The bigger they are, the harder they fall?
That’s the presiding feeling about the box office performance of “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.” Disney’s superhero threequel opened to $106 million domestically in February, eviscerating trilogy records among the “Ant-Man” standalone stories. But ticket sales for Paul Rudd’s latest adventure have cratered in subsequent weeks. At this rate, “Ant-Man 3” may become one of the rare Marvel movies to either fall short of (or barely surpass) the $500 million mark at the global box office.
At this point, it’s earned just $470 million globally after six weeks of release. That’s not much higher than Disney’s pandemic-era Marvel movies, including “Black Widow” ($379 million globally while also debuting day-and-date on Disney+), “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” ($432 million) and “Eternals” ($402 million), and nowhere near franchise heavyweights like “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” ($955 million) and “Thor: Love and Thunder” ($760 million). And sure, Ant-Man may not be on Marvel’s A-list, like the God of Thunder or Sorcerer Supreme, but even worse, it’s unlikely to match the totals of the first two “Ant-Man” movies — which earned $519 million and $622 million, respectively.
With a production budget of $200 million and a marketing spend of at least $100 million, “Ant-Man 3” is expected to fall short of the roughly $600 million needed to break even in its theatrical run. Recent Marvel movies, including “Black Widow” and “Eternals,” were granted amnesty for losing money on the big screen because they were either released simultaneously on Disney+ or were put in theaters at a time when people were more reluctant to go to the movies due to COVID concerns. The dismally reviewed “Quantumania” can’t use the same excuses for losing tens of millions in its theatrical run. The one bright spot is that it could recoup some costs through home entertainment and other ancillary markets.
Disney declined to comment.
“There’s no question, audiences were not satisfied with ‘Ant-Man 3,’” says David A. Gross, who runs the movie consulting firm Franchise Entertainment Research. “Superhero fans are highly in tune with these stories, and that helps when the films connect, which has been almost all of the time. But in this case, it hurt.”
Box office numbers back up that assessment. Marvel may remain critic-proof in terms of opening weekends, but its movies are no longer immune to quickly falling back down to Earth. Word-of-mouth generally dictates a film’s “multiple,” which is industry parlance for the ratio of its total gross from its debut. Most films aim for a three or four multiple. In the case of “Ant-Man 3,” it will barely have a two multiple at the domestic box office, a sign that interest completely evaporated after landing on the big screen. By comparison the first film had a multiple of 3.2 and the sequel had a multiple of 2.9.
“Quantumania” is running out of steam in North America with $209 million, which is higher than the original “Ant-Man” ($180 million) but behind the sequel “Ant-Man and the Wasp” ($216 million). Though it’ll likely catch up to its predecessor at the domestic box office, the third movie should be bringing in much more coinage. After all, it debuted 40% ahead of the second installment.
“For Marvel, there is always such a high bar that anything less than a grand slam box office home run is seen as underwhelming,” says Paul Dergarabedian, a senior Comscore analyst. “With ‘Ant-Man 3,’ the highest grossing movie released this year thus far, it may be that the fans are looking for a bit more of the magic that was a part of the Marvel brand for so many years and through so many great films.”
This year has been rough for comic book adaptations, a genre that’s usually untouchable at the box office. “Shazam: Fury of the Gods” has also crumbled since opening in mid-March, earning a paltry $46 million to date. The $110 million-budgeted sequel, from Warner Bros. and DC, is shaping up to have one of the worst results for a modern superhero movie.
Still, box office analysts aren’t crying superhero fatigue just yet — and Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” and Sony’s “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” look to dominate at the summer box office. However, the results signal a near-future in which studios can no longer release just any mega-budgeted comic book adaptation in theaters with the expectation it’ll turn into a box office smash. (In COVID times, Sony and Marvel Studios’ “Spider-Man: No Way Home” is the only superhero movie to cross the coveted $1 billion mark.) Quality, a factor that detractors have complained is missing from “Ant-Man 3,” is more important than ever.
“Audiences are making it known that the Marvel standard itself is set very high,” says Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at BoxOfficePro. “Goodwill is not permanent without occasional reinforcement of why it’s there in the first place.”
Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe still remains unrivaled in the current landscape of Hollywood. It’s a franchise that’s cranked out 31 films across 15 years — all of which have opened at No. 1 and many that have surpassed the billion-dollar mark — and now spans across streaming with Disney+ series like “She-Hulk” and “WandaVision.” But since the epic conclusion of 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame,” which stands as the second-highest grossing movie in history, cracks have started to emerge.
“Marvel’s track record has been truly remarkable. I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt,” Gross says. “Marvel rarely misses. But it happens regularly with all kinds of movies.”
It may be too early to draw conclusions, but there’s concern because the latest “Ant-Man” had the lofty responsibility of kicking off Phase Five of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as well as introducing Jonathan Majors’ villainous Kang the Conqueror as the heir apparent to Thanos. Any decline in interest is problematic because Marvel movies have thrived due to their interconnected nature.
Ticket sales for “Guardians 3,” which debuts on May 5, are expected to align more closely with prior adventures led by Star-Lord and company, which were successful with $773 and $863 million globally. But the upcoming threequel, directed by James Gunn, who now presides over the MCU’s rival DC, is the last of Marvel’s legacy tentpoles that has been officially announced.
The responsibility is shifting to newer heroes to pick up the slack. Upcoming installments, like “The Marvels” and “Blade,” center on lesser-known characters compared to Thor, Captain America and Doctor Strange — all of whom became household names in the lead-up to “Avengers: Endgame.” But in order to keep building in the post-“Endgame” era, the movies can’t merely rely on excitement for just what has come before. They will need to be of sufficient quality to keep bringing in ticket buyers beyond opening weekend, introducing them to and getting them invested emotionally in the fates of other vigilantes.
Robbins adds, “That’s what will make Phase 5 so important in the broader context of the MCU and its box office prowess.”