After a 13-year wait, Avatar 2: The Way of Water is finally opening in theaters tonight. The beleaguered movie theaters that survived COVID-19 are praying for a huge opening. Even in the age of blockbusters, when almost every new release is a superhero movie or something close to it, movie theaters are struggling to get butts in seats.
If anyone is meant to be the box office savior theater owners have been waiting for, it’s director James Cameron, who’s responsible for smashing global box office records in historic fashion — twice.
He did it first with Titanic, and then 12 years later he did it again with Avatar, a 3D movie about blue cat people in which he cast human beings as the villains.
Can he do it again?
In conversations with my friends and colleagues, it’s become clear that some people are actively rooting against him. In the SPY slack, mentions of Avatar (like this capsule collection from Cariuma inspired by Avatar) elicit vomit emojis and eye rolls. Yet the fact that cynical New York City hipsters and members of the media are rooting against Avatar 2 makes me even more confident that it’s going to be a huge hit.
I’ve already got my ticket. I’ll be seeing Avatar 2: The Way of Water in IMAX tomorrow at the AMC theater in Times Square. I know many hip New Yorkers who would say that sounds like torture, but I can’t wait.
Great Artists Steal, and Cameron Is a Master Thief
Cameron’s faults as a director are well known. The plot of Avatar turned around a mineral called “unobtanium,” a choice that has inspired plenty of well-deserved mockery. The dialogue in Cameron films often calls to mind B and C-list action flicks. The original Avatar was also criticized for employing white savior tropes, although I’m not sure how much white savior tropes can be applied to a movie about giant blue cat people.
However, there’s one criticism of Cameron and Avatar that I’ve never agreed with. Yes, the plot of Avatar is basically identical to Dances With Wolves and Fern Gully. There are plenty more stories about men who fall in love with the culture they were sent to infiltrate. This criticism is often raised as proof that Cameron is unoriginal and cliche. Aesthetes and hipsters are most prone to making this argument, yet ironically, it’s the argument of the unread. It’s a critique that’s totally ignorant to the history of storytelling.
Virtually all great stories follow the same overall structure. The notes may be different, but the rhythm is always the same. The archetypal hero’s journey appears over and over and over again in oral histories, world religions, epic poems, Greek dramas and modern superhero movies. There are variations on the classic hero’s journey, of course, (see also: the star-crossed lovers, the tragedy, the monster in the dark) but these archetypes appear again and again and again throughout human history for a reason.
It turns out, we don’t really want original plots; we crave the familiar. Shakespeare knew this as well. His best plays often told stories his audience already knew, and the bard didn’t invent the Romeo & Juliet story so much as he stole it. However, his unique gift for storytelling, lyricism and melodrama turned a well-known tale into a timeless classic.
This is what great storytellers have always done, and it’s what makes Cameron such a success. The originality of your plot matters not at all. What matters is the characters, the world building and the flair you bring to your tale. Cameron’s secret sauce has always been marrying his mastery of classic storytelling with insanely complicated special effects and set pieces, which results in pure movie magic. He delivers spectacle from start to finish.
So while pretentious hipsters may be too cool to go see Avatar 2: The Way of Water, the rest of the world won’t let that stop them from having a good time. It may not surpass the box office records set by the original Avatar, but don’t be surprised if word of mouth and repeat viewings lead to another massive success.
While some people expect Avatar 2 to disappoint — or hope that it will flop outright — I would be shocked if it’s not the top movie of the year. Perhaps this will be James Cameron’s first big misstep in decades, but I doubt it.
Only a fool would bet against him.