‘Incredible Hulk’ back for battle

Marvel reboot faces Shyamalan's 'Happening'

Moviegoers will be asked to give superhero Bruce Banner another chance as Marvel Entertainment and Universal open Edward Norton starrer “The Incredible Hulk” in 3,504 theaters this weekend.

Pic comes five years after Ang Lee’s “Hulk” failed to transform into a franchise.

M. Night Shyamalan is also hoping for redemption as 20th Century Fox bows the filmmaker’s horror-thriller “The Happening” in 2,986. Fox is upping the ante by releasing the pic on Friday the 13th and touting the fact that it’s Shyamalan’s first R-rated project.

The foreign front will see “The Incredible Hulk” and “The Happening” square off in many major markets in the first head-to-head confrontation of major title launches this year.

Domestically, “Incredible Hulk” is the best bet to win the weekend. Awareness couldn’t be higher, although women aren’t showing much interest, according to tracking. “The Happening,” which is tracking best among women, will likely play like a traditional horror film rather than a broad summer title.

DreamWorks Animation/Par’s “Kung Fu Panda” should remain in top form in its second sesh, while the box office in general will benefit as most kids are now finally out of school. “Panda,” which won the previous weekend with a $60.2 million opening, sported a domestic gross of $78.3 million through Wednesday.

As with “Incredible Hulk,” women were missing from pre-release tracking for Marvel and Paramount’s “Iron Man,” Marvel’s other summer 2008 tentpole. Women materialized, however, when the movie opened. To date, “Iron Man” is the highest-grossing film of 2008, with a cume of $290.6 million through Tuesday, according to Rentrak.

Both “Iron Man” and “Incredible Hulk” were developed, produced and fully financed by a refitted Marvel Studios, which is using a Merrill Lynch film financing facility to take control of Marvel film projects.

Lee’s “Hulk,” toplining Eric Bana, opened to $62.1 million in June 2003. Downplaying expectations, U said it doesn’t expect the new “Hulk” to grab that much.

That’s because fanboys may hold off on seeing “Incredible Hulk” until they hear how it plays out, so word of mouth could have a big impact on the pic’s ultimate performance. Moviegoers criticized the first “Hulk” for being too cerebral and not having enough action.

French filmmaker Louis Leterrier, helmer of the “Transporter” franchise, directed “Incredible Hulk” from a script by Zak Penn. Edward Norton also worked on the script but isn’t credited. Pic, which cost $135 million-$140 million to produce, also stars Liv Tyler, Tim Roth and William Hurt.

“Incredible Hulk” has received positive early reviews, and tracking has been strong.

Shyamalan needs “The Happening,” which cost under $55 million, to perform. Last summer, he stumbled at the box office with “Lady in the Water,” which opened to $18 million and grossed $42.8 million domestically. Shyamalan made “Lady” at Warner Bros. after bolting Disney, where he made his previous four films, because of creative differences over the pic.

Fox’s financial investment in “Happening” is limited. Movie was co-financed by Fox, Spyglass and India-based UTV.

Shyamalan’s top-grossing film to date remains “The Sixth Sense,” which took $293.5 million domestically. “Signs” is his next highest-grossing film with $228 million domestically. Both were Disney titles.

“The Happening,” also penned and co-produced by Shyamalan, is the filmmaker’s apocalyptic vision of what happens when a mysterious pandemic sweeps the planet. Film also stars Zooey Deschanel.

On the specialty side, Sony Pictures Classics opens “Baghead,” written and directed by Jay and Mark Duplass (“The Puffy Chair”) in an exclusive run in Austin, Texas. Magnolia opens suspense-drama “Quid Pro Quo” in four theaters in New York and L.A. IFC opens docu “My Winnipeg” in two theaters in New York.

Int’l plan

Fox has opted for a wide international release on “The Happening,” with 5,600 playdates in 63 territories, to take advantage of the only Friday the 13th in 2008, while U’s going out with “The Incredible Hulk” in 38 markets, including Australia, Brazil, Russia, South Korea and the U.K., on a total of 3,135 screens.

Previous Shyamalan pics have shown significant traction outside the U.S., led by “The Sixth Sense” with $379 million and “Signs” with $180 million. “Lady in the Water” was a dud with a $30 million foreign cume.

The 2003 “Hulk” saw moderate returns internationally with $113 million. But prospects seem far brighter for the new version thanks in part to the solid overseas perf for “Iron Man” with about $250 million.

“Sex and the City,” which edged “Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull” to win the international crown last weekend, should remain a solid counterprogrammer in its third frame, with the foreign cume going well past $100 million. It expands into Argentina, Brazil and Serbia.

“Crystal Skull” will also be a player in its fourth frame, with $336 million already banked as of Wednesday, led by $66 million in the U.K. and $31 million in France.

“Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” still early in its foreign run with $25 million, goes into Germany, Israel and Switzerland. Disney expands “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian” into Egypt, Hungary and South Africa; Paramount takes “Kung Fu Panda” in Egypt, Thailand and the U.A.E.; and “The Ruins” goes into France.