When the original Avatar landed in theaters in 2009, it was a bona fide event. The Marvel Cinematic Universe was still young–it had only received two entries at this point. Big-budget movies were a different beast 13 years ago, and Avatar is a shining example of this difference in ethos.
It’s a huge movie with a straightforward storyline that opens and closes a massive world in a little over two hours. The movie came and went, earning a cool $2 billion across a few theatrical releases, and left little other impact on the world of cinema. It was awesome, self-contained, and came to a satisfactory conclusion in a way modern blockbuster movies just… don’t. Imagine a Marvel movie ending on a closed-ended note and saying “alright that’s it for a while.”
Well, 13 years later, Avatar is back. This isn’t some dire breach of a code of ethics or anything–director James Cameron was talking about sequels to Avatar as early as 2007. However, given how much time has passed since the original came out, it’s certainly a bit weird to step back into the world of the first movie. So, what are critics saying about the next entry in the suddenly-reignited Avatar franchise?
Critics generally seemed positive about the film, with many noting that it’s a visual feast and a welcome return to a simpler era of blockbuster movies. Rather than worrying about the minutiae and minor characters of dozens of films like in modern superhero movies, The Way of Water only asks for you to have seen a single film. It’s received mixed-to-positive reviews from critics when it comes to its storyline, though.
Many reviewers felt the original Avatar had a serviceable, if thin, plot. The sequel is getting similar reviews. “The film’s focus is split in so many directions that none of its characters feel whole, even after three full hours,” writes Observer’s Dylan Roth.
Similarly, Newsday’s Rafer Guzman writes, “Avatar: The Way of Water is fully engrossing, always eye-popping and occasionally touching. Like its predecessor, it’s a movie to admire and enjoy, if not quite love.” So, it’s a pretty movie with a number of strong performances and an alright plot? Well, that depends upon who you ask.
Some reviewers were less than enthusiastic about the Avatar sequel. “Astonishing! Enthralling! Exciting! Immersive! None of these words could sensibly be applied to the three-and-a-quarter-hour Wet Smurfahontas stodgeathon that is Avatar: The Way of Water,” writes the UK Observer’s Mark Kermode. Others noted a striking lack of genuine warmth from the film, given its largely computer-generated aesthetic.
“The movie’s bland aesthetics and banal emotions turn it into the Club Med of effects-driven extravaganzas,” notes Richard Brody, writing for the New Yorker. Likewise, Stephen A. Russell of the Sunday Arts Magazine Podcast said the movie “looks like a computer game for the majority of the [runtime].”
These complaints were outweighed by the positive comments, though, with other reviewers applauding Avatar’s visuals and calling its performances touching and meaningful.
In true Cameron style, the movie struck many reviewers as almost goofy in its earnestness and clunky in how straightforward its themes are. This is nothing new for the director, famed for his work on the cheese-fest Titanic. “Shamelessly corny and blunt and earnest and wildly exciting,” says Alternate Ending’s Tim Brayton.
Many other reviewers noted that this movie is meant to reopen what the first film closed–the world of Pandora. Since Avatar 1 was such a one-and-done movie, The Way of Water is tasked with widening the scope of the first film and priming the franchise for a slew of new sequels.
Book & Film Globe writer Sara Stewart notes that The Way of Water “[d]elivers on its promise of expanding the scope of Pandora.” That’s not an easy task when you consider how massive and alien the setting from the first film is–and it goes a long way to explaining The Way of Water’s astronomical budget.