"Avatar 2" Might Be Exactly What We Need
Like it or not, Avatar was a phenomenon. Not only shattering box office records but also setting a new bar for computer generated effects. While it wasn’t exactly groundbreaking storytelling, what Avatar accomplished within the realm of effects-driven film is historic. Director James Cameron, never one to shy away from a challenge, created a world fully realized within the digital landscape, and people fell in love with it. Pandora was such a fully realized world that many people even fell into a deep depression upon realizing that they would never get to visit it. It was the biggest film of 2009, and when James Cameron announced a sequel, people were hyped. And when that sequel was revealed to be part 2 of a 5-film series, people were even more hyped. Then some time passed, then more time, then even more time. This quintology that was built up to be the biggest film event ever was seeming more and more like a studio and director getting our hopes up and delivering nothing in return. Year after year passed, and aside from the occasional delay announcement, the Avatar franchise seemed like a distant memory. The film landscaped changed, bringing more big budget CGI spectacles through Marvel and DC and a blossoming indie scene spearheaded by studios like A24. As cinema continued to transition, the cultural impact of that original Avatar waned, and the film became a running joke in film circles. It was the film that went from everything to nothing, seemingly in the blink of an eye.
Then comes 2022. 13 years after the first film came out, James Cameron takes the stage at CinemaCon to announce Avatar 2: The Way of the Water. He shared some stills from the film, revealed the trailer will release the following week, and biggest of all, announced a final December 2022 release date. While many naysayers will still claim that the era of Avatar has passed, it seems like the public perception of Avatar 2 has been overwhelmingly positive. The hype train that ran out of fuel some 5 years ago has quickly been picking up steam once again. Despite numerous delays, a pandemic, and a radical shift in pop culture, it seems like Avatar 2 could not have come at a better time.
Numerous factors have contributed to the perfect storm for Avatar 2. Ironically enough, many of them being the same factors that people claim were a detriment to the lasting power of the original. One factor that generates significant hype for the sequel is Cameron’s return to the world of digital effects. Cameron is someone who doesn’t often come to mind when citing the most influential directors of all time, but his contributions to modern blockbusters is arguably on par with the likes of Spielberg and Lucas. His films never fail to set the bar of digital effects. His two Terminator films, Titanic, The Abyss, and especially Avatar are some of the most significant contributions to effects-driven blockbusters in the history of film. His focus on effects revolutionized film and arguably gave the practice of digital and practical effects an element of artistic merit. Anytime Cameron makes a movie, he sets the standard for the next few years of effects. Post-Avatar effects seem like they’re still catching up to the 2009 film. As far as big budget CGI spectacle goes, I can’t think of anything on par with Avatar other than Dune. While the world of digital effects surely attempted to catch up to Avatar, it still needs a proper kick in the rear to put it on the same level. Films like Free Guy, Star Wars, Avengers, Godzilla, are all big budget, effects-driven spectacles, but none replicate even a fraction of what Avatar accomplished. With Avatar 2, Cameron is entering a landscape of largely monotonous and bland CGI to plop his film in the center of. It seems like Cameron is once again coming back for the reigning champion title of digital effects, and during a time when it heavily needs it.
Another reason Avatar 2 is coming at the perfect time is the saturation of the current film landscape, largely owed to Marvel and DC. If Avatar 2 came out 4 or 5 years ago, it would’ve been a disaster. Competing with the MCU at the peak of its powers is undoubtedly a fool’s errand, but times have changed. Audiences are begging for something different from the superheroes we’ve been seeing for so long. In the past 5 years DC has released 9 movies and one TV show while Marvel has released 14 movies and 5 TV shows, not to mention both companies have dozens of projects on the horizon. These companies dominate the box office and the pop culture sphere unlike anything in film history, but it seems that we’re reaching an apex. Recent projects from both companies have failed to live up to the record-breaking numbers they clocked only a few years prior. This is due to an abundantly clear oversaturation. All audiences get wherever they turn is Marvel and DC, and if you’re not fully invested in those types of stories, the overexposure can get nauseating. Even fans are starting to feel fatigue as superhero storytelling shifts focus from producing stories to producing content for content’s sake.
The domination of superhero movies has scared off studios from making anything remotely different. Popcorn entertainment is effectively in a stranglehold from these companies, and the only way to survive is to follow suit with a pseudo-superhero film, or simply forgo a large budget project. This is a model that stifles creativity and needs a definite reinvigoration. That reinvigoration can come in the form of Avatar 2. While the story of Avatar was formulaic, the creativity onscreen was unparalleled. This type of visual creativity is sorely lacking in today’s modern blockbusters, and Cameron’s gargantuan vision can hopefully bring it back. His dedication to utilizing digital effects to their fullest potential ends up making a movie that exists as art rather than another film in a bloated franchise. It’s a film that quenches the thirst for big budget effect-heavy filmmaking without succumbing to the superhero mold that’s been done to death.
I’m not a die-hard defender of the first Avatar, and I doubt that Avatar 2 will be a new favorite of mine. That being said, I’m one of many people who longs for Hollywood to finally do something new, anything new. Since Avatar, only Inception, Interstellar, and Gravity have been original big budget CGI-reliant blockbusters. That isn’t to say there weren’t gems (Mad Max Fury Road, Harry Potter, Dune), but the vast majority were uniform CGI boilerplate films. Films that didn’t want to stretch the boundaries of anything, rather comfortably settling for average filmmaking with the bonus of brand recognition. Avatar 2 could be the box office explosion that raises audience expectations beyond mindless filler. While it and its predecessor aren’t reinventing the cinematic wheel, they are films made with creativity and passion at the forefront. All we can hope is that Avatar 2 compels studios to once again take risks and invest money into filmmakers who want to make art. We’re at an apex in film where appeasement has lost the effect it once had, and audiences are clamoring for a return to risks and creativity. My only hope is that Cameron can capitalize on a film landscape waiting for a big budget spectacle and hopefully he’s able to make something exciting and creative despite his corporate Disney overlords.