Movie history will be made this weekend as Avatar: The Way of Water does what most said was impossible — the sequel will hit $2 billion at the box office, likely sometime on Friday or Saturday.
Official Dolby Cinema poster for “Avatar: The Way of Water”
Earlier this week the Avatar sequel replaced Marvel Studio’s Spider-Man: No Way Home as the 6th highest grossing movie of all time. The MCU sequel took a massive $1.9 billion worldwide to become the studio’s fourth title in the top 10 all-time list.
Avatar: The Way of Water is already only the second franchise to have multiple films in the top 10, and once it inevitably replaces Avengers: Infinity War for the #5 spot on the chart, the Avatar franchise will be the only film series with two entries in the top 5 biggest grossers.
James Cameron is currently the only filmmaker with three movies in the top 10, and one of only two sets of filmmakers — the others being the Russo Brothers with Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame — who have multiple movies in the top 10 at all. Besides Avatar and Avatar: The Way of Water, Cameron of course also directed Titanic. He will be the only director with multiple films in the top 5 once his newest movie outgrosses Infinity Wars (which currently makes the Russos the only filmmakers with multiple films in the top 5).
There’s not much noise from the “actual nobody cares about Avatar and the sequel can’t make $2 billion” crowd these days, as Avatar: The Way of Water generates enthusiastic return crowds week after week and sails easily past one box office milestone after another.
Just like the film itself, the whole media, fan, and cinephile narrative leading up to and right after release for Avatar 2 has been a sequel. We went through the underestimations and gleeful expectations of Cameron eating crow last time around when 2009’s Avatar left naysayers in its dust with an all-time chart-topping performance to the tune of $2.7+ billion (after multiple rereleases, it now stands just a few million dollars shy of $3 billion).
Since that reality-induced drubbing, the doubters have been eagerly sharpening their knives for the sequel films and even retroactively insisting the first film wasn’t really all that after all, because who even remembers it and how much did it even affect our culture? Forget that the answers were “apparently everybody including you” and “plenty if you stop treating cultural impact as something only measurable within white western society (and ignoring all examples within even that society, frankly).”
After an opening weekend bow that came in under more lofty expectations, Avatar: The Way of Water was quickly labeled “underperforming” by much of the entertainment press and social media movie punditry. Questions immediately arose about whether the sequel could even top $1 billion, or if $1.5 billion might be the topping-out point, and so on.
I myself, even as a more bullish predictor of Avatar 2’s future prospects, thought at first that it might have a higher-end outcome in the $1.8 billion range (although in my defense I always said $2 billion remained possible under the most perfect conditions), until its $1.7+ billion outcome just a weekend ago cemented the fact $2 billion was inevitable. Meaning I made the cardinal error of violating a rule I personally trumpet every time he has a new film: never doubt James Cameron.
At this rate, it looks like we can start more accurately guesstimating a final global cume in the neighborhood of $2.2 billion, with $2.3 billion probably at the higher end of potential. But $2.4+ billion is not out of the question, not by a long shot, and if challengers fold or underperform and audiences sate their desire for something more pleasing with yet another repeat viewing of Avatar: The Way of Water, and if certain international markets see a surge, some box office analysts even whisper $2.5 billion is still technically in the cards.
But I’ll stick by my current $2.2-2.3 billion range for now, until I see evidence the upcoming box office competition isn’t panning out as expected.
A ceremony scene in “Avatar: The Way of Water”
It’s amazing to consider that, under my more moderate estimate, Avatar: The Way of Water could’ve actually added a couple of hundred billion more dollars to its cume if it had released in Russia and if Japan’s box office situation hadn’t essentially stumbled so badly for it. Those two markets combined for a whopping $290+ million for the first Avatar movie, but the sequel will take a sad <$30 million in place of that previous windfall. So it essentially left an extra $150-200 million on the table, which would’ve lifted its eventual final total closer to the $2.5 billion range.
