Ant-Man is the first Marvel Studios movie since 2008 to open with less than $60 million domestic. Let’s look back at the history, and then figure out why exactly Ant-Man failed to impress:
In early 2006, newly independent Marvel Studios announced it was going to make the following movies: Ant-Man, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America and “Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD.” Iron Man, the first out of the gate, opened to a stunning $98 million domestic in May 2008, the second-highest grossing debut for a non-sequel behind Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. A month later while Iron Man was still in theaters and almost up to $300 million domestic The Incredible Hulk opened to a middling $55m. Iron Man’s opening instantly catapulted the character into the upper echelon alongside Batman and Spider-Man while Incredible Hulk’s debut placed the big green guy firmly in the lower tier, joining The Fantastic Four, Ghost Rider and Daredevil.
From that point forward, Marvel Studios trended higher and higher. Their first sequel, 2010’s Iron Man 2, had the fifth biggest opening weekend of all time. Their new franchises, Thor and Captain America, both opened to $65m in the summer of 2011, and a year later The Avengers became the first ever movie to make more than $200m in its opening weekend. Everything they’ve released since then has debuted to at least $85m, and earlier this summer Avengers: Age of Ultron recorded $191m in its opening frame.
I rehash the history as a reminder of what Marvel’s Phase 1 looked like. To use baseball terms, Marvel had one home run (Iron Man), a couple of solid doubles (Cap, Thor) and a decent single (Hulk). Everything they’ve done since then as part of Phase 2 has been a sequel which scored a box office home run or, in the case of Iron Man 3 and Age of Ultron, a grand slam. Their only non-sequel, Guardians of the Galaxy, was a space opera which improbably captured the zeitgeist last summer.
As of July 2nd, The Hollywood Reporter said, “Tracking services have [Ant-Man] debuting in the $55 million-$65 million range, but may believe it will come in on the high end, considering Marvel’s track record.” As I observed at the time, Iron Man 3, The Dark World, Winter Soldier and Guardians all demolished their pre-release expectations, with Guardians opening $25m higher than even the most optimistic predictions. Age of Ultron was the first to actually come in below pre-release tracking, $20m below in fact. However, when you start getting above $125m for an opening weekend the pre-release tracking people are grasping at straws because they have so few historical comparisons. It’s hard to predict whether or not a movie will debut with more than $200m when only one movie in history had done so to that point. It seemed reasonable that Ultron was an outlier, and Ant-Man would continue Marvel’s trend of beating the tracking.
Actually, the early tracking was spot-on. Ant-Man opened right within the predicted range, albeit on the low end, pulling in an estimated $58m domestic. Disney’s distribution chief, Dave Hollis, tried to spin this into gold, telling THR, “This is a great start, albeit not as big as some people said it would be, and Marvel has once again successfully expanded its stable of characters in a way that makes its universe fresh.”
You want to disagree with him. After all, this is the second worst debut in Marvel Studios history. The last one of their movies to post a sub-$60m opening recast its main actor (Edward Norton to Mark Ruffalo), and had the specifics of its plot go completely ignored by the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe for nearly a decade until William Hurt’s name surprisingly popped up in the cast list for next year’s Captain America: Civil War. If you want to go down the “adjust for inflation” wormhole, Ant-Man actually had the single worst debut in Marvel’s history. Incredible Hulk would have made around $70m with today’s higher ticket prices and the standard 3D/IMAX bump.
But Ant-Man only cost $130m to produce, making it Marvel’s cheapest movie to date and by far their cheapest since Captain America: The First Avenger ($140m). As Forbes argued, “Ant-Man is the closest thing we’ve seen thus far to a Marvel B-movie. That’s not an insult, but it’s a cheaper, lighter, and smaller-scale caper that served as something of a Phase 2 epilogue after the epic season finale that was Avengers: Age of Ultron.”
This is Marvel Studios’ version of The Wolverine, even though Ant-Man is an origin story and The Wolverine was built around a well-known character. Fox made a modest bet on Wolverine, spending $120m on a smaller scale character study and ultimately came out of it with $132m domestic and $414m worldwide. Marvel made a modest bet on Ant-Man, and it is especially paying off overseas, where it debuted to $56m from 37 markets, or 50% of the total international marketplace, including the UK, Mexico, Russia, France and Brazil. According to Deadline, “Ant-Man is currently tracking +23% versus Thor and +44% versus Captain America: The First Avenger in the same suite of markets. In Asia, it is well exceeding Guardians.”
That gives it a worldwide debut of $116m, which is perfectly fine relative to its budget. It’s just not quite the event that the prior Marvel movies have been, and it’s definitely on the low end domestically. What happened?
