Why Marvel's Riskiest Superhero Movies May Be Good Bets

After weeks of speculation, Disney's (NYSE: DIS  ) Marvel Studios officially announced the role that Paul Rudd would be playing in the upcoming superhero film Ant-Man. While many assumed that Rudd would play the original version of the character, Hank Pym, it turns out that he will instead play Scott Lang (the current version of the character.) Pym won't be absent, however; the casting announcement also revealed that Oscar winner Michael Douglas has been cast in the Pym role.

The news has garnered mixed reactions among fans. Some are applauding the addition of a veteran actor like Douglas, but others are upset that the film will focus largely on Lang. The casting does stay true to comments made by director Edgar Wright in 2006, making this one of the longest-planned Marvel Studios films to date.

A lack of name recognition
Ant-Man may seem like a bit of an odd choice for adaptation since the character doesn't have the name recognition of characters such as Iron Man or Captain America. While longtime comic fans recognize the character as a founding member of the Avengers, those who only recently started reading Marvel comics would find Lang's Ant-Man as the leader of the Future Foundation and Pym no longer using the persona at all.

The Ant-Man film isn't the only movie in Marvel's slate that seems to come out of nowhere, either. Guardians of the Galaxy, scheduled for release in August, not only lacks name recognition but also takes place away from Earth. Its only links with the previous Marvel films are characters who appeared in after-credits scenes in The Avengers and Thor: The Dark World. While an animated series is supposedly in the works for Disney XD, it won't arrive in time to create a familiarity with the team before the movie's release.

The big question: Why?
With fans hoping for an Incredible Hulk sequel after the success of the character in The Avengers, as well as and existing characters in the franchise who have yet to have a solo adventure, why is Marvel Studios branching out with new and untested characters like this? Only those in charge know for sure, but there are a few likely reasons.

The most obvious reason is storytelling. Recent films have been laying the groundwork for an Avengers team-up that's based on the "Infinity Gauntlet" miniseries from 1991. The bad guy in that series was Thanos, who was revealed in the mid-credits scene in The Avengers. Thanos and his forces will serve as antagonists in Guardians of the Galaxy, allowing that film to flesh out the character more in preparation for the eventual "Infinity Gauntlet" story. Likewise, Hank Pym is one of the geniuses of the Marvel universe (even creating Ultron in the comics, who is the antagonist in the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron film.) Introducing Pym (and Ant-Man) allows for further storytelling opportunities without relying on Tony Stark to build everything.

A less obvious reason is the potential that these films have for opening up other aspects of the Marvel universe. There are a number of prominent alien races that could be introduced in a Guardians of the Galaxy sequel and then used as a primary antagonist in future "Avengers" films. The same could be said of the rumored Doctor Strange film that may be part of Marvel's "Phase Three" plans; it would introduce magical aspects into a cinematic universe that has thus far made "magic" out to be advanced science from alien races.

So what's the risk?
Even though Marvel Studios seems to have good reasons for creating these "riskier" films, the plan is not foolproof. Each film is the second release in the year it comes out, and the second release tends to gross significantly less than the studio's summer tentpole. This can be seen in Thor: The Dark World's worldwide total of $630 million (as compared to summer tentpole's Iron Man 3's $1.2 billion.) The lack of name recognition could further reduce the gross of each film, resulting in a reduced profit (or potentially even a loss) for the sake of storytelling.

On the flip side, the studio has both its tentpole blockbusters and licensing agreements to help support the films if they do flop. Guardians of the Galaxy comes in the same year as Captain America: The Winter Soldier, while Ant-Man follows up the guaranteed blockbuster Avengers: Age of Ultron. The studio is taking a risk, but it's balancing that risk with films and merchandise that should more than make up for any losses.

