‘Avatar’ Offers Disney a Simple Lesson About Film Franchises

James Cameron
VIP+; Cameron: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images; "Avatar: The Way of Water": 20th Century Studios

It’s difficult to take issue with the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe considering these films helped make Disney the de facto leader at the box office.

But now that “Avatar: The Way of Water” is showing incredible durability in theaters as it moves toward its third week since release, it raises a pretty basic question about optimal franchise maintenance.

While most of the MCU’s output require having watched previous films to fully grasp the narrative of the latest installment, “Avatar” producers made a point to ensure “Water” and future sequels contain standalone narratives. That lowers the barrier to entry for viewers unfamiliar with the 2009 film. Though many of the first title’s cast returns, knowing who they are isn’t a requirement to appreciate their newest adventure.

No wonder “Water” — the first of four sequels greenlit by 20th Century Fox before Disney acquired its parent company’s studio assets in 2019 — has already reached the $1 billion global threshold faster than any other film in 2022, including summer sensation “Top Gun: Maverick.”

Just like the “Top Gun” sequel, “The Way of Water” is also exhibiting weekend-over-weekend box office trends that seem to defy the norm for big tentpoles in the pandemic era of film exhibition, especially MCU films.

Despite more significant opening weekends, sequels to “Doctor Strange” and “Black Panther” experienced sharp drops in weekend gross after their debuts, while “Top Gun: Maverick” saw much lighter weekend decline and ended up becoming the best film of the year as audiences kept coming back to the theater.

“The Way of Water’s” second weekend did drop sharply when measuring by the traditional three-day Friday-through-Sunday metric, but its steady popularity over the holiday release window gave way to a third weekend that increased from the second. The rareness of this is especially appreciated when compared with “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” 2021’s December holiday hit that set new records and is one of the top global grossers ever.

Despite the massive fanfare for the last “Spider-Man,” it still experienced a large dropoff in attendance after its debut, which did much of the heavy lifting for its gross. The same can be said for “Avengers: Endgame,” which was lucky to release in 2019 and cap that phase of MCU films before the pandemic put a hard pause on film exhibition.

While “Avengers: Endgame” is the second-best grosser in film history, it benefited heavily from being the ensemble amalgam of a decade’s worth of characters seen throughout the MCU’s first decade.

2009’s “Avatar” was an entirely different beast. As new IP conceived by director James Cameron, it lost very little attendance after its not-so-spectacular debut, with word-of-mouth and critical praise for the film’s strides in 3D technology being the main draw of the cinematic experience it was offering.

That hasn’t changed with its sequel, which sports an array of technically advanced options for theatergoers and critics endorsing Cameron’s command of giving you an experience you won’t get at home when the film eventually hits digital platforms.

By contrast, the MCU does not do this. Its films frequently mix and match supporting characters despite whoever is the namesake of the movie, a practice dating back to 2010’s “Iron Man 2,” which introduced Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow two years before “The Avengers.” As the first film to release after “The Avengers,” “Iron Man 3” spent much of its runtime alluding to the prior film’s events, and Tony Stark’s Robert Downey Jr. was the top billing alongside Chris Evans’ Captain America in 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War.”

This habit has only increased with the introduction of MCU series on Disney+, which have continued the stories of the film franchise’s supporting cast as much as they have introduced new heroes. The most significant example of this is Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff, aka Scarlet Witch, who starred in the streamer’s debut MCU series “WandaVision” and played the villain in 2022’s “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.” That film’s own star, Benedict Cumberbatch, also played Strange in “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” which was distributed by Sony Pictures.

The same interconnectivity is also planned for 2024’s “Deadpool 3,” which will be the first film featuring 20th Century’s “X-Men” IP to be made by Disney and is confirmed to be part of the MCU. Wolverine’s Hugh Jackman is already set to start alongside Ryan Reynolds despite the character’s demise in 2017’s “Logan,” so it’s not difficult to imagine there are extra cameos from other Marvel IP planned.

The tradition of mid- and post-credits scenes teasing future Marvel projects is also as common as ever, further cementing the urgency for Marvel fans to see these films when they first open in order to avoid spoilers, which explains why Marvel openings are tough to beat but quickly lose their prominence versus films like “The Way of Water” and “Top Gun: Maverick.”

If Disney is in a place where it must reassess how much Marvel it’s willing to commit to amid its uphill battle to make streaming profitable, then “Avatar” is the lifeline it needs to keep its film efforts in check, especially if future installments of the MCU fail to meet the expectations of audiences accustomed to serialized narratives that reward them as loyal Disney+ subscribers.