1) The Premise Was Always a Tough Sell
At a family gathering back in January, the topic of summer movies came up and my geek-leaning step-sister excitedly blurted out, “I want to know what Ant-Man is all about.” I instantly explained that he’s a superhero who can shrink teensy tiny and control ants, but when he’s small he retains his normal-sized strength thus allowing him to sneak up on people and knock them out if need be. She shrugged and let out an unimpressed, “Oh,” as everyone else in the room jumped on mocking the idea of a hero who can control ants. I attempted to further explain that the film version would be a repentant criminal using the shrinking suit to pull off a heist, aiming to become the hero his daughter already thinks he is. It was too late – everyone had already checked out on the idea. The mere premise of a tiny hero running around with a bunch of ants was too goofy for them.
This was not an isolated incident. Every time I talked to someone about Ant-Man the phrase “It sounds pretty goofy” came up.
That was the challenge facing Marvel/Disney’s marketing people – how do you help people get past that? As they did with Guardians of the Galaxy, they leaned into it, Paul Rudd mocking the name “Ant-Man” in trailers as a way of opening the conversation not with “Come see our movie” but instead “Look, we know this sounds silly, but trust us – it’s going to be a lot of fun.” The problem is that Guardians had a recognizable, underlying genre – a space opera with Han Solo as the lead character – that you could latch onto once you got past the idea of a talking raccoon and tree. Ant-Man doesn’t really have that because, at the end of the day, it is what it is – a superhero who shrinks himself and controls ants. The exact genre of the film is half-superhero origin and half-heist. Before it came out, I knew it was a heist movie because I read and write about comic book movies; I don’t know how much the actual ads let you know it was a heist movie, even if one of the signature moments is Michael Douglas telling Paul Rudd he needs him to steal some stuff. To the average audience, this might have looked like just another superhero movie. The thing that most notably made it different was the hero’s specific ability, which evoked half-remembered kiddie movies like Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. To be fair, though, if they had more clearly marketed this as a comedy heist it may not have made much of a difference? It’s not like heist movies are super popular and in demand right now.
2) The Reviews Didn’t Elevate It Into a “Must-See” Status
When James Gunn told his Facebook followers Ant-Man was his favorite Marvel movie since the first Iron Man he emerged as the most enthusiastic cheerleader for the movie. The problem is that while others have backed him up many more have been unwilling to match his enthusiasm. Oh, there are plenty of good reviews out there. In fact, at 79% Ant-Man is actually as well-reviewed on RottenTomatoes as Iron Man 3. However, Iron Man 3 didn’t really need good reviews to make money. Something like Ant-Man, on the other hand, could have used a bit more of a push. The assumptions of the hardcore skeptics who know all about the tortured production history with Edgar Wright would be torn asunder if word of mouth was through the roof, and the general on-the-fence audience would similarly benefit from someone convincing them that an apparently silly sounding movie is really great. Unfortunately, Ant-Man comes off more “good” than “great” in many reviews.
3) We’ve Already Had Plenty of Spectacle this Summer
Why couldn’t Ant-Man repeat the late-summer charge of Guardians of the Galaxy? Per Forbes, “Guardians of the Galaxy was something of a fluke, coming off of strong buzz, superb reviews, and the sense that the film was the great late-summer blockbuster that was going to save us from the otherwise lackluster summer. Even if Ant-Man was hoping to be the late-summer gem to save us all, this summer has had plenty of crowd-pleasing spectacles along the lines of Avengers: Age of Ultron, Mad Max: Fury Road, Pitch Perfect 2, San Andreas, Spy, Jurassic World, Inside Out, and Minions. Summer didn’t need to be rescued in mid-July this time around.” There’s also plenty more on the way with Pixels, Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation, The Fantastic Four, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Hitman: Agent 47.
4) The Competition Was Surprisingly Fierce
Ant-Man is arguably Marvel’s first genuine family film, and according to THR it drew the largest share of families (28%) of any Marvel superhero title. Overall, it played 53% under-25 years old and 63% male. Curse Marvel’s poor timing, though, because Universal’s Minions is out there and coming off the second biggest opening weekend for an animated movie. It tumbled a hefty 57% this weekend, but it still made around $50m. That means fewer potential young eyeballs for Ant-Man, Marvel’s most kid-friendly film ever (although it does have a lot of swear words). Don’t forget that Inside Out is still around, too.
Moreover, in recent years we’ve seen how much of a difference women can make to the box office of comic book movies, even though men are still the majority audience. Well, this weekend Universal gambled by running Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck as female-leaning counterprogramming. In fact, Trainwreck was originally scheduled to come out next week, but Universal pushed it up after Ant-Man’s production troubles signaled weakness. It worked – Trainwreck made around $30 million, director Judd Apatow’s second biggest debut ever behind Knocked Up ($30.9 million). It was carried by women (66%) and people under the age of 30 (40%).