This path is not for everyone
While Marvel Studios obviously has reasons for introducing lesser-known properties as features, its competitors aren't necessarily willing to take that same leap. Time Warner's (NYSE: TWX  ) Warner Bros. studio is taking a much safer approach to expanding its cinematic universe after previous attempts such as Green Lantern failed to perform. Last summer's Man of Steel has been retroactively changed to a launching point for a DC Comics cinematic universe, with the sequel introducing the characters of Batman and Wonder Woman in preparation for a "Justice League" team-up in 2017. A "Flash" film will reportedly fall between the Man of Steel sequel and the team-up, utilizing one of the more well-known members of the team that hasn't had a feature film.

The difference between the two approaches is very noticeable. Marvel is taking more risks, though it still has its blockbusters to keep it afloat. Warner Bros. seems to be taking an all-or-nothing approach that leaves little room for storytelling and larger world-building. Of the two, Marvel and its "riskier" films seems better poised for long-term success because it's simply allowing itself more time to tell the stories that it wants to tell.

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Read/Post Comments (16) | Recommend This Article (4)

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  • Report this Comment On January 14, 2014, at 6:08 PM, Cliffhanger77 wrote:

    Meh - I have less than zero interest in Ant-man (especially now that Douglas is in it) and not too much interest in Guardians of the Galaxy (although I could be swayed - the footage they showed at SDCC was actually entertaining). BUT - after they got our hopes up for a Hulk feature movie starring Mark Ruffalo...or a Black Widow movie with Scarlett (come on - we need a Black Widow movie...and if it explains Budapest, all the better!)...we get two relative unknown "franchises." So we're years away from Hulk and Black Widow....if ever. Sigh.

    They would have done much better investing in another two or three Iron Man movies with RDJ, who will continue to be the world's best and most charming superhero well into his 50s. I'd watch the hell out of RDJ's Iron Man forever.

  • Report this Comment On January 14, 2014, at 7:35 PM, laethyn wrote:

    @Cliffhanger77

    You are assuming RDJ actually wants to do further Iron Man movies, which by all accounts, he does not want to do.

  • Report this Comment On January 14, 2014, at 8:36 PM, Amberyerno wrote:

    @laethyn

    I don't know about Iron Man movies, but RDJ is at least signed for Avengers 2 and 3.

  • Report this Comment On January 14, 2014, at 9:13 PM, Croaxleigh wrote:

    RDJ's current contract is only for the two "Avengers" sequels. That puts Iron Man in the same league as the Hulk right now as being "Avengers only" (though I believe that someone at the studio said that they'd be willing to consider a Hulk feature if the right script came along.)

  • Report this Comment On January 15, 2014, at 1:29 AM, bayma wrote:

    While the Thor sequel did make about half of Iron Man 3, I believe it still made hundreds of millions (2-3) more than the first Thor movie. I can't believe for a second that it under performed compared to expectations.

  • Report this Comment On January 15, 2014, at 3:17 AM, HankPymterest wrote:

    Why does the painfully "so obvious" escape the authors of this article??? The answer to the question from anyone who has been following superhero movies is simple. PREQUALS.

  • Report this Comment On January 15, 2014, at 3:44 AM, HankPymterest wrote:

    PREQUELS. Sorry. Movie makers have learned through experimentation that there is more money to be made when adding prequels to the mix. X-Men First Class. The last 3 Star Wars prequels. X-Men first Class, Batman prequels, the new Star Treck.

    Reboots are a little harder to sell like Spiderman, Hulk, and so on and so forth. Studios can hedge their bets easier with prequels than they can with re-boots than with prequels. Any superhero movie...or any other movie only has so much life. But a prequel...now you have something the masses want to see...a refresh. And they also hedge their bets. If they introduce something profitable but disappointing results, they can re-introduce something that has marginal results, hook onto the die hard fans and suck in new fans. Once a franchise starts to bleed out like X-Men 3, all you have to do is launch a prequel and you've increased profits.

