China's battle of the superheroes ended up being won by ... a group of aging action stars.
In a surprising outcome, "The Expendables 2" outgrossed both "The Dark Knight Rises" and "The Amazing Spider-Man" in China.
The action movie starring Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jet Li grossed $54 million in China as of earlier this month. It opened Sept. 4.
"It's phenomenal what's happening in China with this movie," said Avi Lerner of Millennium Films, which made the film.
"The Dark Knight Rises" and "The Amazing Spider-Man," which Chinese authorities scheduled to open in a controversial head-to-head matchup one week earlier in China, grossed $52.5 million and $48.5 million there by early October, respectively.
"The Expendables 2" has grossed a much more modest $84 million in the United States and Canada. In China, it's the eighth-highest-grossing film of the year, while "The Dark Knight Rises" and "The Amazing Spider-Man" are Nos. 9 and 10. "Titanic 3-D" remains No. 1 with $146 million.
Artisan Gateway President Rance Pow said ticket sales for the two superhero films were limited because they opened against each other. Twentieth-Century Fox's science-fiction picture "Prometheus" opened a week later, on Sept. 2.
By contrast, no other big-budget American import opened against "The Expendables 2" on Sept. 4, and there were no other American films imported until "The Bourne Legacy" opened last Thursday.
Raymond Zhou, a film critic for China Daily, attributed the success of the film to the popularity of ensemble casts; "The Expendables 2" includes Hong Kong action star Jet Li and Chinese actress Yu Nan. Chinese audiences also are enthusiastic about stars who are considered over the hill in the United States.
"This is a perfect movie for Chinese audiences," Zhou said. "Just like over-the-hill singers can find a market in Vegas, over-the-hill movie stars can find a market in China."
The original "Expendables" was a surprise success in China, grossing $32 million. But producer Millennium was not able to secure one of the country's coveted quota slots for imported movies, which allow producers to share in box-office revenue, but generally no more than 24 percent of a film's gross ticket sales. Instead, Millennium sold the first "Expendables" film outright to a local distributor for about $600,000.
This time, Lerner said, Millennium should take home about $10 million from China for "The Expendables 2," and he hopes the returns will be even better for a third "Expendables" film, which is now in the works.
"You have to remember," Lerner said, "once China likes something, they keep going."