To get this close to the original’s box office run — but without Russian markets, with a flop in Japan plus a slowed and suppressed situation in China’s theaters, during a global pandemic that’s killed millions of people already and is now raging out of control in China while new more transmissible variants keep spreading worldwide — would already be a remarkable feat. To do so while surrounded by doubt and negative press, amid backlash among segments of the film community itself and from so much of online film culture, and with such high expectations to meet to even live up to the first film’s popularity, is almost magic.
Despite everything working against it, despite a built-in anticipation of seeing it fail and with so much “been there, done that, and we kind of resent you for existing” attitude in the entertainment press and film critic community, Cameron’s Avatar sequel also managed to get a 77% Fresh rating from Rotten Tomatoes critics (and a 73% from Top Critics) and an A-grade from audiences via Cinemascore.
It’s also making most of the year-end “best” lists, and getting attention from major awards groups ahead of what will likely be a large number of nominations at the Academy Awards.
How many filmmakers are working with this much ambition to build original worlds and tell stories there, to add more and better tools for telling bigger stories that push the boundaries of what’s possible in cinema, encouraging audiences to seek out the best viewing options and experiences and experimenting to find the best paths forward in all regards, again and again? Because that’s what Cameron has spent most of his career doing.
Cameron keeps putting his reputation and finances at stake to accomplish it, too. And he keeps winning. Which means he keeps scoring victories for all of those other things listed above for theaters and cinema itself and audiences.
You can dislike his movies all you want, and you can dislike the man personally and professionally, but you should at least acknowledge he has powerful creative artistic vision and succeeds in putting all of his ambition on the screen, and that filmmaking and audiences benefit immensely from it.
The bashing I see of Cameron, his approach, and his success reminds me of the bashing George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg got in the 1970s and 1980s. And yes, it is a fair comparison, his films and his filmmaking does merit such comparison. I’d put Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Titanic, Avatar, and Avatar: The Way of Water — as well as Ghosts of the Abyss and Aliens of the Deep — alongside the comparable era of blockbuster filmmaking by Lucas and Spielberg.
Avatar 3 is just around the corner in 2024, just in time for another Christmas release to maximize its potential for long box office legs and yet another all-time box office performer for Cameron. So I may as well get my prediction out ahead of everybody else and say Avatar: The Way of Water has proven the franchise is far bigger and far stronger than it was credited for being by most experts and industry folks, so there’s every reason to expect Avatar 3 to do $2 billion business as well.
That prediction is of course barring any calamitous events unfolding domestically and/or globally. But that would mean a new pandemic virus, a dangerous Covid variant with higher death toll, Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine expanding into NATO countries, a nuclear confrontation, or civil warfare in the USA before/during/after the national elections, so that’s a glimpse of what it would take at this point to slow down the Avatar series potential at this point.
It is crazy to think one filmmaker is probably less than two years away from having a fourth film enter the top five all-time grossing movies. But come 2024, this probably what the chart will look like:
Number four and number five might swap places, but this is generally how I expect the charts to look once the third Avatar film completes its run.
Official poster for the 25th anniversary 4K HDR 3D re-release of “Titanic”
Or maybe I’m underestimating Cameron and his beloved series and Avatar 3 will be the best of the series yet, and maybe it will shock us all by nearly matching or even topping the original Avatar’s run and hit close to/north of $3 billion. We seriously cannot rule that out as a realistic if highest-end estimate of potential at this point.
And remember, there are two more coming a few years after that. I don’t think any Marvel movie until Avengers: The Kang Dynasty and Avengers: Secret Wars have much shot at $2+ billion performances, so it looks like Cameron’s sizable majority of the top 5 will last at least a year. And with inflation, plus Avatar 2 and Avatar 3 building the audience and preparing us all for even greater leaps in filmmaking technology and revelations about the world of Pandora, what will the box office for Avatar 4 and Avatar 5 look like? toward the end of this decade?
Those are questions to ponder while we await their arrival, but what’s beyond question is the breathtaking success of the Avatar franchise and it’s potential to continue well into the future. And hopefully, this will finally put an end to any doubts about whether or not you should ever, ever bet against James Cameron.