As new-old CEO Bob Iger continues to review and adjust strategy to cut costs at Disney, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s third “Ant-Man” film has some work to do beyond its strong debut.
For one, “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” is following one hell of a tough act.
Disney and 20th Century’s “Avatar: The Way of Water” is winding down from a run that has seen James Cameron’s sequel to the 2009 all-timer reach the upper echelons of the global box office, surpassing “Titanic” over the long weekend to become the third-highest-grossing film ever. 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame” still holds the No. 2 spot after the first “Avatar.”
“Quantumania” opening above $100 million is certainly a start, as it’s the best yet for Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly’s Marvel characters. The film also helped push Disney past the $1 billion mark for global 2023 grosses.
That said, “Avatar” and the MCU are not identical when it comes to how they earn their grosses.
When looking at the performance of Disney studio slates in 2022, it’s obvious Marvel is still essential to the big picture. All three of last year’s MCU films delivered large numbers globally and represented Disney’s biggest domestic openings.
Franchise sibling “Avatar” plays by different rules. Its domestic debut notably came in under the MCU releases, only to more than double each one at the global box office.
These days, the pattern of MCU films is to amass huge openings followed by sharp drops in subsequent weekends, as opposed to “Avatar: The Way of Water,” which is mostly responsible for delivering what has thus far been the best Q1 box office since 2020.
This was the case with Sony and the MCU’s “Spider-Man: No Way Home” as well. The December 2021 release still represents the best opening of any film during the pandemic, but after nearly reaching $300 million, the weekend box office around that time quickly fell, which was less the case for the weekends following the second “Avatar.”
“Ant-Man 3” has seemingly arrived in the nick of time to lift the 2023 box office back up after the subpar Feb. 10 weekend, even if its opening isn’t as pronounced as heavyweights “Black Panther” and “Doctor Strange.”
Overall gross for “Ant-Man” could also get an extended boost on account of introducing Jonathan Majors as Kang, an antagonist set to have a multifilm arc in a similar vein as Thanos did in prior MCU films, therefore making this an integral franchise entry for continuity purposes.
Whether the significance of that arc translates to extended box office success won’t be apparent until the film’s second weekend, and it’s as important as ever for that to be the case with “Ant-Man.”
Per Iger in the company’s latest earnings call, Disney is “going to look at the volume” of its TV and film output and “be more aggressive” in curating its slates.
“Ant-Man” in 2023 will be followed by sequels to “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Captain Marvel,” which have exhibited higher stature at the box office. The future of “Ant-Man” could very well be questionable given the glut of Marvel films, especially when Disney also has to reevaluate output from its animation divisions alongside the superheroes.
Pixar’s “Lightyear” and Disney Animation’s “Strange World” were not big standouts of 2022 — particularly the latter, which brought in well under $100 million globally. Disney has committed to at least one more “Toy Story” sequel along with another “Frozen” film, putting pressure on new IPs “Elemental” and “Wish” to prove their worth. Otherwise, more doubling down on existing animation franchises could push them out, especially if the live-action remake for “The Little Mermaid” is as successful as 2019’s “The Lion King.”
On the smaller scale, 20th Century could also reassess more Hercule Poirot films from Kenneth Branagh if “A Haunting in Venice” underdelivers. Similarly, the studio’s continued commitment to horror after 2022 word-of-mouth hit “Barbarian” could lessen if Stephen King adaptation “The Boogeyman” doesn’t scare audiences sufficiently.
“True Love” from “Godzilla” and “Rogue One” director Gareth Edwards may also spell doom for more original projects in the sci-fi and fantasy genres that aren’t named “Avatar” if it doesn’t make a splash, as James Cameron has three more sequels to deliver after “The Way of Water” rang up $250 million in its production budget alone, at the lowest estimate.
There is still plenty more Marvel ahead for Disney after “Ant-Man,” and like its namesake, this property remains the smallest of the MCU. But this new high for the tiny hero is bound to make deciding his next project as complicated as ever for Iger.