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'Ant-Man' looms large for Marvel Studios and Disney

This weekend, Disney and Marvel Studios face a big challenge with a pint-sized property.

The duo will expand Marvel's shared cinematic universe with "Ant-Man," the story of a reformed crook whose supersuit allows him to shrink, enhances his strength and lets him communicate with insects.

Based on one of Marvel's more obscure properties, "Ant-Man" may serve as a bellwether for the company's future. Many of its most popular characters have already made it to the big screen, and Marvel will rely on lesser-known superheroes in upcoming films.

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Analysts told CNBC it's unfair to judge the film against Marvel's blockbuster "Avengers" films, but it would also be unwise to give it short shrift. After all, "Guardians of the Galaxy" became the highest-grossing superhero movie of 2014, proving little-known properties can overcome obscurity with the right mix of talent, story and comedy.

"You just never underestimate Marvel, no matter what the property is," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak.

A scene from the movie "Ant-Man"
Source: Marvel
A scene from the movie "Ant-Man"

Having seen the film overseas ahead of its U.S. opening, Dergarabedian said he's optimistic about its box-office prospects as well as its ability to forestall the saturation point for the superhero genre.

"It almost just plays like a comedy that has a superhero element to it." he said. "It feels really fresh and different and fun."

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Heading into the weekend, "Ant-Man" is tracking for a $60 million to $65 million U.S. debut, according to film trade publications. That would be the second-lowest U.S. open in Marvel's shared cinematic universe, beating only 2008's "The Incredible Hulk."

But it would also put "Ant-Man" just behind the opening weekend takes for "Captain America: The First Avenger" and "Thor," an impressive feat given the popularity of those characters, said Jeff Bock, senior box-office analyst at Exhibitor Relations. (Marvel declined to comment for this story.)

"That's key for Marvel's brand right now, and this is a big test for them because they have a number of these lesser-known C-level characters headlining films in the next couple of years," he said.

Marvel's slate includes "Black Panther," featuring the ruler of a highly advanced African nation, and "Doctor Strange," the tale of a narcissistic surgeon who inadvertently becomes a master of the mystic arts on his quest to cure a career-ending injury.

The studio has so far cast its leads wisely to broaden the appeal of under-the-radar characters, Bock said. "Ant-Man" stars comedy darling Paul Rudd and Hollywood veteran Michael Douglas. Marvel has announced rising star Benedict Cumberbatch of "Sherlock" and "Star Trek: Into Darkness" will portray the Sorcerer Supreme in "Doctor Strange."

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But unlike "Avengers" and "Iron Man," movies like "Ant-Man" are not review-proof, so critics may have a bigger impact on those, Dergarabedian said.

Opinions of "Ant-Man" are thus far mostly positive. As of Friday morning, it had a 76 percent ranking on Rotten Tomatoes based on 137 professional reviews.

Dergarabedian said "Ant-Man" will likely appeal to young audiences thanks to kid-friendly set pieces like the film's final battle, which takes place on a model train set. "It might actually turn into another family film during the summer, and that could enhance its prospects as well."

The film's tech and science fiction aspects will likely play well abroad as well, he added. Films featuring robots and supersuits, including "Transformers," "Pacific Rim" and "Iron Man 3," have been big hits in the crucial Chinese and East Asian markets.

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Ultimately, analysts said Marvel's continued success will depend on whether audiences tire of its formula or keep going back to the well.

"For better or worse, the films are very formulaic, and they make the best formula out there," Bock said.