Is “Iron Man 3” as steely as “The Avengers?”

The highly anticipated Marvel-Disney sequel opens domestically this weekend, a week after the Tony Stark update grossed nearly $200 million in its overseas premiere -- a faster start than “The Avengers” enjoyed in international markets last May.

Breaking the “Avengers” box-office record in domestic theaters, however, may be a tougher task.

“Iron Man 3” isn’t expected to surpass the opening domestic weekend record of $207.4 million held by “The Avengers,” but the superhero sequel could gross $170 million or more in its first three days, according to marketing executives who have seen audience tracking surveys.  

That would place it among the top five premieres of all time (in non inflation-adjusted dollars), and well ahead of the $128.1 million opening of “Iron Man 2” in 2010 or the $98.6-million debut of “Iron Man” in 2008. Both films were distributed by Paramount; Disney bought Marvel for $4 billion in 2009.

Overseas, including in China, “Iron Man 3” is already breaking records. With $307.7 million in international ticket sales through Wednesday, the film already has passed the total foreign gross of the first “Iron Man” ($267 million) and is expected to pass “Iron Man 2” ($312 million) on Thursday.

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In China, “Iron Man 3” grossed $21.5 million in its opening day, which Disney said was the highest opening day in that nation’s box-office history, and more than the $18 million “The Avengers” made in its entire opening weekend.

Hollywood desperately needs “Iron Man 3” to revive its box-office woes. Domestic revenue and attendance are both down about 12% from last year, and a number of prominent recent releases, including  “Jack the Giant Slayer,” “Gangster Squad,” “Beautiful Creatures,” “The Host” and “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” have performed poorly.

Dave Hollis, Disney’s executive vice president for worldwide sales and distribution, said “Iron Man 3’s” international returns augured “what should be a great opening in the United States” but declined to guess at a possible opening number for the $200-million sequel.

No other film opens in wide release this weekend. Last week’s No. 1 film, “Pain and Gain,” which grossed $20.2 million in its debut, should drop precipitously, owing to bad reviews and word of mouth. “Iron Man 3” has received mostly positive reviews -- better than the notices for “Iron Man 2,” but not as favorable as for the first “Iron Man” or “The Avengers.”

“Iron Man 3” will be playing in 4,253 locations and 10,679 auditoriums, a slightly wider release than “The Avengers,” when measured by film prints, and the widest release of 2013. About 560 theaters will be showing “Iron Man 3” in a large format, including 325 Imax screens.

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The film’s continued performance in China, the world’s biggest movie market behind the United States, will be especially important to watch. Marvel joined forces with China’s DMG Entertainment to help bring more Chinese elements into the film, but the additions were minimal and the film ultimately was not sanctioned as an official U.S.-China co-production.

Although Hollywood studios only receive a quarter of Chinese ticket sales, the returns can nonetheless be huge. “Avatar,” for example, grossed more than $200 million in China.

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