    Look at prequels, Star Trek, Wolverine Origins, Star Wars, Batman, X-Men, Kill Bill, Hannibal, and many more. They are great business, I mean who doesn't want to see the other half of the story or the history behind something?

    The strategy I feel is that they jump to the future of Ant-Man first with the less popular successor of Ant-Man that most people don't really know. They're almost guaranteed to make money. But if it's a not a guaranteed huge money making hit, they grab all those people who loved the original than go backwards in time and the new movie isn't a reboot which is harder to sell, it's a prequel that both die hard fans love, they get to rope in more new fans. And if you know anything about Hank Pym, he didn't just become an ant, he had the power to also become a giant. What would you rather watch, a movie with an ant that can be squished or a man that can transform to an ant squeezing thru a crack in a wall and come out on the other side a bad ass giant that can smash heads? And he's the original dude that invented it all in the first place? If the first one is a major hit, they can continue on with 3 sequels. Then introduce the the original guy with a money making prequel.

    So, much easier way for a studio to hedge their bets. Pick the less known and popular successor, feed him to new fans and old fans who know better, then bring in the original. New story line, new character...extend the life of the new series in a refreshing new way and add three more movies to the franchise.

    Just an observation...your mileage may differ. Either way, bring on the Ant Man...I LOVE it.

  • Report this Comment On January 15, 2014, at 8:14 AM, wildtabeast wrote:

    If I had one wish list for a Marvel movie, it would definitely be the "Secret Wars". I know it would take a lot of prepping to get all the characters aligned to make it happen, but I would bet my bottom dollar that would make for an awesome movie scenario.

  • Report this Comment On January 15, 2014, at 9:11 AM, AlphaDean wrote:

    @Hankpymterst

    I hate to be the one to burst your bubble, but Pre-quels are not the money makers you think they are. What they prequels have a tendancy to do is breath life back into franchises. But some of the films you listed don't have any prequels and were reboots. Batman & Star Trek were both reboots. Kill Bill was filmed that way back to back. Volume 1 told the story of the revenge and volume 2 brought up to speed for the final show down.

    X-Men 1st class was not that successful monetarily either. Wolverine was horrid, one of the worse movies done by fox to date. But if that's how you feel about Okay

  • Report this Comment On January 15, 2014, at 10:47 AM, Croaxleigh wrote:

    I imagine that anything with Pym in the 60s will be focused more on espionage and infiltration (much like Ant-Man was in the early days; Edgar Wright has even said that Pym would be in "Tales to Astonish" mode so this fits the idea well.) While Giant Man/Goliath/etc. might come into play eventually, it's unlikely that the character would take a real "superhero" role even then since he would still be a covert operative.

    You also have to keep in mind that Marvel has films booked for at least the next two to three years, and has reserved release dates for like the next six years. Any "Ant-Man" films following Pym's adventures would be at least a few years off, and would then be competing with the "modern" Ant-Man. (They wouldn't necessarily be true prequels, either, since they would take place after the prelude of "Ant-Man" and would fall somewhere in the middle of Marvel's timeline... "midquels", maybe? ;) )

    Honestly, my guess would be that they'd go for a televised format for "classic" Ant-Man adventures... they could get it out faster, and it would fit the covert ops feel a bit more (and sow the seeds for a lot of things in the Marvel universe, too.) They could possibly even do an Ant-Man series on Netflix if the "Defenders" initiative proves successful.

