Why Marvel's Riskiest Superhero Movies May Be Good Bets

In the next few years, Marvel Studios will release a couple of movies that lack the instant name recognition of its current blockbusters. While this move seems risky, films such as "Guardians of the Galaxy" and "Ant-Man" may actually give it an advantage over competing franchises from other studios.

Jan 14, 2014 at 12:58PM

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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John Casteele has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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