“Don’t bet against James Cameron.”
I don’t know about you, but even I — as someone who has been saying that since 1997, when I was a 13-year-old film fanatic who religiously read Corona Coming Attractions and Dark Horizons on a daily basis and fully believed in Cameron despite all the pre-release press for Titanic that preordained it as his Heaven’s Gate when it ultimately became his Gone with the Wind — have grown tired of that phrase.
Waiting 13 years to follow up Avatar — the highest-grossing film of all time worldwide — was a bold move. Despite a decade-plus of articles, columns, and debates over the cultural impact of his sci-fi actioner — specifically its lack thereof — Cameron bet against the house and won big. Yet again.
The big question was whether Avatar: The Way of Water — with a price tag estimated to be well over $400 million — would break even, let alone be considered “profitable,” an amusing term given Hollywood’s notoriety for its “creative accounting.” How else to explain how huge hits like Forrest Gump and My Big Fat Greek Wedding — to name just two of countless examples, trust me — are still in the red. The more creative the accounting, the less likely it is that certain parties will be paid out.
One supposes with Cameron and his history of calling bullshit that no studio head or executive could feasibly play that card and live to tell the tale. Now, with The Way of Water a certified commercial smash — it’s already wearing the crown as 2022’s top-dog earner worldwide at nearly $2.2 billion and counting — Cameron is doing a victory lap tour, having explained to HBO Max’s Who’s Talking to Chris Wallace (via the Hollywood Reporter) that not only is everything kosher numbers-wise, but that the proposed fourth and fifth Avatar installments will, in fact, now happen.
Though I would imagine that Disney will wait and see how Avatar 3 performs come Dec. 20, 2024, before giving the official greenlight, since the studio is the one writing the checks for Cameron’s vision, Bob Iger’s recent announcement of an Avatar area coming to Disneyland would seem to further bolster the case for Avatar 4 and Avatar 5.
Right now, with the entire world back in Pandora-mania and on a sugar high over the undeniably dazzling visuals, few will agree with what I’m about to say… and that’s perfectly fine.
But the fact is, Avatar 3 still needs a hook. And if it’s too late for that, then we have the perfect one for Avatar 4 or 5.
But first, a word on Part 3‘s — or “threequels,” as they’ve come to be known and will be referred to from here on out. Threequels are exactly when things start getting stale. The third installment in an ongoing film series where the same people are in front of and behind the camera often begins to wear thin. Of course, this isn’t a hard and fast rule, as there are exceptions, they’re just few and far between.
Look back to the summer of 2007. The month of May featured a murderer’s row of high-profile threequels to franchises that dominated not only their perspective summers — but were the top box-office earners that year.
Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third, and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End all opened within weeks of each other and all broke box-office records. Commercially, they came out of the gate swinging. They all prospered from the goodwill built up from prior installments. Creatively, however, this was the exact moment critics and general audiences started to feel fatigued. Everything that we loved started to feel repetitive. Something was up with the secret sauce. In all three cases, their total domestic earnings were on the lower end of expectations, and it proved to be the beginning of the end.
And to that quick-witted reader who will surely point to The Bourne Ultimatum — another big threequel released that summer, though one that was met with universal acclaim and glowing box-office, it should be noted that was the second outing under the direction of Paul Greengrass, who inherited the series from Doug Liman. Once he and Matt Damon returned nine years later with Jason Bourne — after swearing that Ultimatum was the swan song for the amnesic ex-assassin-turned-do-gooder, the taste of expired produce set in, and we haven’t heard from the Bourne franchise ever since.
For all the talk of Cameron being the king of the sequels — and make no mistake, that title is earned thanks to Aliens, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and yes, Avatar: The Way of Water — he’s never actually done a threequel.
Filming wrapped on Avatar 3 years ago and it has been in post-production ever since. Our own Jeff Sneider even said on The Hot Mic that Cameron is working on whittling down a nine-hour cut for which he supposedly wanted every single VFX shot fully rendered before making any final decisions.
So what we suggest below is pure spitball, and I fully acknowledge this as speculation on my part.
James Cameron is one to buck trends and temp fate — time and time again. But he has to be wise enough to know that in order to avoid a threequel slump, it will require extra firepower. Or star power, to be exact.
