In 2008, Marvel was preparing to bring a second-tier superhero that fanboys knew, but the general public did not, to movie theaters everywhere. And while it now seems inconceivable that "Iron Man" was actually a risky project, at the time the only hit superhero movies starred A-list heroes Batman and Superman.
"Iron Man," of course, turned out to be a massive hit, which, according to IMDB.com, grossed $318 million in the United States alone on a budget of $140 million. That film went on to not only inspire two successful sequels and a number of spinoffs, but the third-highest grossing film in the U.S. of all time, "The Avengers," which made over $623 million domestically.
Now only a few years later, Marvel (now owned by Disney (NYSE:DIS)) faces a movie launch similar to the original "Iron Man." With 2015's "Ant Man," the company has a hero even less-known than Iron Man and a marketplace where superhero movies are certainly not guaranteed blockbusters.
Look to the Green Lantern
While Marvel has not stumbled with any of its movies since "Iron Man's" breakthrough in 2008, rival DC has had a spottier record. All three Batman movies were hits and "The Dark Night" is the fourth highest-grossing U.S. release ever, taking in $533 million, according to IMDB . The Superman movie "Man of Steel" was also a hit, taking in $298 million in U.S. box office.
But others were not as successful. According to IMDB, DC's 2010 film "Jonah Hex," based on a not-very-well-known character, brought in a disastrous $10 million domestically on a budget of $47 million. 2009's "Watchmen," based on a graphic novel beloved by comic book fans but unknown to the general public, took in $107 million in the U.S., just under its $110 million budget.
Perhaps the most comparable film to "Ant-Man" -- who despite being somewhat obscure is, in fact, a member of The Avengers -- is "Green Lantern," based on one of the lesser-known members of DC's "Justice League."
That movie starred the seemingly likable but ultimately miscast Ryan Reynolds, and cost an estimated $200 million to make while bringing in only $113 million in U.S. box office, according to IMDB. As the Fool's Tim Beyers wrote, Green Lantern is an important brand in the DC universe, and DC is as important a source of franchise material for Time Warner (NYSE:TWX), so the result was more than just one underperforming movie for the studio.
Beware Paul Rudd
Like "Iron Man" was to "The Avengers," "Green Lantern" was supposed to be for an eventual Justice League movie. That might have been too much box office pressure for Reynolds, who, according to Box Office Mojo, at that point in his career had only starred in one film that brought in over $100 million at the box office: 2009's "The Proposal." Other than that film, his starring roles have been in art house affairs like 2010's "Buried" and low-end dreck including 2002's "National Lampoon's Van Wilder."
Paul Rudd, who is starring as Ant-Man, has been in a number of ensemble hits, but has struggled to carry movies on his own despite being given several chances. According to Box Office Mojo, Rudd bombed co-starring with the previously impervious-to-failure Tina Fey in 2013's "Admission," which took in a scant $18 million. He also underperformed for writer/director Judd Apatow in 2012's "This is 40," which brought in a middling $67 million. Rudd might be well-liked and part of some big hits as a supporting character, but he has never had a major hit as a lead actor.
Can a box office misstep defeat The Avengers?
"Green Lantern" may have delayed a "Justice League" movie, but "Ant-Man" does not face similar pressure as there is probably no safer bet at the box office than the Avengers sequel "Avengers: Age of Ultron." In fact, though it has not been announced and Rudd does not appear on cast lists for "Ultron," it seems likely the Avengers film (slated for release on May 1, 2015) will serve as a launch pad for "Ant-Man," which comes out about eight weeks later on July 17, 2015.
Even if the character only appears in a cameo in "Ultron," "Ant-Man" should benefit from the frenzy for all things Avengers likely to be created by the sequel. Ant-Man may not be Superman, Spiderman, or even Thor in public appeal, but Marvel has been able to make its movies feel like must-see events. And the timing on this release suggests that while the film may not do "Iron Man" numbers, it should be a decided hit.