of the "Dark Knight" team giving a similarly grim makeover to the Big Blue Boy Scout set fanboy hearts aflutter. As for director Zack Snyder, his track record is mixed (he had a comic-book smash with "300," a flop with "Sucker Punch," a revisionist superhero tale with "Watchmen," and, uh, there was that cartoon about owls), but his undeniable visual flair, along with Nolan's vote of confidence, earned him the benefit of the doubt.
It's the Trailers. Those ads we've been watching and re-watching online all spring were actually poignant and moving, hitting the movie's major emotional beats without entirely spoiling the plot. Plus, there were Snyder's gorgeous visuals to gawk at.
It's the Surcharges. "Man of Steel" is a film that demands to be seen on an eye-filling giant screen. The movie's opening weekend saw it earn 11 percent of its sales from IMAX theaters and 41 percent from 3D screenings.
It's the Word-of-Mouth. Reviews have been mixed -- sure, there's more action than in the introspective "Superman Returns," but some critics feel that the brooding hero is kind of a bummer. But the fans are happy and are avidly recommending the film, as its A- grade at CinemaScore attests.
It's the Timing. Apocalyptic comedy "This Is the End" actually proved to be shrewd counterprogramming, earning an estimated $20.5 million from Friday to Sunday and $32.8 million since its Wednesday debut. It may have even swiped a small fragment of the young male audience away from "Man of Steel." But otherwise, the superhero saga had the playing field to itself. It's the first summer action popcorn spectacle to open in two weeks, and it's fortuitous that the previous one, the bomb "After Earth," was too weak by now to prove any kind of a threat.
It's the Modest Expectations. Warner Bros.' prediction of a $75 to $80 million premiere now looks like deliberate lowballing, a way to make everyone feel pleasantly surprised when the movie's actual sales far outperformed that gloomy prognostication. Still, a lot of pundits bought into those numbers and, as a result, seemed astonished on Friday when it became clear that the movie was going to open north of $100 million.
It's the Saturation Marketing. More than anything else, the movie's ubiquity in advance of its release may have done the trick. In addition to the usual wall-to-wall ads and those viral trailers, there were upwards of 100 promotional partners among retailers, who kicked in $160 million worth of free promotional support. Even non-Superfans who might not have considered going to see the movie couldn't help but be bombarded by "Man of Steel" hype every time they went shopping. Clark Kent may not be the world's most intrepid reporter, but once he takes off the glasses, he's one Super Salesman.