Avatar: The Way of Water lacks a discourse, heated conversations or debates, or excessive fandom, and that is a pleasure for a blockbuster.

Avatar: The Way of Water has been a remarkably silent blockbuster.

As the project’s release date loomed, there was a lot of anxiety and speculation about its potential box office performance. Director James Cameron told GQ that it would “have to be the third or fourth highest-grossing film in history” in order to break even. Cameron subsequently walked that figure back, and there was a palpable anxiety when the film opened towards the low end of expectations and when it underperformed in China.

However, with the benefit of hindsight, Cameron had nothing to worry about. It crossed the $2 billion threshold last week, becoming the second-fastest movie to pass that milestone after Avengers: Endgame. This weekend, it passed The Force Awakens as the fourth highest-grossing movie of all time. It may even pass Titanic for third place, although the upcoming Titanic re-release could knock it back down to fourth. Cameron has directed three of the five highest-grossing movies ever.

This is remarkable for a number of reasons. Most obviously, it is proof that the internet was correct that one should “never bet against Cameron.” Still, there was a vocal (if not readily quantifiable) contingent of online commenters who enthusiastically bet against Cameron. Talking to other film critics, it was fascinating how many complete strangers would eagerly insert themselves into review comments sections and critics’ social media mentions to boast the film wouldn’t break a billion.

This sentiment may have been rooted in the repeated-to-the-point-of-cliché argument that the original Avatar had no “cultural footprint,” and therefore the long-delayed sequel was doomed to failure on the assumption that the audiences who had turned out to see it in 2009 had completely forgotten about it. Of course, this argument couldn’t account for the robust box office performance of the movie’s re-release, but it’s a narrative that took hold nonetheless.

Avatar: The Way of Water lacks a discourse, heated conversations or debates, or excessive fandom, and that is a pleasure for a blockbuster.

Part of what is interesting about The Way of Water is the fact that the same seems true of the sequel. The Way of Water has been out for over a month at this point. It earned strong reviews. It has been top of the box office for six straight weeks. Although it will likely slow down in the weeks and months ahead, it is outpacing the original Avatar at this point in its release cycle. Somehow it has done this without dominating the online conversation to a suffocating degree.

Before The Way of Water, YouTuber Jenny Nicholson prophetically quipped that this was just going to be how the Avatar franchise worked, imagining future predictions that the seventh Avatar film would bomb because “nobody even remembers Avatar 6.” Nicholson was joking, but it seems somewhat inevitable that the release of the third Avatar film (with fire Na’vi) will be met with arguments that The Way of Water has no cultural footprint. That lack of imprint seems to be happening in real time.

Of course, it is important to define what a “cultural footprint” is in this context. The “cultural footprint” suggested in this argument is the kind driven by online engagement. It’s memes, jokes, think pieces, listicles, and speculation. It is viral YouTube and TikTok videos. It is a vocal fanbase and an obsession that bleeds into various aspects of internet conversation. It’s the idea that everybody is constantly thinking about, talking about, and waiting for Avatar.

This is the logic that drives the infamous question that “proves” the original’s lack of cultural import: “Can you name a single character from Avatar?” The idea is that, for a property that has a cultural imprint, the characters’ names should be at the front of everybody’s mind at any given moment. Incidentally, it’s easy to imagine the same question being asked of The Way of Water, to test audiences’ recollections of Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), or Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss).

Avatar: The Way of Water lacks a discourse, heated conversations or debates, or excessive fandom, and that is a pleasure for a blockbuster.

It’s a question that betrays how culture has shifted in recent decades. In some sense, it suggests that a popular film should be like a homework assignment, that the viewer should study it to the point that they can answer any pop quiz that a random stranger might spring on them. It’s a model that speaks to the importance of the modern shared universe to the modern blockbuster, where the audience is expected to eagerly and enthusiastically chart characters across modern franchises.

Audiences remember the names of characters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) for a few reasons that don’t necessarily apply to Avatar or other films. Superhero codenames like “Spider-Man” or “Iron Man” are easy to remember as nouns thrown together in unusual combinations. Some have preexisting brand recognition. Weirder names like Thanos (Josh Brolin) or Drax (Dave Bautista) become easier to remember via repetition, so more appearances make a more lasting impression.

More than that, as has been pointed out, the MCU is closer to a television series than a traditional movie franchise, with regularly scheduled releases multiple times a year. It’s generally easier to remember characters from television shows than from films released at around the same time. “Hawkeye” (Alan Alda) and “Radar” (Gary Burghoff) from the television series M*A*S*H certainly lingered in the memory longer than Jenny (Ali MacGraw) or Oliver (Ryan O’Neal) from Love Story.

That said, there is something quite endearing in watching The Way of Water perform as well as it has at the box office without all the noise that is typically associated with these sorts of modern blockbusters. There is a distinct lack of shouting and screaming about Avatar online. It is possible to engage critique and conversation about the movie without provoking a hyper-aggressive and defensive online fanbase. It’s possible to see the movie… just as a movie, without distraction.

Avatar: The Way of Water lacks a discourse, heated conversations or debates, or excessive fandom, and that is a pleasure for a blockbuster.

This isn’t to say that there hasn’t been really good critical writing on The Way of Water. There have been excellent analyses digging into everything from the film’s complicated racial politics to its aggressively anti-imperialist subtext. If anything, these discussions around The Way of Water are much more enjoyable than they would usually be around a movie of a similar scale, because they are actual conversations instead of bludgeons to be used in highly emotional shouting matches about ownership.

It seems reasonable to acknowledge that critics writing about The Way of Water are unlikely to receive anonymous death threats for holding an opinion contrary to that held by a very invested (and very online) collection of fans — and occasionally celebrities. To put it frankly, the internet would be a much healthier place if every movie of a comparable scale to The Way of Water generated the same level of response: meaningful conversation, without obsession.

After all, it’s highly likely that most of the audience that turned out for The Way of Water just went back to their ordinary lives afterwards. They probably didn’t post about it on social media. They probably haven’t made their opinion on the movie part of their identity. They will probably forget about the movie entirely, beyond a vague sense of having had a good time watching it, until the trailer for the third Avatar drops, at which point they will make plans for a family cinema trip on its third weekend.

It is important to stress that there’s nothing inherently lesser about that experience. The audiences who can quote large portions of The Force Awakens verbatim are neither more nor less valuable than the aunts and uncles who tagged along to a Christmas screening of The Way of Water. A fan who saw Avengers: Endgame three times on opening weekend doesn’t have an experience any more or less pure than a senior citizen seeing The Way of Water in its sixth weekend.

In many ways, the more subdued online conversation around The Way of Water is a welcome reminder of how blockbusters used to function. They were big movies that came out, made a lot of money, generated some interesting critical discussion, and then the next one arrived. They were not religious artifacts that generated endless yelling and aggressive confrontations with complete strangers online over something as arbitrary as spoilers or a star rating.

Avatar: The Way of Water made a splash at the box office without making waves in the online discourse. That has meant a reasonably pleasant December and January in terms of film conversation, although the Oscar nominations have brought the discourse back to full volume. Still, that brief respite from the endless shouting might just be the best thing about The Way of Water, as well as reason to be excited for James Cameron’s many planned sequels.

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