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Grand Theft Auto and Iron Man: Summer Has Arrived

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The calendar might still say spring, but here on Pop Culture Standard Time, summer has announced itself with a bang.

The first summer entertainment blockbuster out of the gate was, surprisingly, a video game. Not that Grand Theft Auto IV: Liberty City is just any video game. It is a true pop-culture event like any other with a passionate nerdy cult following, with fans lining up for hours in anticipation of getting their sweaty hands on a brand-new, just-out-of-the-box disc. The fever pitch for the game grew so high that some experts were predicating that GTA gamers would stay home and hurt the box-office numbers for Iron Man, the first big summer movie. (For a guide to the rest of the summer movies, read my Summer Film Preview. It’s just 11 weeks until The Dark Knight comes out, y’all.)

Those experts were half right. A lot of people were crazed for GTA. US numbers haven’t been finalized yet, but Yahoo reports that the game is a record-breaker in the UK, selling 600,000 copies in its first day. Those numbers make Grand Theft Auto IV the fastest selling game of all time in the UK. Sony claims that the game’s release has driven sales of its Playstation 3 console, and the New York Times notes that, since its release, the publisher of GTA has seen its stock climb steadily. To say that sales are good would be a massive understatement.

But luckily for the folks over at Paramount, Grand Theft Auto did nothing to hurt Iron Man, which did quite well over the weekend. Number one at the box office, the film grossed $101 million its first weekend — more if you count Thursday screenings. That makes it the second-biggest opening of a non-sequel movie ever. (How’s that for a useless pop-culture stat?) So, in a flagging economy where money is tight, what makes people go out in droves to support these two big cultural monoliths? If you think about it, on the surface, things looked bad for these two. Iron Man isn’t even a second-tier superhero. (I know lots of comic fans, and nobody I know reads Iron Man.) Hanging a movie on his shoulders is pecking downwards on the superhero food-chain. And Liberty City is the fourth in the Grand Theft Auto series. If you think of other famous fourths (Alien Resurrection, Saw IV), it’s a bad omen.

So what made these succeed? As far as I can tell, it’s just because they’re so good. Grand Theft Auto is currently rocking a 99 percent score on Metacritic.com, a website that aggregates critics’ reviews. Iron Man follows with a nothing-to-sneeze-at 78 percent. The non-critics I’ve spoken with are even more effusive with praise. People marvel at the level of detail given to Grand Theft Auto’s “Liberty City.” Programmers thought of everything, from the lighting to the amount of change that background characters have in their pockets (so the audio engineers know how much jingling to use when they walk). Slate.com even said that the game has a “richness of narrative” previously absent in the GTA series. (I haven’t owned a gaming system since the eight-bit Nintendo — don’t mess with me and Super Mario Brothers 3 — and I seriously want this.)

With Iron Man, Jon Favreau isn’t the best director around, but he knows when to step aside and just let Robert Downey Jr. do his thing. And “his thing” works: the crowd I saw the film with was so excited (especially during the after-credits ending) that cheers drowned out the dialogue. Compare that to last year, where the biggest movie releases were disappointing trilogy-cappers (Priates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, The Bourne Ultimatum, Shrek 3) and the biggest selling game was I don’t even know what, and you realize that people were just ready to go out and have fun with something new. On that front, it’s looking like it’s going to be a good summer.

Visit the Grand Theft Auto IV or Iron Man official website.

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