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‘Ant-Man’ Shows Power and Limits of Marvel Brand

Ant-Man” demonstrates both the power of the Marvel brand and what can hold it back.

The film’s $58 million debut would have been a strong start for nearly any other company, but for Marvel, which has fielded a dizzying number of blockbusters, it is something of a disappointment. “Ant-Man’s” opening ranks below the numbers that films centering on Captain America, Thor and Iron Man put up during their launches. More importantly, it failed to top the $60 million domestically that most analysts predicted it would make this weekend.

There is a crucial difference, however, between “Ant-Man” and other superhero movies. In the Marvel universe, Ant-Man is more of a utility player than star attraction. Given the dubious pedigree, it’s doubtful that many other companies could have made a movie about a man with the powers of a household pest and enjoyed stronger results.

“The media expects a lot, maybe too much, from Marvel movies,” said Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “This is not a B-list character. It’s barely even a C-list one. It’s a comicbook that hardly anybody collected.”

Executives at Disney, Marvel’s parent company, admitted that they would have liked a bigger number, but tried to accentuate the positive, noting that Ant-Man was, in their words, “an obscure character.”

The film, which is noticeably lighter in tone, was intended to bring in younger audiences, Disney distribution chief Dave Hollis argued. “We were able to successfully launch a new character and to do so in a way that expands the audience of who is coming to see our movies,” he said. “In the long run, that’s of overwhelming value.”

But competition for the family dollar is intense this summer, given that animated films like “Minions” and “Inside Out” are still doing big business. Whatever the studio’s intentions may have been, “Ant-Man” did only slightly better among audiences with kids than “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Families comprised 22% of the opening weekend crowd for the “Avengers” sequel and 26% of ticket buyers for the “Guardians” adventure compared to 28% for “Ant-Man.”

On the plus side, people seemed to like the picture, handing it an A CinemaScore rating, so it could benefit from word of mouth as summer enters its dog days.

What’s more troubling is that “Ant-Man” shows that even with the strongest brand in comicbook movies behind it, audiences won’t show up to see just any costumed vigilante. Marvel may have felt emboldened by the success of “Guardians of the Galaxy,” which took marginal figures and fashioned them into film stars, but James Gunn’s pop culture-infused direction helped elevate that material. There simply wasn’t enough to distinguish “Ant-Man” from the onslaught of origin stories and superhero films.

Standing out from the pack will only get harder. In the coming years, Marvel is delving deeper into the comicbook archive, backing movies based on more obscure heroes like Black Panther and Doctor Strange.

At the same time, the studios it licenses its characters to, such as Fox and Sony, plan to raid the recesses of the X-Men and Spider-Man universes to produce movies based on niche figures like Deadpool and Venom. That’s to say nothing of DC Comics, which is about to embark on its own ambitious cavalcade of superhero movies with the 2016 releases of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Suicide Squad.” All these movies will beget an endless array of spinoffs, prequels and crossover films, testing enthusiasm for the genre. It’s a slate that has the Comic-Con crowd in a state of euphoria, but the rest of the public, not versed in the fruits of Stan Lee’s off-days, may need convincing.

“This sends a clear message to Marvel that they need to up the stakes a little bit,” said Bock. “This was a solid film, but it was also on a little bit of cruise control. They should have had a cameo from Iron Man or something to up the ante.”

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