So, a lot has changed since James Cameron last blessed the multiplexes… or has it? Back in 2009, superheroes ruled Hollywood, and we have since doubled down on capes and powers. Star Wars came back, made a gargantuan amount of money, sort of wore out its welcome, and then left again. Streaming took over all of our lives, leaving various companies to prioritize at-home content at the expense of the theater experience. Oh, and there was a once-in-a-century pandemic that accelerated the deterioration of the theater business. As a result, Avatar: The Way of Water – a sequel to the highest-grossing movie of all time, which you think would be a sure thing – arrives later this year in perhaps a much more tenuous time than the atmosphere of its 2009 predecessor.

There are two things that are always brought up when the topic of Avatar emerges. The first is how long these sequels have been in development. Avatar 2 has been penciled in for 2012, then 2014, then 2017, then… you get the picture. The delays have primarily been associated with Cameron developing the tech to depict the movie’s underwater scenes. The long wait has turned some people off, but on the bright side: at least we know all involved are taking their time with this and not opting for a quick cash grab.

When Avatar is discussed, the second thing everyone brings up is how the movie didn’t leave a pop culture footprint – reference points, characters, or iconic lines that are easily recognizable to the general public. This criticism is in relation to the film’s status as the highest-grossing movie ever, as many are still perplexed about how the highest-grossing film could have such relatively little impact on pop culture. That angst reached a fever pitch during the theatrical run of Avengers: Endgame, as fans of the movie actively rooted for it to earn the top spot in the most pointless fanboy piss contest of all time. Endgame would briefly take the box office crown before Avatar re-assumed its spot.

However, the critics of Avatar’s social impact do have a point. For all its special effects wizardry, the movie is hampered by a generic screenplay. The film is essentially a retelling of imperialism, most closely resembling Pocahontas and Dances With Wolves, and exacerbating issues is Cameron’s hackneyed dialogue (more on that later). So, The Way of Water not only has to try to top what worked about the original, but it must also try to improve on the criticisms of the 2009 epic. But if you thought the movie was in danger of pushing back the release date YET AGAIN, those concerns can be put on the backburner with the release of the film’s first teaser trailer. The trailer accompanied the release of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (a good movie, but could have been a lot better) but is now also viewable online:

The trailer… looks good. It does the job of any successful teaser- it gives you an idea of what the experience of watching the movie will be without spoiling too many plot details. Of course, we can surmise that the villains of the first film will return with a new plan to threaten the native Na’vi, which will likely involve Pandora’s oceans and all the life within it. But the images are beautiful and less jarring than in the original film. The first film, while spectacular in terms of visual effects and action, still had an uncanny valley effect that takes getting used to. However, the past decade has seen a smorgasbord of blockbusters that were inspired by movies like Avatar, normalizing such heavy use of effects. Thus, gonzo blockbusters like Aquaman and Valerian have, in turn, paved the way for The Way of Water to assault the senses in an extraordinary but somewhat familiar way.

The trailer features only one line of dialogue when Jake (Sam Worthington) tells his love Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), “I know one thing, wherever we go, this family is our fortress.” That’s an interesting turn of phrase, which hopefully is a good sign for the movie’s writing. The first Avatar was written solely by Cameron, and it was a script that he wrote in the 90s and sat on for years until the technology could accommodate his vision. That’s why the movie’s dialogue sounds like an Aliens knockoff. However, for the sequels, Cameron has enlisted a whole team of writers. For The Way of Water, he collaborated with Josh Friedman on the screenplay. Avatar’s pitfalls can be traced to one man taking on too much by himself. However, the film is a collaborative process, and perhaps Cameron’s writers’ room approach to the new movies will lead to better writing.

Nonetheless, there’s a lot of pressure on this movie to deliver in a big way. I would say it’s almost guaranteed not to replicate the historic numbers of the original, but The Way of Water still has a great shot at grossing over a billion dollars. The film will need to be that successful to justify what James Cameron and Disney have invested into it, to say nothing of the multiple sequels still in development. This is Cameron’s Star Wars, a chance at a lifelong dream to construct a sprawling film franchise just like George Lucas’ galaxy from far, far away, which inspired Cameron to enter filmmaking in the first place. But The Way of Water can’t just be good. It needs to be better than its predecessor in order to enrapture a new generation of fans. If it’s not, all those naysayers will get one over on the King of the World.

Avatar: The Way of Water will release everywhere (no, for real this time!) on December 16, 2022 (for real, for real).