“Avatar: The Way of Water” has finally arrived, signaling the start of what could be one of the biggest hit franchises ever to hit the box office. But that will come down to whether director James Cameron can hook audiences worldwide for the long haul — and we’ve recently seen what happens to franchises that can’t do that.
Earlier this year, Warner Bros.’ “Fantastic Beasts,” a spinoff series based on JK Rowling’s Wizarding World, likely suffered its death knell with the weak performance of its third installment, “The Secrets of Dumbledore,” a film that barely broke even at the box office with a global total of $405 million. It’s roughly half of the $814 million that the first “Fantastic Beasts” grossed and a tough end to a saga that JK Rowling announced at its inception would be a five-film series.
While Warner Bros. goes back to the drawing board on how to keep “Harry Potter” and Wizarding World going, Cameron has touted his vision to transform “Avatar” into a long-running saga that spans generations of Jake Sully’s family. Currently, Disney/20th Century Studios has plans to release “Avatar” films every two years, with a third installment already in post-production ahead of a 2024 release and Cameron starting work on fourth and fifth films for release in 2026 and 2028.
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While Cameron is continuing his ambitious work, he has said in interviews that “Avatar 3” is designed to be a possible trilogy capper if the box office numbers don’t give him the green light for more films. There is little doubt that “Avatar: The Way of Water” will be a huge moneymaker, with rival studios expecting the film to gross at least $1 billion and likely much more. But it will have to do more than that to get moviegoers around the world eager to come back for a third, fourth or even fifth sequel.
The most common argument leveled against “Avatar” by its legions of critics is that it had “no cultural impact,” at least not when compared to other films that held the title of highest-grossing film in box office history. “The Godfather,” “ET,” “Jurassic Park” and Cameron’s own “Titanic” all became cinematic touchstones with characters still beloved today, and Marvel’s “Avengers: Endgame” became a global cultural event we may never see again.
“Avatar” is mostly known for its incredible theatrical run and perhaps for its theme park rides in Orlando, but, as the critics’ argument goes, who remembers the names of the protagonists? One might argue in retort that the strong box office tracking and early critical praise of “Avatar: The Way of Water” show that Cameron and his team have indeed left a cultural legacy, weaving a uniquely immersive experience in theaters that millions are eager to return to after over a decade of waiting.
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But the law of diminishing returns has felled even the mightiest of blockbuster franchises — just look at “Transformers” and “Star Wars” — and there’s no guarantee that Cameron’s blend of beautiful alien worlds and fights between blue aliens and space marines is alone enough to make “Avatar” profitable over the course of multiple films… not at the exorbitant price it takes to produce these films with their cutting edge visual effects.
To become a multibillion-dollar saga, “Avatar: The Way of Water” must prove its critics wrong and not just dazzle audiences with spectacle but get them invested in the characters. In the sequel, Jake Sully, having gone from human soldier to Na’vi chief, is now a father of four kids looking to protect his family from the returning Earth corporation known as the RDA. Over the course of the film’s 192-minute runtime, the sequel turns its focus to two of Jake’s children, Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) and Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), who are struggling to discover who they are as human/Na’vi hybrids.
Other side plots develop in the film, including one with the human teen “Spider” (Jack Champion) who was adopted by Jake and prefers to live like the Na’vi, even though he can never truly be one of them. Some of the plotlines are left to be resolved by “Avatar 3,” and if both sequels are successful enough, they can set the groundwork for future films to continue the story of Jake’s children.
But again, look to “Fantastic Beasts” to see what could happen if audiences don’t find Jake and his family particularly memorable.
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While some “Harry Potter” fans embraced “Beasts” protagonist Newt Scamander and his friends, the diminishing numbers for the series shows how the audience at large did not get invested in them long term. There also wasn’t much interest in the efforts of the “Fantastic Beasts” sequels to delve into the history of Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore and his relationship with the dark wizard Grindelwald, played at first by Johnny Depp and then replaced by Mads Mikkelsen after Depp fell into a long legal battle with his ex-wife Amber Heard.
Without an engaging multi-film story arc, the efforts by “Fantastic Beasts” to expand the Wizarding World beyond Hogwarts fell apart, as did the box office returns. “Avatar: The Way of Water” may take audiences to a different part of Pandora to meet a new tribe of Na’vi, but it’s hard to see it create a foundation for follow-up films to make the billions they need to be profitable if audiences aren’t left dying to know what Jake, Lo’ak, Kiri and Spider do in their next struggle.
Cameron seems to know this, promising in a virtual press conference that the “story goes much deeper in terms of heart and emotions” compared to the first “Avatar,” rooting himself deep in the fear for the safety of one’s children that comes with being a parent
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Whether those emotions resonate on a global scale will determine the future of Disney’s theatrical slate at a time when so much of it is in limbo. Marvel Studios, while still churning out hits, is fighting against mixed reception to its recent films among fans and the growing feeling that its best days as a franchise are behind it. Disney Animation and Pixar are both nursing their wounds after “Lightyear” and “Strange World” bombed, and “Star Wars,” while finding new critical success on Disney+ with “Andor,” has seen several attempts to build new theatrical projects struggle to get off the ground.
“Avatar” could be for Disney in the 2020s what “Star Wars” was in the late 2010s: a guaranteed billion-dollar moneymaker for the holiday season. That potential was a major reason why the studio acquired the rights to these films with the 20th Century Fox merger in 2019. But if the audience doesn’t show that it is locked in for them, Disney may have to look elsewhere for holiday box office hits in the years to come.