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How ‘The Way of Water’ Sets Up Much More ‘Avatar’

The long-awaited sequel to ‘Avatar’ lays the groundwork for as many as three more movies in James Cameron’s sensational sci-fi franchise

20th Century/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s been 13 years since James Cameron’s Avatar premiered in theaters. The groundbreaking film became one of the greatest visual spectacles in cinema history as soon as it arrived in all its 3D glory, demonstrating the potential of a projection method that would never take hold in the industry. Avatar held the global box office crown for almost a decade before it (briefly) ceded its title to Avengers: Endgame, the narrative conclusion to a 20-plus-film saga that started a year before Avatar’s release. But after the long-delayed debut of The Way of Water last week, Avatar has finally received a sequel—and, remarkably, Cameron’s ambitious saga, envisioned as a five-film epic, is just getting underway.

Despite the novel visual splendor of Avatar, the first entry in the sci-fi series left a lot to be desired in its well-worn storytelling and character tropes. The 2009 film centers on former Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) as he lands on the alien world of Pandora to infiltrate and pacify the native Na’vi on behalf of the greedy human invaders, who hope to mine the planet-sized moon’s resources. Sully’s mind is linked with an Avatar—a human–Na’vi hybrid created by human scientists—and during his recon campaign, he falls in love with Na’vi warrior Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) and learns the ways of her people. Sully soon turns on his evil human superiors and becomes a Na’vi hero as he helps his adopted tribe repel his own species’ offensive.

Avatar is a pretty standard white savior movie, featuring obvious allusions to colonization with the Na’vi as stand-ins for Native Americans. Avatar’s premise has long been compared to the likes of Dances With Wolves, FernGully, Pocahontas, and classic sci-fi archetypes such as Frank Herbert’s Dune and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars. The fact that all of those comps come to mind speaks to its story’s lack of originality, as does the humans’ main mission on Pandora—to obtain a precious metal known as unobtainium. It all makes for a rather shaky narrative foundation on which to build a lengthy film series.

Those white savior elements will likely loom over the franchise as long as Sully holds his place as the series’ main character (and continues to act like a lifelong Na’vi). But with The Way of Water, Cameron sought to improve some of the other most glaring issues that were present in its predecessor. “The goal is to tell an extremely compelling story on an emotional basis,” Cameron recently told Total Film. “I would say the emphasis in the new film is more on character, more on story, more on relationships, more on emotion. We didn’t spend as much time on relationship and emotion in the first film as we do in the second film, and it’s a longer film, because there’s more characters to service. There’s more story to service.”

The Way of Water is undoubtedly another stunning visual spectacle that should be seen on as big a screen as possible. Cameron and his visual effects team have pulled off a tremendous filmmaking feat via the film’s groundbreaking underwater performance capture technique, showcased in serene moments featuring tulkun—Pandora’s majestic whale-like creatures—and in thrilling naval battle sequences alike. But how much the Avatar sequel improves on the original’s narrative is more debatable. Although there’s a greater focus on character and relationship development, as Cameron intended, many characters still lack the rich depth that the film’s visuals offer. And many of Avatar’s story beats are recycled in The Way of Water.

The cat-and-mouse chase between Sully and Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang)—who’s reborn in clone form as one of the blue Na’vi he died hunting in Avatar—serves as the driving force behind the film, as the one-note villain returns with only a little added nuance, thanks to a minor existential crisis and the introduction of his dreadlocks-wearing human son. (The less said about Spider, Pandora’s own little Tarzan, the better.) And just as the original movie saw Sully leaving Earth and his human body behind to learn the way of the forest-dwelling Omaticaya clan, the sequel finds Sully, Neytiri, and their four children leaving behind their lives among the trees to learn, you know, the way of water, as they join the Metkayina, the oceanic Na’vi clan.

Familiar as its story may be, The Way of Water comes to life the moment the Sullys reach the Metkayina and behold the beauty of the Pandoran seaside. The introduction of a new biome and a new Na’vi clan lends a burst of energy to the film that also expands the scope of Pandora. Part of that vigor comes from a shift in perspective, as the spotlight turns to the Sully kids. According to producer Jon Landau, that shift will only become more important as the series progresses.

“They’re in many ways our entry into this new world of Pandora that we go to,” Landau told Polygon. “It’s a family story. But it’s not just told from the parents’ perspective. It’s also told from the kids’ perspective—kids who are struggling to find their place in life. One of them feels like an outcast. Another one is questioning what her origins are, where she even comes from. These are things people struggle with today—it makes it relatable. It’s the Sully kids that we go on our first swim experience with, at the reef. We see it through their eyes. And now, as we graduate through the movies, we’re gonna grow up with them as we go on in the saga.”

Here’s where I should reiterate a crucial point: The Way of Water is only the second entry in the planned five-film Avatar series, whose completion is contingent on this sequel’s box-office haul. As much as the new film fails to correct all of the shortcomings of the original, it accomplishes quite a bit of world-building—so much so that the film is sometimes bogged down with exposition. Given that unobtainium isn’t even mentioned in The Way of Water, it’s easy to forget that the metal was what the humans came to Pandora for in the first place. Quaritch’s militarized Avatar unit and its mission to eliminate Sully, even after he flees for the seas, is a somewhat odd obsession (and use of resources) for the humans, but the invaders’ big-picture motives are otherwise better defined: As General Frances Ardmore (Edie Falco!) says early on, “Earth is dying.”

After failing to make peace with the Na’vi in the first film through the Resources Development Administration’s half-hearted diplomatic efforts, the humans have returned to transform Pandora into their new home by any means necessary. Not that they need a secondary motive, but they’ve also started harvesting tulkun brain fluids, known as amrita, which are capable of halting the human aging process. It’s an unsubtle nod to inhumane whaling practices (and ambergris), in keeping with the series’ admirable environmentalist messaging, but the mysterious liquid will also probably prove important in the movies to come.