R-Rated comedies have struggled this summer, and Trainwreck was not expected to make more than $20m. However, it just felt like Amy Schumer was ready to breakthrough in a big way. To me, Amy Schumer is the internet’s favorite girlfriend right now. Every single pop culture site I traffic (AV Club, Vulture, etc.) simply cannot stop praising her and penning essays about her sex-positive brilliance. She has the buzziest show on Comedy Central, Inside Amy Schumer, and the recent trumped up controversy over her alleged racist jokes simply helped keep her in the headlines, reminding people she had a new movie due out. Everything she does seems to end up in headlines now, such as LucasFilm expressing their displeasure with her unauthorized racy GQ cover shoot with Star Wars characters. The fact that her film debut also sports Lebron James in an extended role exposed Trainwreck to an even wider audience.
5) Potential Superhero Fatigue
Age of Ultron is one of the biggest films of all time, but not as big as The Avengers (at least not worldwide). Amazing Spider-Man 2 killed its franchise. Ant-Man is Marvel’s weakest performer since 2008. Ergo, superhero fatigue is ever-so slowly starting to set in, right?
Eh. That conveniently forgets how well Winter Soldier and Days of Future Past did, or if you extent it to TV how many records The Flash set on The CW last year. Talk to me again after Batman v Superman and Captain America: Civil War come out next year. If those both somehow fail to match Man of Steel and Winter Soldier respectively then we’ve got a problem. For now, you have to take things on a case-by-case basis, and in the case of Ant-Man, per Forbes:
This is the closest we’ve had to a Marvel movie not really being an event. When you have a track record like Marvel’s, “okay” should be allowed now and then when you’re offering what amounts to a comic intermission in between “mythology episodes.” If Age of Ultron and Civil War are the super important main features, then Ant-Man was the cartoon playing in between them on a double-bill. Ant-Man was something of a risk and to a certain extent Marvel came through okay. It might actually be a good thing over the long haul, as it will reset expectations for the likes of Dr. Strange, Captain Marvel, and Black Panther down the road.
That being said, the “liked it, didn’t love it” reaction to Age of Ultron could not have helped Marvel’s momentum going into Ant-Man. Still, studios and genres are allowed to simply have solid singles and doubles. It’s just been a while since Marvel’s had one. Ant-Man could end up with close to $400m worldwide, if it performs on par with Thor and Wolverine. We’ll have to see how well it holds up against Pixels and Mission Impossible over the next two weeks.
This Weekend’s Estimated Box Office Top 10 Totals (7/17-7/19)
1) Ant-Man (Worldwide Debut)
- Production Budget=$130m
- Weekend Gross (Domestic)=$58m
- Weekend Gross (International)=$56.4m
- Worldwide Debut=$116.4m
- Production Budget=$77m
- Weekend Gross (Domestic)=$50.2m
- Weekend Gross (International)=$66.2m
3) Trainwreck (Domestic Debut)
- Production Budget=$36m
- Weekend Gross (Domestic)=$30.2m
4) Inside Out
- Production Budget=$65m
- Weekend Gross (Domestic)=$11.6m
- Weekend Gross (International)=$21.3m
5) Jurassic World
- Production Budget=$150m
- Weekend Gross (Domestic)=$11.3m
- Weekend Gross (International)=$12.3m
Now just the fourth film to ever cross $600m domestic, joining The Avengers ($623m), Titanic ($658m) and Avatar ($760m) and fourth highest grossing film of all time worldwide, having just passed Furious 7 ($1.511b).
6) Terminator: Genisys
- Production Budget=$155m
- Weekend Gross (Domestic)=$5.4m
- Weekend Gross (International)=$22.2m
Those planned sequels still have release dates, 7/22/17 for Terminator 2 and 6/29/18 for Terminator 3, but they are on the thinnest of ice right now.
7) Magic Mike XXL
- Production Budget=$15m
- Weekend Gross (Domestic)=$4.5m
- Weekend Gross (International)=$5.8m
8) The Gallows
- Production Budget=$1m
- Weekend Gross (Domestic)=$4m
- Weekend Gross (International)=$2.1m
9) Ted 2
- Production Budget=$68m
- Weekend Gross (Domestic)=$2.6m
- Weekend Gross (International)=$7.5m
10) Mr. Holmes (Debut)
- Production Budget=They’re not telling
- Weekend Gross (Domestic)=$2.4m
- Weekend Gross (International)=Unavailable
What Left the Top 10?:
- Self/Less– Current total: $10.3m domestic on a $26m budget
- Baahubali: The Beginning – Current total: $6.4m domestic
- Max – Current total: $37.9m domestic on a $20m budget
What’s Up Next?: Paper Towns, Pixels & Southpaw, aka, a teen movie, a family movie and an adult drama