Before I even get to watch Avatar: The Way Of The Water, I feel like I have to review the very idea of Avatar: The Way Of The Water. It’s a debate I’ve had multiple times this week, with people I respect and some of my best friends, who often say things like “I can’t wait to not see Avatar 2.,” “I can’t wait to watch Avatar 2 bomb,” “Who cares about another blue cat people movie” and things to that effect. Chances are you’ve heard sentiments along these lines this week, if not expressed them yourself.
On some level, I get it. Most of this sentiment likely stems from the idea that the first Avatar (2009) was corny and derivative, that 13 years is a long time to wait for a sequel, that maybe Avatar doesn’t need a sequel in the first place, and to be constantly forcefed hype for a movie that you had otherwise mostly forgotten about is kind of obnoxious. I can’t entirely disagree on these points, and I’ve probably even expressed similar ones myself, once or many times between 2010 and 2016 or so.
So how is it that I find myself not resenting the prospect of Avatar 2, and even relishing it? Partly it’s the person of James Cameron himself, who is sort of everything Richard Branson, Elon Musk, and Michael Bay want to be rolled into one, a guy who has directed two of the three highest-grossing films of all time (back-to-back, if you don’t count the documentaries in between) and explores uncharted ocean trenches for fun. He moved to New Zealand full-time. He became a legitimate Titanic scholar. The man is a character. When a guy like that spends 13 years making a movie, how can you not at least be curious?
Yet even beyond James Cameron’s out-sized persona, the big reason more insidery movie types like me are maybe more interested in a second Avatar than some of my less moviegoing friends, and part of the reason Avatar seems like a more interesting movie in retrospect than a lot of us thought it was at the time, is that in the years since, we’ve witnessed the degradation of the movie as a product.
The individual movie is almost never the product anymore. It’s almost always a mere bullet point in an organization’s a five-year plan. When you go to see a Marvel movie (and it’s hard to deny Marvel as the biggest player in this), you don’t especially get the sense that what they’re trying to sell you is the movie. It feels like they’re trying to sell you on Marvel as a brand. Marvel as a content universe. That they want to turn you into a regular Marvelhead, so that you become a daily Marvel user and can’t live without whatever the next Marvel thing is. The movie is maybe one facet in that strategy, but their hopes for you as a consumer go above and beyond the latest movie they’re promoting and whether it makes you feel something or not.
As that strategy has proven successful for them (two Avengers movies making that list of top five-grossing movies of all time) almost every other mainstream commercial movie product has followed suit. It’s the same with DC, it’s the same with Star Wars, it’s the same with most streaming companies. The goal is not for you to buy the ticket to a movie and leave with your mind blown, it’s to get you hooked on the brand. The movie is no longer an experience you can buy, but part of a series of experiences that you can only rent.
The big studios and streamers like to pretend these goals are no different than when Steve Spielberg made Jaws, but they’re different. Almost every high-profile release these days feels like it’s trying to create its own version of Disney Adults. To not just leave satisfied viewers, but fanatical acolytes. Movies that used to try to appeal to basic human emotion now feel like massive-budget FOMO generators. Instead of asking the equivalent of “hey, you know that feeling we all have?” or even just showing you something really cool, it feels like what a lot of heavily promoted films are doing nowadays is asking “Hey, remember this thing? Remember that thing? Wasn’t it cool when this thing happened on that one show?”
It’s as if by obliquely referencing things from the same family of products, our natural completism as viewers will compel us to go out and pay for every other piece of content from that same brand in the hopes of never missing out on a joke or a reference again. Rather than bringing us in under one big “tentpole” (classic industry jargon for a big hit movie), it’s like they want to turn us out, into scavenger hunters. Classic blockbusters wanted you to “get it.” Modern franchise movies want you feeling invested but ultimately unsatisfied, in the position of having to pay for the next thing to get your fix.
Is Avatar not a franchise? A sequel? A Disney product, even? It is all of those things, but at the very least it feels like the product is the movie, and that makes it a welcome throwback. Supposedly Way Of The Water has to be the third or fourth highest-grossing movie of all time just to earn back its budget. That’s crazy! It feels like a wild bet rather than a sober investment strategy. I’d much rather root for that gambler.
It doesn’t feel like the goal of Way of the Water is to get me to spend $9.99 for Pandora+. It feels like James Cameron’s goal was to make this one insane movie that’s going to knock my dick in the dirt, and no one could tell him no because he has made people too much money in the past for them to risk looking stupid for not backing him this time around. Maybe other people are less inclined than I to root for the madman (especially one who is already rich beyond belief), but in my mind, it’s a lot more fun to root for a madman than for the machine.