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How Avatar: The Way of Water can make $2 billion and still feel irrelevant

James Cameron’s sequel is the global smash no one is talking about.

This is what Sigourney Weaver would look like as an angsty teen half-Na’vi. Weaver voices her and her mother (a human biologist) in Avatar: The Way of Water.
20th Century Studios
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Much like how Sigourney Weaver plays both a bright blue, immaculately conceived Na’vi teenager and her own late human biologist mother in Avatar: The Way of Water, the film surpassing a worldwide box office haul of $2 billion is something that raises more questions than answers.

Primarily: How is this movie making so much money? And why is this movie making so much money?

The Way of Water’s astounding success has seen some claim the numbers are a psyop perpetrated on the American people by 20th Century Studios and its parent company Disney.

Barring the fringe theorists, the current conversation surrounding The Way of Water feels a lot like a hangover from the one surrounding 2009’s Avatar: that James Cameron had made the biggest movie in history that no one actually remembers. It’s uncanny when something that makes an absurd amount of money isn’t also something that everyone talks about all the time.

But that isn’t and shouldn’t be the only way to think about Avatar’s financial triumphs. When you break below the surface of what makes Avatar and its sequel work, and why people are going to theaters to see it, it opens up a bigger conversation about what we deem as culturally relevant, the sneaky way we’re trained to do that, and the sly, almost admirable way that James Cameron has, to the degree that he can, rejected that construction.

Avatar breaks the way we measure cultural relevance

At the heart of the “cultural impact” debate is how we quantify it. The more people talk about something, for better or for worse, the more impact it’s made. By this calculus, Marvel and Star Wars, which are also owned by Avatar parent company Disney, are two peak examples. Unless one were living in complete isolation, it’s impossible to not be reminded of the next Marvel (Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania) or Star Wars (The Mandalorian season 3) project in the pipeline.

A lot of that reminding comes from those studios themselves, in large part because they’ve systems designed to never let you forget what’s coming next. Each project is part of a larger narrative, and especially in the case of Marvel, those pieces are often crucial to moving the larger story forward.

In addition to the movies, there are television shows, one-off specials, conventions, comic books, video games, merchandise, action figures, collectibles, and so much in between that make it virtually impossible to avoid franchises like Marvel, Star Wars, Harry Potter, and even Pokémon.

Cosplaying as Jake Sully (above), a man who had consciousness transferred via planetary deity into a half-Na’vi body, is a difficult task.
20th Century Studios

What makes Avatar an anomaly is that Disney and the producers of Avatar don’t really seem concerned with any of that. Fundamentally, there have only been two movies in the Avatar universe and more than a decade gap between them. Depending on the financial stability of the movies (although, if each one has Way of Water’s success, there’s no doubt), three more films are planned, with the fifth installment to be released in 2028. Each will reportedly function as a stand-alone film.

“When you look at the Avatar franchise it’s mostly a wholly original work. The plot is a little derivative, sure, but there were no books, no comic books [that it was based on], and to my knowledge, no expanded universe novels were written in the decade that it took to make a new movie,” Ryan Broderick, the creator of Garbage Day and a journalist who focuses on web culture and trends, explained to me.

“So much of genre entertainment has evolved to be better suited for fans. But with Avatar, the strange thing is that it isn’t really built for fandom, and that fandom doesn’t really have much to go on beyond the movies,” he added.

Measuring Avatar against these benchmarks of what we’ve been trained to see as impact fuels the narrative that Avatar has no cultural impact. The fact that we’re puzzled points to how difficult it is for our brains to cleave away financial triumph from cultural significance. Things that are financially successful must be culturally powerful, right?

But what if cultural saturation never was Cameron’s goal? And what if — forgive my galaxy brain — the idea of “cultural impact” is merely a capitalist illusion that studios peddle to ensure their survival?

Around the lead-up to Avatar’s 2009 release, studios were looking to “create a new, durable reason for people to keep going back to the theaters,” J.D. Connor, a professor at the University of Southern California’s film department, told me. One of Connor’s specialties is the economic side of the entertainment industry.

“And that’s where Marvel manages to initiate that kind of cultural re-flation through an incredible private equity deal where they pledge their IP against the future receipts of the films. So in a way, Avatar partly gets squeezed out of the cultural consciousness, because the MCU has a different way of being in it,” Connor explained. In a post-2008 recession world, Marvel fully reinvented what cultural relevance even meant.

Avatar is, Connor says, a sort of dinosaur franchise that, thanks in large part to its financial success, still operates in a way that some older franchises — like Alien or, more recently, Planet of the Apes — worked. That means that while there’s supplemental merch and other cinematic accoutrements, the movie was the main attraction, the endpoint.

Back then, “you didn’t say, in a meeting halfway through production, ‘Hey, Jim, what’s the ride for this look like? Or what’s the toy for this look like?’ Whereas folks making those other franchises absolutely have those conversations,” Connor explained.

Given the current economic atmosphere and how movies operate now, it’d be foolish to ignore those elements.

