Lainey asked me this question—who cares about the Avatar sequels? It is the eternal debate of Avatar, how big is it REALLY, when it left no cultural footprint? Sure, it’s the second biggest movie of all time (not adjusted for inflation), and it was a technological marvel when it came out in 2009. But eleven years later, no one talks about Avatar. I challenge you to name the main characters and describe them without using actors’ names or physical descriptions. For being one of the biggest movies of all time, Avatar is weirdly anonymous in the pop culture landscape. So does anyone care about the sequels coming down the pipe? Avatar 2 is really, finally happening, and we have photographic evidence to prove it:
From the set of the sequels: @ZoeSaldana, Sam Worthington, Kate Winslet, and Cliff Curtis taking a break from underwater performance capture for a quick photo!— Avatar (@officialavatar) May 13, 2020
Fun fact: Much of the performance capture took place in this 900,000 gallon tank, built specifically for the sequels. pic.twitter.com/NSfqoZ6jXJ
Here’s the thing—Avatar 2 will be BIG. By the time it comes out in 2021 (assuming production resumes soon-ish and it can get back on track), it will be twelve years since the first movie, just long enough for nostalgia to set in. People will be excited to revisit Pandora, and to see what new marvels James Cameron has in store for audiences this time. Avatar 3 will happen because it was shot concurrently with Avatar 2. But after that? HUGE question mark. Because Avatar isn’t memorable, and in the decade since Avatar wowed audiences, audiences came to love characters more than anything. Movie Stars died so that Great Characters could live, which we saw play out most successfully with the Marvel movies, where character popularity almost always trumps that of the actual actor in the role (see also: everyone’s box office track record outside of Marvel movies).
I have no doubt Avatar2 will be a big movie, between the hype, the nostalgia, and the curiosity factor. But Avatars 3-5? Let’s just say I won’t be shocked if we never actually see Avatar 5, because I suspect this franchise will turn out to be a case of diminishing returns. It’s never smart to bet against James Cameron, but he has never been known for his storytelling, and that is what he will need in order to sustain four sequels—a great story, with memorable characters. Avatar succeeded as a spectacle in 2009 because it had no competition, nothing else looked like it. But now every movie looks like Avatar. And yes, Cameron is supposedly pushing the envelope again and doing new things with technology to realize an underwater Pandora world, but I’ve heard it’s not as mind-blowing as how Avatar raised the bar for 3D in 2009. It’s basically developing a way to photograph realistic water—which I think has to do with the ping pong balls in the photo—which is a big deal for tech nerds, but audiences are probably not going to care about photo-real water at this point. Again, we are now used to CG movies looking wholly realistic.
I suspect Cameron knows what he’s up against with this one, too. I think that’s why he’s always going off on superhero movies. He knows the world has changed since 2009, that the bar he initially raised has become the norm, and that audiences are no longer won over by spectacle alone. Consider the fate of The Rise of Skywalker, a good-looking film with one of the best lightsaber duels in Star Wars history, and fans rejected it because the story didn’t make any sense and the characters were not well serviced. It didn’t matter how good it looked, the story was bad and so no one liked it. If that can happen to STAR WARS, with all the fan goodwill in the world, what could happen to Avatar, with its lack of popular support?
Well, like I said, #3 will come out because they’ve already started work on it and the sunk cost fallacy kicks in. But the rest of it? There’s a real chance it never happens. Part of me believes James Cameron will always find a way to surprise us, no matter how insane his projects seem, but part of me also knows no one ever talks about Avatar. You might see a couple cosplayers at a convention, but it’s not a popular getup, and the fanfiction community is small (fanfiction is a GREAT measure of a movie’s impact). Disney is invested in Avatar because they have a Pandora section in their theme parks, but that attraction is popular without new movies arriving all the time (Disney Pandora features an indoor, air-conditioned boat ride, ALWAYS a popular feature thanks to the break from the heat it provides). They don’t necessarily need to fund four sequels to keep the park attraction alive. Will people care about Avatar 2? Yes. Will they care about Avatar 5? Unless Cameron creates more interesting characters, probably not.