Brian Hiatt
May 15, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Only the Oracle knows for certain, but right now it looks like the fight between the early summer’s two biggest movies, ”X2: X-Men United” and ”The Matrix Reloaded,” will turn out to be closer than most had expected just a few short weeks ago. So what’s changed? To find out, examines the two key battlefronts — box office and moviegoers’ hearts — in this ever-mutating war of the superheroes:

BOX OFFICE Earlier this year, experts ordained ”Matrix Reloaded” as the runaway winner of the fight for summer moviegoers’ dollars. But after ”X2”’s boffo $147.7 first 10 days — plus, positive reviews and strong word of mouth — everyone’s rethinking the math. Box office analysts now say ”X2” can earn as much as $250 million by the end of its run, which is more than last summer’s ”XXX” and ”Scorpion King” combined. ”’X2′ surprised,” explains Ain’t It Cool News founder Harry Knowles. ”Most people were going into it to see a good movie, not to come out of it saying, ‘This is one of the best sequels I’ve ever seen.”’

”The Matrix” sequel, in contrast, carries an R rating (compared to ”X2”’s PG-13), which will cut into the core viewership. ”With an R rated movie, you’ve got 20 to 30 percent of your potential audience unable to get in without a parent,” MGM vice chair/COO Chris McGurk told EW in April. So it’s a tribute to the ”Matrix”’s allure that, despite the ratings handicap, Keanu and Co. are expected to haul in as much as $120 million for their first four days in theaters (the film opened at 10 p.m. Wednesday). For the Friday-through Sunday weekend, the film should take in $100 million, about 15 percent more than the $86 million ”X2” made in its first three days.

As for the long haul, ReelSource’s Anthony Kusich says his firm’s tracking data shows that an astonishing 80 percent of those who are aware of the ”Matrix” definitely plan to see it. (This compares to 65 percent for ”X2” and 50 percent for the typical summer smash.) This unusually fervent advance interest should build into a total gross of $275 to $325 million — enough to conquer ”X2”’s $250 million but not embarrass it.
Winner ”Matrix Reloaded”

THE BETTER MOVIE Last month, ”Matrix Reloaded” was one of the most highly anticipated sequels in Hollywood history, while ”X2” was, well, the star-studded followup to a mediocre original. But with its true-to-the-comic-books mix of claw-popping action and honest human emotion, ”X2” now has hardcore fans — and many critics, including EW’s Lisa Schwarzbaum — worshipping at its mutated altar.

But the same isn’t true for ‘”Matrix Reloaded,” which is burdened with a dialogue-heavy, action-light first hour that has irked some viewers. One of the first press reviews of ”Reloaded,” in The Hollywood Reporter, accuses filmmakers the Wachowski brothers of ”taking themselves way too seriously” and says that the film’s ”storytelling stumbles frequently.” Meanwhile, an early screening for exhibitors failed to awe, according to Time, which reported that the audience was confused by the film. (EW’s Owen Gleiberman calls it ”an insanely pretentious and dazzling cyberaction sequel.”)

Part of the problem for ”Reloaded” is that the first film is one of the most original, best loved movies of the past decade, which raises expectations dramatically. That’s especially true because the cast and crew are returning, new stars have signed on (Jada Pinkett Smith, Monica Bellucci), and the budget has swelled from $65 million to as much as $150 million. ”X2,” on the other hand, is the successor to an under-budgeted film that, by most accounts, didn’t achieve all of its super-powered goals. So while fans were pleasantly surprised by ”X2”’s larger scale and sharper dialogue, they may be disappointed by the logier parts of ”Reloaded.” Says Knowles: ”More and more people who have seen both are beginning to say that ‘X2’ is the better all-around film.”
Winner ”X2”

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