Can ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ Make a Bigger Splash Than Marvel?

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

For the most loyal fans of 2009’s “Avatar,” the top-grossing film in history, the return of director James Cameron’s fantasy actioner via sequel “Avatar: The Way of Water” this weekend is an exciting moment.

But for everyone else, the billion-dollar question is how “Avatar” will be received at the box office 13 years after the Marvel Cinematic Universe was just getting started.

It isn’t as simple as pointing out that “Avengers: Endgame” is currently behind “Avatar” on the list of all-time grossers. Excluding 2020, there hasn’t been a year at the box office without the MCU since 2009, while Cameron’s beloved Na’vi warriors have been absent from theaters for more than a decade.

Furthermore, current projections pin “Water’s” opening between $150 million and $175 million. That’s better than “Thor: Love and Thunder” but under the openings for sequels to “Doctor Strange” and “Black Panther” this year.

However, openings aren’t everything — even in film exhibition’s pandemic era.

In the domestic box office alone, “Top Gun: Maverick” is the best film of 2022, with more than $700 million earned, a gargantuan lead against Disney and Marvel’s best efforts this year. “Maverick” opened to under $130 million and was the sequel to a film that came out in 1986, two positive signs in favor of “Water.”

On a smaller scale, A24’s “Everything Everywhere All at Once” was also a surprise in 2022. That fantasy actioner initially had a limited release but expanded wide upon its unexpected popularity, going on to rank among the top 25 films of the year.

While “Everywhere’s” modest budget pales in comparison to the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on “Water,” they share one trait in that neither film was produced with an objectively bankable star leading the cast. That wasn’t the case for “Top Gun: Maverick,” which benefitted heavily from the star power of Tom Cruise.

Still, Cameron’s “Titanic” soared to the top of the global box office charts in 1997 when stars Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio only had “Sense and Sensibility” and “Romeo + Juliet” as hits under their names, respectively. In the world of big-budget filmmaking, Cameron has proven time and time again that despite being behind the camera, the reputation of his name does the heavy lifting for any lack of star power going into the lead roles of his films, through Winslet did reunite with him for “The Way of Water.”

And while “Water” is beyond overdue, “Avatar” was still a key element of former and now-current-again Disney CEO Bob Iger’s aggressive M&A acquisition during his earlier tenure. Even if “X-Men” was also front of mind when Disney acquired the entertainment assets of 21st Century Fox, “Water” is still hitting theaters before the first test case of “X-Men” in the MCU, which won’t occur until 2024, when “Deadpool 3” hits theaters and features Hugh Jackman’s surprise return as Wolverine alongside Ryan Reynolds.

Iger understood “Water” and three more greenlit “Avatar” sequels would be pivotal to Disney’s strategy alongside the MCU and “Star Wars,” whose Disney+ television series have delivered an envious number of subscribers to Disney+ but at substantial financial loss to the tune of $1.5 billion within Disney’s direct-consumer segment in fiscal Q4 alone.

If “Water” ends up being a smash comparable to its predecessor and “Avengers: Endgame,” it won’t just be another cinematic achievement that Cameron can boast but can also help alleviate Disney’s content-spend malaise — and remind everyone why Iger is back.