“I’m sure Cameron probably has to do this now as well. Maybe Cameron was consulted when they launched Pandora: The World of Avatar at Disney World, but it certainly wasn’t his highest priority.”

Why does the Avatar franchise’s success feel so invisible?

As Avatar: The Way of Water climbs up the all-time box office list, the nagging question underlying its ascent has been: Who is seeing this movie? People? And are those people in the room with us?

Part of the puzzle is the aforementioned lack of vocal and visible fandom. Since there isn’t a rabid, fan-sparked clamor for the movie, it seems like it shouldn’t be doing as well as it has. What skews perception even further is that The Way of Water and its predecessors are the rare American movies that are actually more popular overseas.

“While Avatar does very well in the United States, it does incredibly well abroad,” Connor told me. “Top Gun Maverick is basically a 50-50 movie: 50 percent of its box office is domestic and 50 is international. Way of Water is closer to 70 to 75 percent of its money abroad.”

According to Box Office Mojo, around $620 million of Way of Water’s $2.1 billion box office comes from domestic viewings — a respectable figure, according to Connor. When you look at the all-time list of US domestic gross, though, movies like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Avengers: Endgame, and Spider-Man: No Way Home all have totals of at least $800 million. Box office earnings and ticket sales aren’t a one-to-one conversion (due in large part to IMAX and 3D screenings, which cost more and are added into box office totals), but those non-Avatar franchises being much more popular stateside can lead to Americans underestimating The Way of Water’s success.

The other side of that story is that The Way of Water’s worldwide total is close to $1.5 billion, which dwarfs its cinematic competition. Breaking that down even further, China accounts for $229 million, and not too far behind are France at $130 million and Germany at $119 million. That popularity raises the question: What is it about Avatar that people all around the world love so much?

A half-Na’vi child swimming in water, the titular character in Avatar: The Way of Water.
20th Century Studios

“Frictionless” is the compliment Connor uses to describe Cameron and his movies. It’s the basic idea of being able to create a narrative that everyone can understand and enjoy. That simplicity can sound like a backhanded dig, but it’s not, Connor assured me.

“So many movies can have ‘easy’ narratives and plots, and they aren’t anywhere near as successful,” Connor said, pointing to how some generally loved Disney and Pixar movies don’t necessarily do well in Russia. The secret, Connor believes, is that Cameron is a notorious perfectionist, and that extends to his storytelling.

“Nobody has a better idea of how big movies work than he does, but the key thing is that when you watch Cameron’s movies, there is none of that. You don’t feel the weight of any of his knowledge,” Connor explained. “Everything clears out of the way, because of a very precise distillation process that goes into the relationship between the very simple structural stories and the totality of what he knows. That’s a tremendous skill!”

Essentially, Cameron is a master of translating all the moving parts behind the camera into what audiences want to see and feel when they go to the movies. It’s not a skill that’s necessarily easy to spot, but it is incredibly obvious when directors don’t possess that understanding of audience. And it’d be very obvious if Cameron dropped the ball, considering the complex universe his Avatar movies take place in.

Cameron’s knack for “distillation” allows him to combine wild flourishes like giant cat-people, feral children, and toxic fauna with a story about humanity’s unquenchable thirst for consumption — stuff that might alienate audiences, but that in Cameron’s hands works extremely well.

The lore “is all utterly incomprehensible to an outsider,” Broderick, the internet culture journalist, explained. “But there’s just something admirable about James Cameron being like, ‘I don’t care about making a movie that people might not understand.’ It breaks all the logic of a franchise film.”

Broderick does concede that the franchise does have pockets of penetrable relatability, like protagonist Jake Sully “being the first man from Boston to go to space.” And he believes that another one of Cameron’s great strengths is that he knows how to paint universally detested villains.

“Nobody writes a better bastard — the evil terminators, the bad guy from Titanic, etc. — than Cameron, ” Broderick said.

Figuring out what people acutely hate is a skill, and Broderick explained that it points to, again, Cameron’s connection with his audience. He knows what makes them tick, the kind of characters that make blood boil, and that’s usually rooted in greed and class. He’s adept at translating the things that make us mad into people who make us mad onscreen.

On the opposite side of that, the Avatar movies cleverly remove any notion that the heroes are American, which certain movies tend to imply. They also, at their core, function as cautionary conservation allegories. Both are factors that probably boost Avatar’s international appeal in ways that may not be blazingly obvious to many people living in the US.

While all of these are thoughtful explanations of why Avatar does well, the simplest and perhaps most persuasive explanation is that people want to see movies that are made for theaters in theaters. When Avatar came out in 2009, it was a flock-to-the-theater event. Since then, moviegoing culture has changed. But the common refrain is that people will only go to the movies for huge, action-packed blockbusters like Avatar.

“We kind of underestimate how much people value and want to look at spectacle,” Broderick said. “James Cameron never stopped making that kind of movie.”

And people haven’t stopped watching.

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