I’m an unabashed fan of the Marvel movies, or what’s commonly known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I loved the original “Iron Man,” and I remember sitting in the theater in 2008 being captivated by Robert Downey Jr.’s total and complete embodiment of Tony Stark. While I was less taken with “The Incredible Hulk” and “Thor,” I thought “Captain America” was fantastic, and when I heard that Marvel was planning on bringing all of those heroes together for “The Avengers,” I was thrilled. Marvel took characters that were not household names the way Superman, Batman or Wolverine were, and made them into global megastars. When “The Avengers” set the box-office record for biggest opening weekend ever, it was a referendum both on the success of Marvel’s insight and its marketing machine.
“The Avengers” marked the end of Marvel’s “Phase One,” and its “Phase Two” slate, on the whole, has performed well, both critically and at the box-office*. “Iron Man 3” might be the best entry of the series, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is the best Marvel movie they’ve made, and “Guardians of the Galaxy” took Chris Pratt and a talking raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper and made an entertaining, profitable movie out of them.
*The less said about “Thor: The Dark World,” the better.
Marvel’s movies, to date, have an astounding box-office performance. The worst performing movie, “The Incredible Hulk,” made $134 million in 2008, and since the release of “The Avengers,” no Marvel movie has grossed less than $200 million, with “Guardians” bringing in over $330 million, “Iron Man 3″‘s total haul nearing $410 million and this summer’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron” approaching $445 million. (Note: these are just domestic totals.) The average Marvel movie makes $309 million, and while that number is substantially aided by both “Avengers” films, that speaks to Marvel’s ability to deliver what mass audiences want to see.
Which leads me to my concerns with “Ant-Man,” the first movie of Marvel’s “Phase Three.” While I said that I was an unabashed fan of Marvel, I’m an even bigger fan of Paul Rudd. I loved him in “Clueless,” think he’s the best part of the very funny “Wet Hot American Summer,” and has been invigorated by his frequent collaborations with both Judd Apatow (“Knocked Up,” “The 40-Year-Old Virgin”) and David Wain (“Wet Hot,” “Wanderlust,” “Role Models,” “They Came Together.”) Here are just a few of my favorite Paul Rudd scenes, but believe me, there could have been dozens more added:
(This next one’s not safe for work…don’t watch, Mom and Dad!)
It’s impossible not to like Paul Rudd. It is. If I could watch one roving reporter all day, it’d be Brian Fantana. If I could choose one heir to a candy fortune to hang out with, it’d be Bobby Newport. But you know who may not like Paul Rudd as much as I do (and I hate to even say this)? Moviegoers.
Look at Paul Rudd’s box office resume. His highest-grossing movie is “Monsters Vs. Aliens,” a forgettable animated movie where he played the fifth lead. After that is “Knocked Up,” (third at best on the call sheet), “Anchorman 2” (arguably second banana), “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” (again, arguably second banana), and “Anchorman” (ditto). The highest-grossing movie of his career where you could call Rudd the lead is “Dinner for Schmucks,” and I don’t think I’ve ever heard the sentences, “You know what movie I loved? ‘Dinner for Schmucks.'” said out loud. “Dinner for Schmucks,” “I Love You, Man,” “Role Models,” and “This is 40” all grossed between $67 million and $73 million; that seems to be the range of a typical, Paul Rudd-led vehicle, at its best. I love Paul Rudd. Everyone I talk to seems to love Paul Rudd. But so far, moviegoing audiences don’t love Paul Rudd. I imagine this is how I might deal with various movies of mine underperforming at the box office:
Now, of course, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, and even Robert Downey Jr. weren’t all box-office kings before the Marvel machine got ahold of them. And Chris Pratt, who has just had the best 16+ months ever, as far as box office is concerned, wasn’t printing money for studios before “The Lego Movie,” “Guardians” and “Jurassic World.” But Paul Rudd’s been around for twenty years now; if he were going to be a huge box office success story, wouldn’t it have already happened?
The other, major concern that I have for “Ant-Man” is the fact that it’s had the most troubled production of any of the major Marvel movies. Usually, a director is hired, Marvel OKs the script (to make sure that there are no inconsistencies, and to make sure that each movie intertwines with the rest of the cinematic universe to build to future movies), and months or years later, a gigantic blockbuster is released. This has been a proven formula, even with material as quirky as “Guardians.” But “Ant-Man”? “Ant-Man” has been in trouble for a while now. This Vulture article spells it out pretty well, but the most important thing is to realize is that this is the first Marvel movie where the director (who also wrote the script) was fired off the project. And this is after the movie languished for the better part of eight years in development hell.
So…what does it all mean? Not much, although I wouldn’t be shocked if Ant-Man is the first Marvel movie not to cross $100 million (which I think the studio would see as a major disappointment). You have a star who people seem to love, but who don’t rush to see his movies. You have a movie that’s been rewritten on the fly, with a troubled production for years. And there also may be a sense of superhero fatigue. This summer already had an “Avengers” movie; there will be a new “Fantastic Four” in August, then “Batman vs. Superman” next year and “Captain America 3: Civil War” soon to follow.
And yet…if there’s one studio that can pull a rabbit out of its hat, defying conventional wisdom, it’s Marvel. And I think if there’s one actor who has the temerity to prove me wrong, while at the same time not caring whatsoever about his prior box office fortunes, it’s Paul Rudd. After all, when life hands you lemons…