The new Ant-Man epic is a big hit, again raising the question what is the box office magic embedded in Marvel’s superhero (or super-insect) movies? How long will it sustain?

The “magic” is a relatively new phenomenon: Thirty years ago this summer, in fact, Peter Guber ran into a brick wall trying to persuade Warner Bros to finance a superhero movie. The creative types at the studio didn’t buy either the genre or the title – Batman. Not ones to be rebuffed, Guber and his then-partner Jon Peters went to work on the studio’s merchandising and foreign sales teams to rally support.

Peter Bart

Not only did the movie ultimately get made (Tim Burton directed), but superhero movies have held the keys to the kingdom ever since — Ant-Man and the Wasp is Marvel’s 20th. Seven of last year’s 11 top-grossing movies were proud (?) representatives of this genre. “Hollywood’s Comic Book Age represents a global obsession,” reports Mark Bowden in the New York Times.

While Ant-Man and the Wasp registered a formidable $161 million worldwide gross on its opening weekend, it seemed to be playing by a different set of rules. Critics who normally shrivel at superhero movies marshaled words like “summer romp” (New York Times) and ”enormous charm” (Los Angeles Times). When I saw the movie last week with a packed audience, the (mostly) young ticket buyers were laughing, more than cringing.

The Dark Knight Rises
“The Dark Knight Rises”
Warner Bros. Pictures/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

And Marvel planned it that way. In shaping the movie, Marvel cast Paul Rudd, cool and amiable (“I Love You, Man”) as the lead, the polar opposite of brooding Christian Bale (American Psycho and Dark Knight). The company signed Peyton Reed to direct — he comes from comedy, a genre alien to Chris Nolan (Dark Knight). The basic plot, such as it is, doesn’t hinge on saving the world, but rather rescuing someone’s mother from the quantum realm, wherever that is. There is no Thor or Drax hanging around, just random insects and confused antiheroes.

The Ant-Man narrative is steeped in idiosyncratic absurdities: one character suffers from “molecular disequilibrium” while another has symptoms of “quantum decoherence.” But how else would you explain why characters and structures keep shrinking and expanding on cue? Interviewed in the New York Times about the movie, a Cal Tech physicist named Spyridon Michalakis assures us that Ant-Man takes place in “a subatomic realm, an alternative universe where the laws of physics and forces of nature as we know them haven’t crystallized.”

I accept this as oddly reassuring, since Marvel does. Marvel’s guiding guru, Kevin Feige, seems to be busily rewriting the rule book for his genre, which portends further strategic change. Or, as some skeptics speculate, it might also reflect a response to superhero fatigue — a fatigue vaguely reminiscent of the final days of the Western.

True Grit
“True Grit”
Moviestore Collection/REX/Shutterstock

Once the meat-and-potatoes of the studio system, Westerns consistently won over audiences as well as awards — until fatigue set in. The superstars of the Old West got old, their stories got tired. Starting in the studio system, I sensed the end was near when Elvis Presley started playing a gun slinger (Love Me Tender). Or when John Wayne agreed to play a tired (and somewhat dysfunctional) old-timer in True Grit (actually I gave him the novel on which it was based).

Hollywood was finally reluctantly ready to embrace a new genre by the time Guber came along. Cowpokes were too old and vulnerable but superheroes represented new possibilities — “idealized humans who transcend laws, even those of nature,” writes Bowden. “They celebrate exceptionalism and vigilantism.” To be sure, important, long-accepted elements of storytelling had to be abandoned along the way. Jeopardy, for example; Wonder Woman cannot get into serious trouble with sequels beckoning. Conflict, for another; Batman and Spider-Man always emerge victorious once they overcome their tedious boyhood problems.

Under the new rulebook, in fact, character is essentially irrelevant. The new movies feature brand names, even of insects — the specific species is unimportant. It’s the jokes that are important along with the occasional explosion to keep the kids focused.