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Forget Avatar: The Way Of Water. What Really Matters Is Avatar 3

After 13 years, the sequel to 2009's smash hit "Avatar" is finally making its way to the theaters. What's more, people who have been yearning for a revisit to Pandora's lush environment to see what Jake (Sam Worthington), Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), and the rest of the blue folk have been up to can rest relatively assured that the adventures will keep on coming. "Avatar 3" is already a virtual lock, and James Cameron has plans in place for many more Na'vi thrills.

This is why "Avatar: The Way of Water" doesn't matter quite as much as you might expect from a massive end-of-the-year blockbuster by a filmmaker of Cameron's pedigree. With a third movie in the works, the immediate future of the series is already pretty clear, regardless of how "The Way of Water" fares. Because of this, the "Avatar" movie you should really be paying attention to is the third one. Virtually everything about "Avatar" — movies, theme park attractions and assorted entertainment properties alike — will be riding on the third installment, which won't have "The Way of Water's" decade-plus long curiosity factor on its side. Here's how important "Avatar 3" will be for the franchise.

Avatar: The Way of Water is what Cameron does best, but Avatar 3 is uncharted territory for him

Early Twitter buzz around "Avatar: The Way of Water" has been largely positive, and why wouldn't it be? "Piranha II: The Spawning" notwithstanding, James Cameron's history as a genre sequel writer-director is peerless, thanks to "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" and "Aliens." Though even Cameron himself admits that "Avatar: The Way of Water" is a terrible business case that'll need to become one of the most successful movies in history just to break even, it's kind of hard to bet against his CV. 

"Avatar 3," however, is where things will get tricky. Cameron is a great filmmaker, but he's also relatively sporadic. In fact, "The Way of Water" is his 21th directing credit in 44 years, which includes individual TV episodes, documentaries and short films. While he's been a nigh-invariable success story on the director's seat, he's also an unproven helmsman to steer a franchise beyond the seas of the first sequel. Sure, he produced "Terminator: Dark Fate," so he has kind of revisited franchises after their second movie in the past. However, he has never fully committed to a film franchise after the first sequel — not in the kind of extremely involved writer-director-producer-editor role he assumes in the "Avatar" movies.

In other words, Cameron's plan is to venture far beyond familiar waters. He's laid out plans for multiple big-budget sequels that are all set in the same universe, something that's entirely uncharted territory in his body of work. He clearly has his reasons to do this — more on that in a moment. Still, we won't see until "Avatar 3" whether he can truly work on such a rapid-fire, deep-dive capacity while consistently drawing a profit. 

If Cameron is playing the legacy game, Avatar 3 is the most critical part of his project

The biggest thing about "Avatar 3" isn't necessarily the movie itself, but how successful it is at establishing future "Avatar" movies. The third movie is the first "Avatar" film that shows whether James Cameron's apparent plan to establish his legacy as the ultimate franchise maker succeeds.

Let's be honest, Cameron could have retired to a tropical island after pretty much any of his umpteen smash hit movies. The fact that he's constantly pushed on, embraced new technology, and focused on making even more impressive films is testament to the man's drive to surpass himself. Since making a sci-fi sequel is his bread and butter, "The Way of Water" is just one dazzling step in his "Avatar" masterplan — but the whole plan can't truly unfold until "Avatar 3" spreads its wings. As a filmmaker, Cameron certainly has the chops to deliver multiple epic sci-fi works, and he's had plenty of time to draft the stories he wants to tell in this world. But are there enough enticing stories to tell on Pandora? Or has Cameron become so enamored by his stylish world that he fails to see there's not enough substance for his multi-movie story arc? Only "Avatar 3" will tell.

When you consider Cameron's tenacity when it comes to the "Avatar" movies, it's clear that he views them as his biggest, boldest moviemaking move yet. Instead of creating individual great movies and sequels, he's now building an entire mega-franchise from scratch. Very few greats can say the same ... which may or may not be precisely why Cameron is so committed to it. What greater legacy than building an entire, beloved universe with your own two hands?

Avatar 3 is a durability test for the entire franchise

None of the major sci-fi franchises Cameron has been involved with have managed to peak after the first two movies. This creates mighty expectations for "Avatar 3," which is the first "Avatar" movie that forces Cameron beyond the "successful movie and its sequel" structure, and into the serial movie franchise territory he seems so keen to explore. 

Possibly the best point of comparison to what Cameron seems to be trying to do is fellow sci-fi franchise chef George Lucas — in either good or bad. If Cameron manages to expand his universe the way Lucas crafted the galaxy far, far away in the original "Star Wars" trilogy, he might very well turn "Avatar" into a multimedia powerhouse that can stand proudly next to the likes of "Star Wars," "Star Trek," or the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If this happens, expect to get Pandora-centric movies and TV shows long after Cameron is gone. However, if the filmmaker gets lost in the style-over-substance mode of Lucas' prequel trilogy, his expensive experiment may turn into a massive, embarrassing failure.

It's pretty impressive, really. After all, it's not every day that we see an established superstar filmmaker swinging for the fences the way Cameron does with the "Avatar" movies, especially at this relatively late stage of his career. "Avatar 3" is the most important curveball he has to hit if he wants that history-making home run.

Avatar 3 will show whether the franchise is financially sustainable

And then there's the inevitable money side of things. James Cameron is fully prepared to wrap Pandora up after "Avatar 3" if the movies don't turn in a pretty profit. This financial aspect further increases the third "Avatar" movie's importance in the grand scheme of things. In a worst case scenario, "Avatar 3" will not only be responsible for its own box office — it's also Pandora's last line of defense if "Way of the Water's" numbers disappoint.

And boy, does "Avatar 3" have a lot to make up for if "The Way of Water" belly-flops. Per Variety, "The Way of Water's" breakeven point is somewhere in the vicinity of $2 billion. For comparison, 2022's other major long-gestating sequel, the highly successful "Top Gun: Maverick," has "only" made $1.48 billion so far (per Box Office Mojo). Should "The Way of Water" peak at such numbers, and assuming that "Avatar 3" also comes with a $2 billion profit margin, the movie would need to make over $2.5 billion to break even and cover "The Way of Water's" slack. To achieve this, "Avatar 3" would have to become the third highest-grossing movie in history.

This hypothetical scenario might seem like a big ask, but it's not unattainable — at least, if your name is James Cameron. The movie "Avatar 3" would need to surpass for that number three spot is none other than "Titanic," currently at $2.2 billion (via Box Office Mojo). Oh, and topping the list is the original "Avatar," which has raked in a cool $2.92 billion over the years (via Box Office Mojo), with the September 2022 rerelease alone boasting a $30-million premiere weekend (via Variety). 

So, if anyone can make these absurd numbers work, it's Cameron. Still, chances are even he'll be sweating for quite a while, seeing as "Avatar" has been the embodiment of "slow and steady," making a relatively meager $77 million during its opening weekend and building from there. As such, even if they're successful, "The Way of Water" and "Avatar 3" may need a long time to make their billions. Will the studio grow tired of this high-stakes gambling with achingly slow returns, or will "Avatar 3" need to make an immediate, colossal box office impact to reassure everyone involved? There's yet another reason to keep an eye on what might turn out to be the most important movie of Cameron's career.