Marvel's 'Civil War' reaps massive $182 million open amid rave reviews

Movie-goers rewarded Warner Brothers handsomely for delivering a superhero slugfest in "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" — to the tune of more than $860 million in worldwide receipts despite near-brutal reviews.

Now, with the roaring debut of "Captain America: Civil War" this weekend, all signs indicate fans aren't yet suffering superhero fatigue. The movie bowed to a massive $181.8 million weekend, meeting analysts' lofty expectations and becoming the fifth-biggest opening ever.

Marvel Studios and its parent, Walt Disney, have arguably set the gold standard for the genre. With the latest sequel, box office analysts expect Marvel to prove its earnings power and creative mettle by packing theaters for another massive team-up movie just one year after the Avengers last assembled on screen.

The movie earned $25 million on Thursday night, the second highest on record for a Marvel movie, and eclipsed the $166 million debut for "Batman v Superman."

Last weekend, "Civil War" took in more than $200 million when it opened in nine major countries and more than two dozen smaller markets.

BoxOffice.com had projected the movie would earn $214 million in its opening weekend, but revised down its estimate to $182.5 million on Saturday.

Shawn Robbins, senior analyst at BoxOffice.com, said every film carries risk, but "Civil War" looks like the surest bet since "Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens."

"It's firing on all cylinders. Social media has been through the roof," he said. "I think word of mouth is going to spread pretty quickly."

'This move is a knockout'

In some respects, Marvel is breaking its own model with "Civil War." It took four years and five films to build the foundation for 2012's massively successful "Avengers," the first on-screen installment of Marvel Comics' premier superhero squad. The studio kept fans waiting another three years for the reunion, whetting appetites with a series of solo adventures featuring Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor in the interim.

But going big again is not without risk. The "Avengers" sequel, "Avengers: Age of Ultron," earned enough to take the No. 7 spot at the all-time global box office. Meanwhile, some critics and moviegoers were underwhelmed, saying the movie sacrificed a coherent story in order to trot out a parade of new characters.

Given the strong early reviews and massive online conversation underpinning the release, comScore senior media analyst Paul Dergerabedian said expectations were relatively high. "This movie is a knockout," he said.

The strategy unfolds

The movie is also a pivot point of sorts for Marvel. On the one hand, it leans on the cast of characters Marvel has spent eight years developing. On the other, it is leveraging the Avengers' brand to give a head start to characters who will have to stand on their own in future movies. These include newcomer Black Panther, the leader of the fictional nation Wakanda, and Spider-Man, one of the most iconic of comic book heroes. Sony currently owns the rights to Spider-Man, but Marvel will co-produce future Spidey movies under a deal reached last year.

Dergerabedian said the strategy is a testament to Marvel's marketing savvy.

"You get in your mind that you'd like to see more of these characters that aren't necessarily the main event," he said. "They're creating a relationship with the audience that they're hoping will pay forward dividends when their own movie hits the theaters."

And it's hard to argue an ensemble movie will not drum up more money than the more intimate film the screenwriters say they envisioned, before Marvel movie czar Kevin Feige proposed adapting "Civil War."

In recent years, Disney appears to have made more when it spends more. With a reported production budget of $250 million, "Avengers" produced the studio's biggest return on investment, based on a simple budget-versus-box office calculation, excluding marketing costs. "Iron Man 3," made $200 million, and "Avengers: Age of Ultron," with a $250 million price tag, would rank next for ROI by that measure.

In building its universe over eight years, Marvel has also gotten audiences prepared to see superhero movies that are not just about good versus evil, but also ideological battles, said Alisha Grauso, editor-at-large at Moviepilot.

The source material for "Civil War" is a 2006 comic book mega-event that followed a schism over legislation that requires superheroes to register their identities with the government.

"It's a complex, very adult theme you wouldn't have seen in the first phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe," Grauso told CNBC. "Now, the public is on board with that, and now you can start doing these bigger, broader stories."

--Reuters contributed to this article.