It’s been six years since James Cameron’s Avatar hit theaters, and still it’s talked about today based largely on the buzz that surrounded it pre-release. Sure, the visuals were breathtaking and the sci-fi adventure aspects were exciting. But despite favorable reviews (83% on Rotten Tomatoes) and the biggest box office take of all time ($2.7 billion, according to Box Office Mojo), it’s hard to deny that it was rife with issues embedded deep within its plot. Given that sequels are usually driven by a well-written story, it’s no wonder that people are already skeptical about the plans Cameron has in store.
As it stands now, Cameron and his writing team have four sequels written, having just confirmed his intentions to bring each of them into production. Avatar was long enough, checking in at an almost three-hour runtime. When you imagine the amount of filming even three sequels would take, it’s hard to believe these will get out into the world anytime within the next decade. The time spanning the first draft of Avatar‘s script to its official release was a solid 15 years. And while Cameron’s aiming for release dates in 2018, 2020, 2022, and 2023 for the four planned films, Cameron’s reputation for being the most meticulous man in Hollywood makes that hard to believe.
Take a look at the way franchises look today: Marvel and DC both have the next five years planned out, down to exact release dates for more than a dozen movies. Compare that to Cameron, and it’s clear that the long-term plan for franchising Avatar is going to see significant struggles if he can’t manage to find a way to release them closer together. There’s only so much time an audience will wait around before a series becomes culturally irrelevant, and the interminable wait for Avatar 2, 3, and 4 may fall right in that unfortunate period.
But it’s not simply the waiting that could kill Avatar‘s sequels. The derivative nature of the original film has been widely noted in the years since its release. It’s no surprise that the first treatment of the script was written in 1994, just four years after Dances With Wolves and two after Fern Gully, the movies whose plots Cameron pretty much copy/pasted directly into his own film. The best franchises are defined by their status as standalone stories. Star Wars runs as an epic space opera that defined its genre. Marvel’s run of superhero blockbusters is the first expansive cinematic universe ever adapted from comics. The Hunger Games has come to define the YA subset in theaters. Avatar … looked really pretty?
In all fairness, it’s not always immediately obvious what a franchise’s defining characteristics will be after just one movie. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that Cameron will have to try and introduce a series of sci-fi blockbusters into a climate that will have already seen a majority of Marvel’s offerings, at least two new Star Wars movies, and who knows what else. The competition to set oneself apart in science fiction has never been stiffer, and the fact that Avatar‘s “original” story was a retelling of popular early ’90s cultural allegories puts it in an immediate bind.
The want, of course, is that Avatar 2 will manage to expand upon the potential of its predecessor, taking us further into its beautiful universe to tell a new story. But that doesn’t erase the concerns surrounding both the amount of time it will take to do this and the potential originality (or lack thereof) of the movies themselves. On the back of a $2 billion release in 2009, though, maybe, just maybe Cameron will pull a rabbit out of his hat four times over. Just don’t hold your breath.
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