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The predictions are in. As of this writing, Avatar: The Way of Water is expected to bring in between $150 million and $175 million in North America this weekend. Those are hefty sums, the kind usually reserved for Marvel movies or Star Wars. Yes, the movie’s predecessor is the highest-grossing movie of all time—raking in more than $2.9 billion worldwide since its 2009 release—but people forget that its opening weekend yielded just $77 million, and it wasn’t thought of as a sure thing. It was the repeat viewers that transformed it into a juggernaut. Now, James Cameron and anyone rooting for the survival of theaters are hoping Avatar can beat expectations again.
The movie, out now, hits theaters under much different circumstances than its predecessor. The year 2009, despite the recession, still felt like a hopeful time, and all of the technical 3D marvels that Avatar pulled off still felt like, well, marvels. Audiences seemed too busy being immersed to mind that the movie’s story was pretty rote. In 2022, movie-making bells and whistles are the rote part, and audiences, two years into the Covid-19 pandemic, may be leery of being immersed in a theater for 3 hours and 10 minutes.
Perhaps even Cameron knows this. Much of the early buzz for The Way of Water has focused on the sequel’s improved story. “One of the (valid) knocks against the first Avatar is that the characters feel like cutouts, there largely to serve as vessels for exploring the fantastical setting,” New York magazine’s Bilge Ebiri wrote. “This time around, it feels as if Cameron has taken the criticism to heart.” Cameron has also spent less time in the movie’s promotion cycle talking about the film’s technical achievements.
But will that be enough to get people into theaters? Even though movies like Top Gun: Maverick and Spider-Man: No Way Home have proven boffo box office is possible in the Covid era, there’s a sense that The Way of Water is going to be a litmus test for a certain kind of blow-the-doors-off/some-saw-it-three-times-in-the-theater blockbuster. That’s what happened with the first film. But, as The New York Times Magazine noted recently, “Of all the questions raised by Avatar: The Way of Water, the most pressing seems to be ‘Who asked for this?’” Sure, Maverick was able to pull in audiences 36 years after Top Gun, but Top Gun also left a longer-lasting cultural footprint. On one end of the spectrum are fans who still say, “I feel the need, the need for speed”; on the other are BuzzFeed quizzes like “Do you remember anything at all about Avatar?”
But it’s possible all of this gets crossed out by another well-worn Hollywood maxim: Never doubt James Cameron. Even though it may seem like few people care about Avatar these days, that might not matter. When the original film got rereleased in China in 2021, it made millions—so many millions that it reclaimed the top spot as highest-grossing film of all time, beating out Avengers: Endgame. The film also comes at a time when audiences are more comfortable than ever going back to the theater. Maybe all they need is for Cameron to show them the way.