Forecast: 'X-Men: First Class' to Pass Muster
6/3 Update: In its midnight launch, X-Men: First Class pulled in $3.37 million at 1,783 locations. That edged out Thor's $3.25 million midnight opening at 1,800 locations, but it trailed X-Men Origins: Wolverine's $5 million midnight start at 2,000 locations. So far this year, The Hangover Part II is the top midnight draw at $10.4 million, followed by Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides' $4.7 million and Fast Five's $3.8 million.

6/2 Forecast: After a scorching Memorial Day session, this weekend sees just one new nationwide release, but it's a mighty one by first-weekend-of-June standards. X-Men: First Class enrolls at 3,641 locations, which is fewer than X-Men Origins: Wolverine's 4,099, X2: X-Men United's 3,741 and X-Men: The Last Stand's 3,690 but greater than the first X-Men's 3,025.

In its marketing, X-Men: First Class has straddled a murky line between prequel and reinvention. On the one hand, there's a see-how-it-all-started angle, replete with actual clips of Professor X and Magneto from the previous movies, and it's only been two years since the last movie, which was a prequel itself. On the other, there's a new direction, new cast and no Wolverine. It seems like a reboot should only occur when a franchise cycle runs its course and quite a few years have passed, but such a move is not unprecedented (James Bond rebooted with Casino Royale even though there was no lull under the previous regime). Despite hopes of starting over after Wolverine's dip from Last Stand, First Class is most likely to be seen as a prequel by the public. A reboot needs to be cleaner than this (like Batman Begins or Star Trek) and should start a new story continuity, otherwise it's weighted down by franchise baggage.

As it stands, First Class will rely on the legion of X-Men fans to power its grosses. Prequels may be obsessively consumed in the comic book world, but they often amount to fanboy fantasias as far as the mainstream is concerned. If these back stories were so essential, then that's where the franchises should have started. The story needs to progress, not regress. First Class seems to mine territory that was covered in the previous movies, namely the back stories and conflicting views of Professor X and Magneto. To its credit, First Class is not as redundant as X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which was one of the most redundant movies of all time given how thoroughly Wolverine's origin was covered in the previous movies. But due to the ill-advised decision to make the third X-Men movie the final one, despite the franchise's rising popularity at the time, the franchise was sort of forced into prequel-mode in order to continue.

Though Wolverine was a franchise low in attendance, it still opened to $85.1 million and closed with $179.9 million. The movie's patronage consisted of many detractors that could hurt First Class, as did X-Men: The Last Stand. Last Stand had a franchise high opening of $102.8 million (around $123 million adjusted for ticket price inflation) and total gross of $234.4 million (over $280 million adjusted). Laying the foundation were the first two movies: X2: X-Men United launched with $85.6 million (nearly $112 million adjusted) in 2003 and ended up with $214.9 million (over $280 million adjusted), while the first X-Men debuted to $54.5 million (over $79 million adjusted) in 2000 and wound up with a $157.3 million total (nearly $230 million adjusted).

Without Wolverine, First Class is in unchartered territory for the franchise. Extreme comic book fans might bristle at the notion, but Wolverine is the star of the show to the mainstream. His character represents coolness and groundedness amidst all the crazy mutant shenanigans. He's the entry point, and he's the franchise's closest thing to a traditional action hero. Without Wolverine, First Class lacks a central figure, and, while many may prefer an ensemble approach, that can be distancing. First Class's marketing has tried to elevate Professor X and Magneto, but it's a question mark as to whether these cerebral characters can compensate.

The X-Men universe still carries intrigue, even without Wolverine, and First Class is likely to be popular in its own right, even if it doesn't maintain the audience levels of its predecessors. It's possible, though, that removing Wolverine sheds baggage and opens the franchise to new viewers.

Box Office Mojo's "when will you see it" reader polling is most encouraging for First Class's cause. With 57.7 percent voting to see it opening weekend (as of this writing), First Class was a shade over Wolverine's 57.4 percent and ahead of Thor's 53.6 percent. Extrapolating from the key comparable titles suggests an opening weekend range from $53 million on the low end (if the appeal is more akin to Watchmen) to $89 million on the high end. Perhaps in a bid to keep expectations in check, distributor 20th Century Fox has said its hoping to get close to the first X-Men's gross.

Among holdovers, The Hangover Part II is likely to be a one-weekend-stand, unlike its predecessor, but falling precipitously from an $85.9 million first weekend still means a big second weekend. Kung Fu Panda 2 will try to save some face, but nothing about its box office pattern suggests it will hold better than Madagascar, Shrek Forever After and others at the same point. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides should sink further to fourth, while Bridesmaids will round out the Top Five with another solid weekend.

Based on pre-weekend indicators and historical antecedents, here's how the weekend might play out:

The Forecast, June 3-5

1. X-Men: First Class - $69 million

2. The Hangover Part II - $34 million

3. Kung Fu Panda 2 - $25.5 million

4. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides - $18.5 million

5. Bridesmaids - $10.5 million

Bar for Success

Given that it's following up the least successful entry in the series and that it lacks Wolverine and some other popular characters, X-Men: First Class shouldn't be saddled with blockbuster expectations. That being said, First Class needs to be bigger than most lesser superhero movies and gross at least $60 million this weekend.

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