As messy as the movie’s many plot threads may be, it’s clear after The Way of Water’s 192-minute running time that the Avatar series is in it for the long haul—for better or for worse.

It took 13 years for this second installment to come out, but the production and release delays reportedly weren’t caused by technological challenges, as you might expect given that the entire film contained only two shots without any visual effects. Instead, they were due to the filmmakers’ desire to finalize the scripts for all four sequels before shooting on The Way of Water could even begin. “We felt that this project was about getting the story right,” Landau told Polygon. “You would never build a house until you had the blueprint to build from. The scripts are that blueprint. So we wanted to wait [until] all four of those were there.”

Along with the film’s world-building efforts, much of The Way of Water highlights the shift to a new generation that Landau alluded to. Almost every notable child in this movie has a serious case of daddy issues (with the exception of Jake and Neytiri’s youngest, Tuk, who’s mostly around to look cute for now), but by the film’s conclusion, it’s the younger Na’vi that are teaching and saving their parents, as they attempt to put an end to their elders’ endless cycle of violence.

That includes the Sullys’ adopted daughter Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), who was born to the unconscious Avatar of Weaver’s Grace Augustine, the human scientist who dies at the end of the first film as the Na’vi try in vain to transfer her consciousness to her big blue body. Kiri’s origins and powers are the film’s biggest unexplained mysteries; her father’s identity is never revealed, and her extraordinary birth is reminiscent of the Immaculate Conception. Her heightened connection to Pandora’s goddess, Eywa, and a godlike ability to manipulate various Pandoran lifeforms, position her as a Messiah figure who could unite the Na’vi tribes in their ongoing conflict against the humans. (Damn near everyone seems to notice Kiri’s miraculous talent and regard it with befuddled wonder, but for whatever reason, almost no one cares to comment on it.) For what it’s worth, one of the rumored titles of an upcoming sequel is Avatar: The Quest for Eywa, which reinforces the suspicion that Kiri will become more central to the story.

Now that all of the scripts are finalized, the wait for the remaining films is primed to be much shorter. In fact, Cameron reportedly filmed several Avatar sequels simultaneously: Filming for Avatar 3 is 95 percent complete, according to Landau, and Avatar 4’s first act has also been shot. Only Avatar 5 has yet to be at least partially committed to film. (As for Avatar 4, the ever-transparent Cameron has also revealed that the upcoming film will age up the Sully kids by six years mid-movie, as the child actors are phased out of the franchise.) The first followup to The Way of Water is expected to be released in 2024, with each subsequent film arriving two years later.

Given how expensive each one of these CGI behemoths is, though, that prospective future will hinge on the earnings of The Way of Water, which will have to be one of the highest-grossing movies of all time to secure two more sequels, according to Cameron himself. (The Way of Water cost Disney an estimated $600 million to make and market.) Should The Way of Water fall short of those lofty expectations, a series escape route is apparently at the ready in Avatar 3. “The market could be telling us we’re done in three months, or we might be semi-done, meaning: ‘OK, let’s complete the story within movie 3, and not go on endlessly,’ if it’s just not profitable,” Cameron told Total Film.

The Way of Water made a strong start at the box office in its opening weekend, pulling in a reported $134 million domestically and $435 million globally, the third-biggest global launch since the pandemic. Cameron’s movies have historically started off slow but exhibited tremendous staying power in theaters, so even though the opening tally came in below the initial projections of $150 million to $175 million, it’s probably best not to bet against the box office king. Keeping the film’s costs and Cameron’s expectations in mind, though, The Way of Water has an uphill battle ahead of it amid a grim time for movie theaters.

Regardless of whether Cameron’s series can reach its intended conclusion, the developing story has plenty of room to grow. Even with The Way of Water’s improvements, we’re still awaiting an Avatar film that’s not first and foremost a visual spectacle. Heading into the third chapter, the franchise’s generic villain is set to return once more thanks to Spider—Spider!—saving him from certain death in the shirtless human’s most notable (and most frustrating) contribution to the film. (Even if Quaritch is killed again, there’s presumably nothing stopping his bosses from creating a fresh clone.) Jake Sully is likewise still the hero, and Neytiri is still underutilized and underserved as a character, as the baked-in patriarchal order of the Sullys and the Na’vi endures.

More troubling still is the matter of the film’s continued cultural appropriation of Indigenous populations: The sequel extends the white savior narrative even though Jake has shed his human frame, and the Na’vi—whom Cameron has plainly equated to Native Americans, and who in The Way of Water also incorporate elements of Maori culture—continue to be brutally displaced, while being played mostly by white actors. (Just thinking about where Weaver’s Kiri and her messianic character arc may go from here is already making me nervous.)

Despite The Way of Water being another mesmerizing display of Cameron’s blockbuster filmmaking ability, and notwithstanding all of the world-building elements it injects into the series, these inherent issues should not be ignored—and it’s difficult to tell how much the Avatar franchise can correct them, considering the simultaneous development of the future films. It’s possible that successive installments of Avatar will take the junior generation of Sullys to new Pandoran biomes in each film, teaching them the unique ways of life that come with them, until Earth—the world where the story is destined to conclude—is the only place left untouched. At least as Cameron tells it, the story is only going to get better from here: He’s claimed that the one note he received from a studio executive about the script for the fourth film was, “Holy fuck,” and that the sequels will make you “shit yourself with your mouth wide open.”

The fate of the Avatar franchise will be decided by the box office in the coming months. Here’s hoping that its future features far less Spider and a lot more Michelle Yeoh.