A couple of months ago, I wrote a column about James Cameron and his obsession with the Avatar universe he created. In it, I said I was sure that the upcoming sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water, would be a big hit — almost certain to surpass a billion dollars overseas and maybe even a half-billion domestically — but that I think the world has moved on from Pandora over the last 13 years. Ultimately, I said, I cannot see how its box office will measure up to its record-setting predecessor, which has grossed $2.88 billion worldwide. I earned some public scorn for this opinion.
Now, I still stand by this controversial comment, but last week’s re-release of the first Avatar earned $10 million at the domestic box office — good enough for third place behind Don’t Worry Darling (more on that film in this column’s second half) and The Woman King. It’s impressive enough that a 13-year-old film could do that kind of business on a random September weekend, but it’s even more impressive when you factor in the extra $20 million it made internationally, leading it to outgross Don’t Worry Darling worldwide.
Different audiences and demographics, sure, but it’s impossible to dismiss the power that Cameron’s movie (still) possesses, as well as the clear excitement people have for the sequel. I am surely not alone in thinking that 13 years between films would be too much for even Cameron’s powers to overcome (seriously, there are thousands of words written on the subject), but this weekend’s numbers show that, at the very least, I underestimated him, as have others.
That said, I can admit to being wrong about the anticipation for the Avatar sequel and still be right about the fact that The Way of Water has a very difficult road ahead of it if it’s going to surpass — or even approach — the success of the first film. The bar he has set is so high, it seems impossible in the current climate that any film, even this one, could reach it.
You might say, “What about a movie like Top Gun: Maverick? That went above and beyond even the most generous box office forecasts to become the biggest movie in the career of the world’s biggest movie star, as well as one of the top five domestic grossers of all time. Right? That sequel came out almost 40 years after the first one, Smart Ass, so why can’t Avatar: The Way of Water do something similar?”
I mean, certainly, it can, but the argument I used in the first column about this subject still stands: Tom Cruise was doing things in real life, with real stunts and real planes — things audiences hadn’t really seen before. The new Avatar movie is essentially an animated movie. A gorgeous and stunning one, to be sure, but still something very different from both Top Gun: Maverick and even the original Avatar, which had a more significant human element.
There’s also the fact that a big chunk of the first Avatar‘s box office receipts came from higher-priced 3D showings. Yes, ticket prices are much higher now, but will The Way of Water keep bringing audiences back for multiple viewings like the first film did if that original sense of wonder has inherently faded? As much as I admire Cameron and believe in his ability to wow us once again, I am going to remain skeptical until I’m proven wrong.
And just when will that be? When this movie clears $2 billion dollars. It’s going to have to do north of a billion just to make any money for Disney, and besides, if it doesn’t clear the $2 billion mark, everyone else is going to call it disappointing, anyway.
So no, I don’t doubt James Cameron. I just doubt that his latest movie will continue his streak of breaking the all-time box office record following Titanic and Avatar.
You may be wondering whether the performance of the Avatar re-release impacted Don’t Worry Darling‘s opening weekend, and it’s a fair question, though the films are clearly aimed at different audiences. Darling fared fairly well, though its critics will point to the fact that it failed to break $20 million in its opening frame. Then again, the film only cost $20 million (a small fraction of the budget for The Way of Water), so even when you add in the marketing costs, Warner Bros. shouldn’t worry too much, as it’s going to do just fine. Boasting Harry Styles, who is something of a special effect all on his own, and riding an absurd wave of controversy that sadly overshadowed the film’s release, it’s clear that Don’t Worry Darling wasn’t impacted by poor reviews from critics… which isn’t great.
Just in case you’re unaware, director-star Olivia Wilde has reportedly been dating Styles, and that caused problems on the set because she was supposedly spending more time with him than the film’s actual star, Florence Pugh, who did limited press for Don’t Worry Darling in the run-up to its release. This is just part of the craziness that has surrounded the film (another involved the departure of Shia LaBeouf, who claimed he quit the project and released receipts that undermined Wilde’s own narrative that she fired him) and although a large number of crew people released a letter this week defending Wilde and claiming that an alleged screaming match between her and Pugh never happened, there is no doubt an inherent instinct among film crews to defend their directors. The Vulture story itself, meanwhile, seems like the result of solid reporting. I’ll just leave it at that.
Suffice to say, I was not a fan of Don’t Worry Darling, but whatever you might think of Wilde personally, it’s fairly clear that she got something of a bum deal from the media here, at least partly because she had the gall to direct a movie while also possessing ovaries. Would a male director have had to deal with this much nonsense about behind-the-scenes stuff? Of course not, and if you doubt it, look at the writer-director of next week’s big release, Amsterdam. David O. Russell has been accused of all kinds of horrible things through the years, including sexually assaulting his transgender niece, and while I’ll forgive Christian Bale since those two go back a long way, it’s mind-boggling to me that newly-minted A-listers like Margot Robbie, John David Washington, and Rami Malek are still lining up to work with him.
Where is the uproar about Russell’s return to mainstream filmmaking? It’s nonexistent, while Wilde’s sophomore effort has been widely dismissed not because it’s a bad movie — and, frankly, it really is quite bad — but because of behind-the-scenes stuff that shouldn’t have any effect on the movie’s critical or financial success.
Russell’s reputation has never been great — he got into a fist fight with America’s Sweetheart, George Clooney, while making Three Kings, made Amy Adams cry numerous times on the set of American Hustle, and was filmed screaming obscenities at Lily Tomlin during a temper tantrum on the set of I Heart Huckabees. Yet his abusive proclivities don’t get anywhere near the bad press that Wilde has endured of late even though she hasn’t been accused of breaking any laws. The double standard is simply infuriating.
Was Don’t Worry Darling ever going to be a $100 million-grossing blockbuster? Maybe, with great reviews and potential awards chatter, it could possibly have become a big hit. But I think $50 million domestic was always a much more realistic goal, with $100 million worldwide within reach. I think that after its opening weekend, it should come pretty close to those numbers, and not only make Warner Bros. Discovery a modest profit but ultimately help Wilde in the long run, regardless of all the mishegas and the bad reviews (many of which praise her direction).
Meanwhile, if Avatar: The Way of Water doesn’t do 20 times those numbers, it might be thought of as a disappointment. It will be released to different expectations, sure, but while Wilde is a victim of sexism and the media’s latest round of impressive hypocrisy, Cameron is only a victim of his own success. It’s easy to feel sorry for one, and much harder to feel sorry for the other. I’ll leave it to you to decide who is which.
Neil Turitz is a journalist, essayist, author, and filmmaker who has worked in and written about Hollywood for nearly 25 years, though he has never lived there. These days, he splits his time between New York City and the Berkshires. He’s not on Twitter, but you can find him on Instagram @6wordreviews.
You can read a new installation of The Accidental Turitz every Wednesday, and all previous columns can be found here.