Enter one Leonardo DiCaprio.
Never was there a more self-fulfilling prophecy than DiCaprio’s Jack Dawson triumphantly proclaiming “I’m the king of the world!” in Titanic. It’s a moment forever cemented in pop culture — to the point of annoyance and parody back in 1998. Cameron himself couldn’t even resist bellowing the phrase upon accepting the Best Director Oscar that year.
After the backlash of Titanic and especially “Leomania,” everyone was ready to tear DiCaprio apart, and things got rocky after the critical and commercial failure of The Beach and the heat he got for refusing to attend the 70th Academy Awards ceremony after failing to score a Best Actor nomination for Titanic — a surprise snub that truly stunned the industry and general masses alike (though do note how he didn’t whine to the press).
For a while there, he was dismissed as a pretty boy who lucked out in headlining the biggest movie of all time.
But DiCaprio weathered that storm and let the work speak for itself. Following the same career path as Tom Cruise, he made a strategic choice to work with the best of the best filmmakers who would push him past his own limits and, as a result, get the best results.
Leo didn’t do IP. He became the IP.
He offers a sense of reassurance that you will get your money’s worth — a trusted brand not unlike Coca-Cola or Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bar. Hit-after-hit, Oscar nomination-after-Oscar nomination, rarely have people come out disappointed by a film that DiCaprio has headlined. He provides a certain level of quality control similar to how my dad would refer to Jack Nicholson — “Oh if he’s in it, it must be good!”
DiCaprio stands on top of the mountain as the honest-to-God-only butts-in-seats movie star on the planet (forgive me, Mr. Cruise).
A reunion between Cameron and DiCaprio — on Pandora, no less — would be an event unto itself. If Leo shared scenes with his Titanic co-star Kate Winslet, even better. But who could he hypothetically play?
What little we know about Avatar 3 outside of casting additions — including current Oscar nominee Michelle Yeoh, David Thewlis, and Oona Chaplin as Varang, the leader of a tribute of fire Na’vi or “Ash People” as Cameron recently told Variety. Perhaps those three are enough, but somehow, someway, even if it’s a way to guarantee those greenlights for Avatar 4 and 5, Cameron should look to Leo to take his hit franchise to the next level.
Not only would motion capture offer DiCaprio an exciting new challenge as an actor, something he’s never really done before, but he’d be paying back the filmmaker responsible for his reaching mega-stardom. As for Cameron and his baby, introducing a live-action DiCaprio in the fifth film, which is said to offer a more human presence, would surely make for quite the finale.
If we’re thinking in terms of Star Wars terminology, perhaps DiCaprio could be their Emperor Palpatine, the head-honcho antagonist responsible for everything. He could be the one sitting on top of the food chain at the Resources Development Administration, the one who Giovanni Ribsi‘s corporate slime-ball Parker Selfridge and Edie Falco’s General Ardmore quiver and kneel before.
As long as it’s a meaty part and he knows his director will guide him every step of the way, Leo’s not against making himself look ugly, be it internally or externally. Look no further than his deliciously evil turn as slaveowner Calvin Candie in Quentin Tarantino‘s Django Unchained.
Again, the fact is that threequels are when audiences go “You know, I’m getting bored with this” and as great as Stephen Lang is as Col. Miles Quaritch, and as much as I enjoyed the new dynamic in the sequel, where he meets his long-lost son (impressively played by newcomer Jack Champion), the fact is that this franchise would benefit from having a new villain. Chaplin may suffice in Avatar 3, but if there are truly two more movies coming, Cameron should consider writing a movie star part for one of the only true movie stars left.
As always, we’re merely coming at this as fans and admirers. Everyone here at Above the Line is rooting for Cameron, I just know that if you play against the house long enough, the house will win and you’ll be out on your ass penniless. I don’t think the Avatar franchise will ever suffer that fate, but Disney will likely be disappointed should it prove to be one of diminishing returns.
Neither James Cameron nor Leonardo DiCaprio “need” one another right now, make no mistake. But this kind of reunion could be just what it takes for Avatar 3 to avoid that dreaded threequel slump, and if it’s too late on that front, then just what Avatar 4 or 5 could use to reach the box office highs of the first film, which grossed more than 2.9 billion worldwide. The king of the world, indeed.