After a long 13-year wait for the sequel to the highest grossing movie of all time, James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water is set to debut a little over a month from now on December 16th, and it is in the unique position where many not only wonder if it can match or outdo the quality of the first instalment, but also if it can seize that box office crown. If domestic box office projections are anything to go by, it’s a resounding no, and the blockbuster will also likely struggle to match its predecessor internationally, yet The Way of Water should nonetheless dominate the coveted Christmas season. To best understand this dynamic, it’s worth first looking back at the release of Avatar in 2009.
Few filmmakers generate buzz around their movies quite like James Cameron, and a large part of this hype is the way in which he is constantly looking to push the technological envelope of any given release. While The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) each deserve immense recognition for their advancements in special effects, most filmgoers had his movie prior to Avatar in mind, 1997’s Titanic, which held the record for the highest grossing box office of all time for those 12 years, and it was the also the first and only picture to break the billion-dollar mark up to that point. Then along came Avatar, which not only dethroned Titanic as the highest grossing feature of all time, but also became the first to surpass two-billion-dollars at the box office, and while its positive reception certainly helped, Cameron’s technical prowess – showcased particularly in Titanic, along with Avatar’s groundbreaking use of motion capture technology and arguably the greatest instance of 3D implementation ever seen in a cinematic release – played major roles in contributing to its unprecedented success.
This is all without considering the years since Avatar’s release, where it has been re-released for limited periods due to the continuing demand of seeing it in 3D, adding ever more to the box office over the years, and it is a testament to lasting experience of Avatar’s 3D visuals that – in spite of 3D now being considered a fad that has nonetheless stuck around – a reported 93% of audiences chose to see its most recent re-release in 3D.
Of course, when examining the lower-than-expected domestic box office for Avatar: The Way of Water, we must also recognise how the commercial cinematic landscape has shifted in the years since the original’s release, specifically with the explosion of the “cinematic universe.” Audiences have become accustomed to high turnover in shared universe features, with the likes of Marvel, DC and even the Harry Potter/Fantastic Beasts franchise all churning out movies in excessive rates. Marvel, who laid the foundations for the modern cinematic shared universe, had only released Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk by the time Avatar released, and in the 13 years since there has been an astonishing twenty-eight movies released in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Avengers: Endgame even managed to seize the crown of highest grossing movie from Avatar in 2019, but this was short-lived as Cameron’s epic managed to reassert its box office superiority in early 2021 with yet another re-release, this time in China.
Even with a budget of $250 million, making Avatar: The Way of Water one of the most expensive films ever made, it bears repeating that there is every indication that this latest film from James Cameron will be a smashing success and allow him to move on with the additional two planned sequels. You must also consider the inherently money-making Cameron name will be slapped on the poster (forget about Terminator: Dark Fate), and he has once again pushed technical boundaries by being the first filmmaker to use motion capture technology underwater (which is why the sequel has taken so long to make), and there is also recognition of a brand beloved by many. However, with audiences viewing habits having shifted, and enough time having passed that it could alienate a certain percentage of young viewers who don’t remember or even know about Avatar, expectations of its box office performance should be tempered, but only with respect to Cameron’s last two films in the past 25 years, which have earned a combined $5 billion US. Once audiences are reintroduced to Avatar’s world of Pandora and the Na’vi that populate it, the sequels that are intended to follow, which are slated for release 2024 and 2026, certainly have the potential to usurp the top spot from the franchise’s original release. Whatever the case, Cameron seems poised to continue asserting his dominance as arguably the most bankable director of all time.