New action-adventure and horror releases lead unexpectedly big weekend for movies, proving once again the power of genre fiction.

 The Incredible Hulk

People like their genre films to be genre films, not arty-smarty "interpretations" and "deconstructions" of pop culture myths and styles.

That lesson was vividly confirmed once again at U.S. movie theaters this past weekend. 

The more hulk-like version of The Incredible Hulk hit US. movie theaters good and hard over the weekend, bringing in an estimated $54.5 million. Taking a surprisingly strong third place was M. Night Shyamalan’s poorly reviewed The Happening, with a healthy $30.5 million, the third-highest opening weekend gross for one of his films.

The strong performance of The Happening is a bit of a surprise given the poor critical and audience response to Shyamalan’s 2006 film, Lady in the Water, but is perhaps explained by the new film’s R rating and promotional campaign emphasizing a greater emphasis on frights and thrills as opposed to plain weirdness and failed attempts to create an overly intellectualized creepy atmosphere, the bane of his less successful films.

If the audience reactions follow the critics’ opinions, the audience for The Happening can be expected to drop off precipitously in ensuing weeks. It will be interesting to see whether the audiences are finding it more enjoyable than the critics have.

The numbers for The Incredible Hulk are a very good sign for Marvel Studios, which released this new version a half-decade after the audience reaction to Ang Lee’s over-intellectualized and condescending 2003 Hulk threatened to doom the franchise. Instead of punting, Marvel and its distribution partner for the series, Universal Studios, forged ahead with a more action-oriented version starring Edward Norton. This version actually brought in a few million dollars less in its first three days than the Lee predecessor, which grabbed an impressive $62 million during its opening weekend and then plummeted in ticket sales, grossing only $137 in the United States. That may have suppressed the opening weekend for the new version somewhat, and the strong competition  for audiences in a weekend with several iconic genre films in the multiplexes probably did so as well.

Thus The Incredible Hulk seems likely to have a much better carryover in coming weeks and should prove to be a success for Marvel, reviving the franchise.

Coming in second with another good week of U.S. ticket sales was Kung Fu Panda, last week’s number one movie. The animated action comedy snagged another $34.3 million during its second weekend and is on the way to being a big hit.

You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, with Adam Sandler as a less portly action hero than Panda’s title character, dropped to fourth in its second week, taking in a rather tepid but still significant $16.4 million. Perhaps if Sandler had put on a few more pounds for the role, the film would have done better. Stranger things have happened.

In fifth place was another straightforward genre film, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, with a steady $13.5 million, for a total of $275.3 million in U.S. ticket sales so far.

This marks three straight weeks in which movie ticket sales have come in ahead of last year’s numbers for the same week.