Avatar is the most popular movie of all time, though you wouldn’t think it. No movie, even one that breaks box office records, is universally liked, but Avatar gets a rougher ride than most. While Titanic, Star Wars, and Avengers all have their detractors, it is generally agreed that they are popular movies with enormous fanbases. Despite outgrossing them all, Avatar is the subject of revisionist analysis too often, with people deriding the highest-earning movie of all time as both terrible (subjective) and having been watched by no one (objectively untrue). This has all led to a strange fallout from the sequel, which is grossing incredibly well, and yet we’re still desperate for it to fail.
There was a gap of over a decade between the first two Avatar movies, which is bad news any way you slice it. Though this year’s Top Gun: Maverick showed our appetite for sequels never quite expires, logic dictates that striking while the iron is hot gets bigger results. It’s not just the long gap though – that decade has probably been the most transformative for the blockbuster scene. Superhero movies are now the dominant force, to the point where almost every other franchise has been wiped out. In 2019, the last pre-pandemic year of earnings, 45 percent of all cinema tickets sold in the US were for a superhero movie.
Not only is Avatar not a superhero movie, it’s the movie that stopped Avengers: Endgame from becoming king. By the strange designs of the culture war, this makes Avengers and Avatar enemies. While we as a culture relish the march of the MCU, cheering on as it invents new records to break (Doctor Strange just sold the most tickets at 2pm on a Wednesday for a film starring an actor named Elizabeth!), and constantly discussing its success in terms of box office numbers over critical ratings or even our own opinions. Just the simple fact that movies that make money are good. With Avatar though, we resent this success to a baffling degree.
Avatar’s opening has been spectacular, but it’s still being reported as disappointing. Because the original was the highest grossing movie ever, the sequel needs to beat that to even matter in this strange zero sum world of ours. It’s doing better than the first movie was a week into its release, and still it’s being discussed as a bomb when it’s probably going to end up nestling in the all time top ten when it finally leaves theatres next year. It seems quite bitter, like the narrative of the movie being a failure has been decided already, and now we just need to slot the numbers into that argument even if they upend it.
Avatar: The Way of Water has been a riotous success so far. It’s on course to have passed $500 million by the end of the week, looking at $1 billion early in the new year, if not before. It has no competition as a popcorn seller until Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania in mid-February, and a look at Ant-Man’s track record tells you he ain’t no Spider-Man. Avatar: The Way of Water is going to be a smash, and James Cameron’s tongue in cheek comments that it needs to break $2 billion just to break even are being taken far too seriously by people who should know better.
I’m not sure it will have the legs to beat the original. The tech has less of a ‘bring everyone you know’ factor to it, despite being very impressive on its own, which was a major part of Avatar’s rise to the top. It’s also 30 minutes longer than its predecessor, breaking three hours, and the general dismissive tone around the movie culturally means I think some will be put off by the runtime the way they wouldn’t be for a Batman or Black Panther movie.
I don’t write this as a major Avatar fan. For a long time I thought the original was just fine, although a big screen rewatch ahead of The Way of Water did move those sentiments up a few notches. However, I found the sequel to be only okay, and a little messy in its focus and rushes to get to the major action showdown rather than letting the intimacy of the story sing.
But I’ve also never quite bought the whole ‘its Pocahontas/FernGully/Dances With Wolves’ thing either. It shares similar beats, but then those three movies are rarely compared with each other, and tropes are common in blockbuster cinema. The Avengers teaming up despite their differences to fight off a powerful invader, all while being vague shades of grey yet fighting the bad guys in a black and white, might is right showdown is just The Magnificent Seven if you really want to go down that route.
It’s a symptom of the way we currently discuss cinema that we have people actively rooting for Avatar to fail. It’s not competing against anything else in cinemas right now, and yet people have still made ‘not liking Avatar’ such a bizarre part of the personality that they hope it crashes and burns. Worse, outlets reporting on the box office appear to have decided failure is the story, whatever the facts say. Avatar: The Way of Water has been a huge success – whether you like it or not.
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