  • Report this Comment On January 15, 2014, at 12:22 PM, AlphaDean wrote:

    @Croaxleigh:

    Now that's plausible and could prove the quite the way to get Antman noticed as well

  • Report this Comment On January 15, 2014, at 12:36 PM, Phadreus wrote:

    Ever since Spiderman went over the 100 million dollar mark, the comic book story has shown it can make money and be entertaining on multi-levels. I am not interested in Mick Douglas as Hank Pym though I am not adverse to him play a role in the Marvel Universe even a significant role (I hope Robert Redford is ammenable to returning over time and in different storys). Ant-man, Gaintman, Hornet are all very good characters but it's the fact brought out lately of Hank Pym himself being one of several geniuses in the Marvel Universe which makes his character interesting on a whole other level. It is very unfortunate other studio have rights to other Marvel properties which inhibits greatly the integration of the Marvel Universe in the way that it really needs to be integrated for a number of reasons. (Example: the problems with Scarlett Witch and Pietro being in the next Avengers movie but also being the children of Magneto and connected in ways to the X-Men). That the comic-book world is finally on the big screen is fantastic but it is all problematic from the story telling issues which i think are the right way to go to the problems incurred by having actors play certain roles over perhaps a period of several years. I have said RDJ is Tony Stark in the same way Sean Connery is James Bond or Basil Rathbone is Sherlock Holmes notwithstanding the time of the performance or the competence of any other actors in the role but though I would want him to play Ironman as long as he can I also understand him not wanting to continue in the role though Gweneyth Powltroe is Pepper Pops and Don Cheetle WarMachine. I am going to be an untiring advocate for the developemnt as soon as possible and feasible of: Hawkeye getting more air time, he is a major Marvel character, The addition of more women: There is the irrascible Wasp/Janye Van Dyke, The She-Hulk, The Valkerie, Ceres (The Celestial), Ms. Marvel (Carol Danvers) Spiderwoman, MoonDragon and Manttis just for starters and I understand this is a delicate operation that may not be able to be done under the circumstances of today's Hollywood. One of the main attributes of the Avengers movie was how well the ensemble was able to work together. I have watched that movie perhaps fifity times and it is still extraordinary in my view how well the actors worked together. It would have been nice to see Remer get more interaction with Evans and Helmsworth, Downy and Johansson. I am 62 years old and I have over-all loved comics espcially Marvel since I was 7 years old. If done right and Joss Whedon has shown what right looks like comic can tell a real and entertaining story which is not so far from reality as we would want to think.

  • Report this Comment On January 15, 2014, at 2:31 PM, Croaxleigh wrote:

    I'd love to see more done with Hawkeye, as he was my favorite character for a long time. I'm also really hoping that they move forward with the Captain Marvel movie that's been mentioned once or twice as being a possibility (because Marvel Studios currently has a bit of a "boys club" on its hands, and her more recent comics have been really well done.) It would be great as part of Phase Three, too, since it would give the Avengers another heavy-hitter in the fight against Thanos.

    That's ultimately why I like the approach that Marvel is taking instead of DC, because Marvel's taking its time while DC is trying to rush in a game of catch-up. If the Netflix deal works out well then future limited series could follow, which would also give some of the characters who aren't appearing in the movies a chance to shine. (And maybe, just maybe, "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." will stick around long enough to start introducing some minor heroes and lesser-known villains for one-offs and minor arcs.)

  • Report this Comment On January 16, 2014, at 6:55 AM, Scobe wrote:

    Broaden the Marvel movie universe. Not everything will be great (take "Agents of Shield" which is dismal at this point) but making the canvas larger is a smart move. I look forward to all of Disney's initiatives.

    The Hulk is a tough character --- he is more of a featured type (as in a co-star) and the character alone doesn't seem able to carry a movie. Still, I enjoyed the Norton Hulk and Ruffalo is even better. So I could be wrong here.

    Frank Scoblete author of "Confessions of a Wayward Catholic"

  • Report this Comment On January 16, 2014, at 11:35 AM, EarthwormJym wrote:

    Now how about a Moon Knight movie

  • Report this Comment On January 16, 2014, at 12:37 PM, Croaxleigh wrote:

    I would absolutely LOVE a Moon Knight movie. I imagine that he would probably fit in more at the "Defenders" level of Marvel's strategy, though (not that I'd complain at all if they announced a Moon Knight Netflix series post-"Defenders." Or a Punisher series, for that matter.)

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