One of Marvel Studios’ more obscure superheroes made the leap to the big screen this past weekend in “Ant-Man,” the story of a reformed thief (played by Paul Rudd) who dons a shrinking suit and communicates with insects to save the day from a mad scientist (Corey Stoll).
When the dust settled, the Peyton Reed-directed action-comedy stood atop the box office anthill with a $58 million opening. Although that number was somewhat shrunken — “Ant-Man” had been projected to gross about $65 million in the U.S. and Canada — it was still enough to give Marvel Studios its 12th film in a row to open in first place.
But how does “Ant-Man’s” opening measure up to those of its Marvel brethren?
Among the dozen films released so far in the interconnected Marvel cinematic universe, only one other has opened to less than $60 million: “The Incredible Hulk” debuted with $55 million in 2008, and wound up with a final domestic box office total of nearly $135 million.
In that sense, “Ant-Man” came up, well, a little short. And yet, considering the movie’s lesser-known source material and rocky production process, Marvel and corporate parent Disney can probably live with the results, even as they look to branch out further into movies featuring arcane characters.
At $58 million, “Ant-Man” didn’t lag too far behind the first “Captain America” and “Thor” movies, both of which opened to about $65 million and went on to get multiple sequels. (The third “Captain America” movie is in production now and will include Rudd’s character in a supporting role, and the third “Thor” movie is on the calendar for a 2017 release.)
In terms of plucking out-there characters from its back catalog, Marvel had greater success with 2014’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” which bowed to $94 million and won over moviegoers with a trash-talking raccoon (Bradley Cooper), a laconic tree-creature (Vin Diesel) and a self-deprecating space rogue (Chris Pratt).
Perhaps more than any Marvel release yet, “Guardians” also bore the personal imprint of its director, the one-time cult filmmaker James Gunn, who injected a poppy, 1970s-inspired vibe into the sci-fi adventure.
At one point it looked as though “Ant-Man” would take a similar gonzo approach under the direction of fanboy favorite Edgar Wright, who originally developed the film but ultimately parted ways, citing creative differences. Reed took over and delivered “Ant-Man” on schedule, but whether Wright would have made a “Guardians"-like hit will forever remain a thought experiment.
If “Guardians” proved the blockbuster strength of the Marvel brand, “Ant-Man” suggests that strength has limits. Lacking the whiz-bang space operatics of the former film and the name recognition of, say, “The Avengers” or “Iron Man,” “Ant-Man” was marketed as a more comedic, smaller-scale take on the superhero genre, and its diminished scope is reflected in its box office tally.
Marvel also attempted to remind viewers that Ant-Man resides in the same world as its more popular heroes, releasing a series of posters referencing Iron Man’s armor, Thor’s hammer and Captain America’s shield. None of those characters actually make cameos in the film, though -- but the Avenger known as Falcon does.
Among the moviegoers who did turn out to see “Ant-Man,” most liked it: The film earned an A grade from the audience polling firm CinemaScore, which bodes well for its word-of-mouth prospects. Reviews were also solid.
Marvel will no doubt be paying close attention to how “Ant-Man” holds up in the weeks ahead. As the studio continues to expand its cinematic universe — while also facing superhero competition from rivals like Warner Bros. and Fox — it will be introducing more characters whose names may not ring a bell, such as Doctor Strange and Captain Marvel.
Even though some of its heroes are small, even microscopic, Marvel’s ambitions are anything but.
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