Avatar: Next Big Franchise or Next Big Flop?

The trailer for the second Avatar movie had dropped. Playing in front of the highly anticipated Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, many eyeballs got to witness the first look at the next chapter of this franchise. It was what you would expect from a first trailer. Very little insight into what the plot is going to be is given but sweeping images of the landscape as well as looks into new locations within Pandora we will be visiting. Releasing this December, it kicks off the first of 4 sequels that will be coming from the Avatar franchise. The question becomes is this going to be the hit that the first was or a doomed attempt at expanding a franchise. 

The original Avatar debuted in 2009 (Oof I’m getting old) and it took the world by storm. The visuals were unlike anything anyone had ever seen before. The planet wowed people and it was one of the few films that people told me to actually see in IMAX. The bioluminescent forests, the floating mountains, and the wide array of creatures amazed fans to the tune of 2.8 billion worldwide which still holds the record for international box office numbers. It did all of this with a semi-lackluster plot. It’s the movie Pocahontas but in space with blue people. That’s it. Nothing really revolutionary or complicated to follow. I will admit to some deeper ideas being explored like the connection between the Navi and the mighty Ikran but for the most part, the plot is very surface level. There were some big names in the movie i.e Sigourney Weaver and Zoe Saldana but everyone else was largely your B-list stars. The setting is what kept audiences entranced and curious. 

Since the location became so popular, Disney got on board to create Pandora in their Animal Kingdom park. Animal Kingdom long has always had the theme of conservation which fits well with what the plot of Avatar focuses on. Keep the beautiful forest. Don’t knock it down for mining purposes. At the time, I remember thinking, “Will anyone visit this? Or care? This movie is old news at this point?” After all, this land opens in 2017, 8 years after the film releases. What I didn’t factor in was that it was the location in the first place that drew people to the film. Being able to visit it in real life drew crowds and the two rides that allow you to be more immersed in the world supplemented well. Flight of Passage especially is an amazing experience that will leave you breathless. What I question is whether this is a land that people are coming to because they like the Avatar franchise or because it’s simply in the park they are in and it has one of the best ride experiences on property. 

There had long been rumors of a sequel but nothing materialized until recently when it was announced that 4 sequels were in the works set to come out in rapid succession. My first reaction was the same to the theme park land being built. Will anyone care and go see it? This movie felt such like a flash in the pan out of nowhere success. I personally don’t hear many people saying they rewatched Avatar last night or they are having a Avatar themed party that will end in a watching of the movie. Some of this could be from the extremely long run time and the shear amount of content out there now. However, I was completely wrong about the theme park land being a flop so I’m going in with an open mind. Let’s start with why I think this could be another major hit.

The time between sequels isn’t always a bad thing. Pent up desire to see something can be a good thing and can drive people to the theaters. Look what happened with Incredibles and Incredibles 2. Fans for years had been clamoring for Pixar to do a sequel and when they finally did, it grossed over 1.2 billion worldwide. The release date is also a plus. December 16th means that many a family will be looking for ways to spend time with their relatives over the holidays without having to talk to them. A 3 hour movie? Perfect for not having to speak to your weird uncle who you disagree politically with. This also has the potential to expand on Pandora and the creatures that inhabit the planet almost creating an extended universe for the world of Pandora. As I said, the plot of the first movie is very basic. If the plot becomes not necessarily more complicated but more rich in storytelling, I think this could be the start of an interesting extended universe. The Way of Water also intrigues me as it seems there will be some underwater scenes that would be something completely new. We’ve seen a lot of the creatures that live on the surface and fly through the air but largely know very little about the sea life. There is some potential for some eye popping and jaw dropping moments. I also believe there is some potential for theme park synergy with all of the sequels. If there is a particular fun moment in any of the movies, to be able to see a ride or experience based on that would be very cool and would incentivize people to both see the movie and visit the parks. 

While I absolutely see a world where this is profitable, I have some concerns. What do you actually remember about this movie? I’m sure the general plot is remembered but will you remember all the nuances when they pop up? Yes I know I could easily go and watch the first one before I go see the sequel but what percentage of people will actually do that? What about characters? Name 10 characters from the movie Avatar. Go ahead. I honestly can’t name 2. There’s Jake Sulley and then Sigourney Weaver’s character, Zoe Saldana’s character, the military guy, the cool girl pilot, aaaand that’s really all that I remember. Lots of blue people I guess but I can’t remember names or even if they had names. Not a great look when your audience can’t name the characters in the movie. The idea of the visuals carrying the movie also concerns me. In 2009, the visuals were unlike anything we have ever seen. In movies today, we’ve seen movies with jaw dropping visuals and flawless motion capture. If the studio is counting on the visuals carrying the movie, that is a big ask. The 4 sequels also concerns me. 4 is a lot. I could see a trilogy or maybe one follow up but 4 is really ambitious and requires a large appetite for the franchise. 

Let me use the Pirates franchise as an example. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise took off with Curse of the Black Pearl being an instant Disney classic. The characters were fun an engaging. Humor was woven in to fantastic action scenes and set pieces. Pair this with a great performance by Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow and Disney had a hit. This led to the creation of 4 sequels. Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End were a lot of fun but didn’t quite hit in the same way that the first one did but did have box office success. On Stranger Tides and Dead Men Tell No Tales show how fans were feeling about the franchise. With so much of the supporting cast out of the way, it was on Depp to completely carry a lot of the movie as the plots and side characters were simply not as good. (Honestly, I still like these movies but 1-3 clearly has the better supporting cast). Ultimately, the audience appetite wasn’t there and when the fifth movie bombed, discussions of a sixth movie have been put on hold. (There were other reasons for this as well but the box office certainly didn’t help) This is what concerns me about Avatar. I could see the second one doing well and maybe a third but I’m just not sure there is demand for 4 more Pandora stories. 

Let me end with this. I’m not sure who is so psyched for this movie that they are planning on seeing it opening weekend. I want to see it but I don’t feel the need to rush off to the theaters and pay premium dollar to witness the sequel. Maybe I’ll try to nab a $5 Tuesday but even that I’m not completely sure on. This feels like one that I wait to come on a streaming service or nab for $1 at Redbox. The trailer dropped. Did anyone at your work place or friend group say, “Did you see the new Avatar trailer???” Clearly people saw it considering how many people went to go see Dr. Strange. Largely I feel like it has gone unnoticed. What concerns me most is that it feels the studio thinks they have a cash cow franchise on their hands and I’m not convinced they do. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe my friend groups are not the ones that are Avatar stans and they will all come out of the woodwork once the movie releases. Maybe the sheer curiosity of what they will do with a sequel will bring people out though this only works once. People will not see a 5th sequel out of curiosity. One thing that I am also underestimating is that this is James Cameron. Cameron is a legendary film director and has been doubted a lot throughout his career only to deliver hit after hit. While I have my concerns, it is hard to go against someone like James Cameron. It’s such a wild card. While writing this article I have flip flopped twenty times in my mind whether this movie will be a hit or not. I, for one, will be fascinated by it and enjoy seeing how the franchise does as these sequels release.