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James Cameron’s Avatar, released by Fox during the incredibly lucrative 2009 Christmas holiday season (which saw three films top 200 million domestically), is the highest grossing movie of all time, having amassed a haul of over 2.5 billion dollars worldwide during its lengthy run in theaters (I remember going back to see it again in first-run theaters in March 2010, nearly three months after its initial release – this almost never happens anymore). Barring the outside chance that a few highly anticipated and upcoming 2015 tent-poles such as the Man of Steel sequel (unlikely, considering the ceiling of Superman movies thus far), Marvel’s Avengers 2 (which has an outside shot, but may also depend slightly on the reception of Marvel’s Phase 2 films), or J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars VII (which will probably be delayed to 2016) surpasses it, Avatar will likely remain the highest grosser for the foreseeable future. Christmas 2016 is over three years away, and despite some online buzz, I’m wondering if anyone will be left to care much about the Avatar sequels.
In the past few months, the internet has been abuzz with the news that James Cameron plans to shoot Avatar 2, Avatar 3, and Avatar 4 back-to-back-to-back. A long-standing rumor claims Cameron will set one of the sequels primarily underwater, using his revolutionary deep-sea camera equipment (which was hilariously and fairy accurately lampooned on a 2012 episode of South Park) to film the movie. Main characters Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana are slated to reappear as Jake Sully and Neytiri, and rumors have Cameron figuring out a way to have Sigourney Weaver come back as well (spoiler alert for 2009’s biggest movie: Weaver died in the first Avatar). Recent buzz also has Arnold Schwarzenegger in talks to play Avatar 2’s big bad, which sounds completely awesome. Fox almost immediately came out and dispelled those rumors however. We here at the Culture Cast are loathe to talk casting rumors, but the prompt response from Fox probably indicates Schwarzenegger at least took a meeting with Cameron. Casting Arnie as the villain would be a huge coup for the production, as it would re-team the Terminator with Cameron for the fourth time, the previous three collaborations having been mega-successful additions to pop culture. It would also mean high-profile work for Schwarzenegger, and that’s always a good thing.
Fox and Cameron would have to do a lot of additional work to get audience interest in any Avatar sequels to the level the original was at back in 2009. Though I love Avatar (it was probably my favorite movie in 2009, considering I saw it in theaters four times and own the 3D Blu Ray, which I bought for an inflated price in 2011 on eBay due to Panasonic having its exclusive rights for years…), audience interest has understandably gone done over the past four years due to numerous factors, which mainly include an enormous backlash against the film and its success. Avatar wasn’t nearly as revolutionary in terms of its script, story, and characters as it was in terms of its use of special effects and 3D camera work, and the biggest knock against it is that it combines properties like Dances with Wolves and Pocahontas into a preachy film about the environment (The Hunger Games saw pretty much the same criticism due to its similarities with other works of fiction by Stephen King and Shirley Jackson, among others). Cameron’s script for the Avatar sequels would have to be a fairly daring work of originality and bravado that built upon the interesting universe established in the first film to draw audiences back in, perhaps even something on the level of The Dark Knight compared to Batman Begins.
Blockbuster filmmaking has arguably changed since Avatar’s 2009 release as well. Gimmicks like IMAX formatting and 3D (especially post-converted 3D) don’t really mean anything anymore. 3D itself has seen a slide into near irrelevance outside of the occasional tent-pole film release. The share of box office grosses for 3D screens continues to shrink throughout the years, hitting the lowest point so far this past summer. The Marvel machine has seemingly dominated the box office in the years since Avatar as well (Iron Man 2, Captain America, Thor, The Avengers, Iron Man 3, Thor 2, Captain America 2, The Guardians of the Galaxy, The Avengers 2, and Ant-Man have either all released or will release before Avatar 2 comes out). DC will counter with the hotly anticipated Man of Steel sequel, where Batman and Superman will finally face off on the big screen for the first time. Universal will launch another Jurassic Park movie in theaters. Michael Bay’s Transformers 4 will hit multiplexes everywhere next summer. The previously mentioned Star Wars sequel will be out. Another Star Trek will probably release, as will another Mission: Impossible film and Sam Mendes’ follow-up to Skyfall. These are properties that continually deliver for audiences, have characters people know and care about, and most importantly don’t have seven year lay-offs the way the proposed Avatar franchise will have by the time part two arrives in 2016. By then, will anyone care anymore unless Cameron really brings it?
I have no doubt that the Avatar sequels will be hits. I just don’t think they’ll arrive with the same kind of cultural gravitas that the original did. I’ve long been a proponent of striking while the iron is hot. This year’s Star Trek Into Darkness is a good example of a sequel coming a bit too late to take advantage of the goodwill of the first film. While Into Darkness was a critical and commercial hit for Paramount, it didn’t have the same kind of legs that Star Trek did when it was released in 2009 (it also faced a much higher level of competition at the box office). A long four year gap and a script that felt duct-taped together somewhat didn’t help anyone either. If Avatar 2 is on track for 2016 (and Cameron has said that it is), then it will have been a very long seven year wait in between films. However, if Avatar 2 is a stupendous achievement not only in technical filmmaking but also in storytelling, then it has a shot. Mark me down as cautiously optimistic.