The pundits called it long ago: Avatar 2: The Way of Water was going to be a flop. They did allow that betting against the so-called "king of the world" James Cameron was rash — after all, Titanic and the first Avatar film overcame almost hysterically negative buzz in order to become box office behemoths. But there were too many reasons why the latest Avatar was going to fail.

Nobody remembered the first film, they said. It wasn’t meme-able, they warned. Sam Worthington, its supposed star, was a nobody. There were too many blue people in it....

The pundits called it long ago: Avatar 2: The Way of Water was going to be a flop. They did allow that betting against the so-called “king of the world” James Cameron was rash — after all, Titanic and the first Avatar film overcame almost hysterically negative buzz in order to become box office behemoths. But there were too many reasons why the latest Avatar was going to fail.

Nobody remembered the first film, they said. It wasn’t meme-able, they warned. Sam Worthington, its supposed star, was a nobody. There were too many blue people in it. The first film had had the novelty of 3D, but that was now a completely defunct format, popular only in China. People had moved on. The now-68-year-old Cameron had failed to understand what audiences want.

Well, the critics were wrong. Avatar 2 has not flopped. It is the highest grossing film of 2022, and currently the seventh highest grossing film of all time, with over $1.7 billion at the box office. Avatar remains the highest grossing; Titanic is third, with Avengers: Endgame playing gooseberry between the two of them. But only an idiot — or a pundit — would bet against Cameron’s latest film rising steadily up the list, given its remarkably consistent hold at the box office. Its sequels — three of them, apparently — are now guaranteed to get made, keeping Cameron in the Avatar business for the rest of the decade.

For those of us who hoped that this uniquely talented filmmaker might return to films that do such unfashionable things as have humans interacting with one another, we shall have to wait a great deal longer. But rather than kvetching about Cameron’s obsession with boundary-pushing special effects — a career-long fixation of his — it’s more interesting to ask why the pundits were so spectacularly wrong about Avatar 2.

The film has, predictably, done extremely well in China — a country where the likes of Top Gun: Maverick were not released — earning nearly $200 million there to date. But it’s also done well in places like France, Germany and South Korea, playing to all ages and demographics. If you see the film in 3D at an IMAX theater, you will be getting the full Way of Water experience — and paying around $25 a ticket for the privilege. For a family of four, that is quite the expensive night out. Yet the film is three and a quarter hours long, so you cannot deny that you’re getting your money’s worth. Even if you find it repetitive and overlong, as many critics have, there’s no arguing against the sheer scale of the thing.

There are other business considerations at play, too. There is no major film release to compete against Avatar 2 in theaters until Magic Mike’s Last Dance, and that won’t come out until February 10. Just as Cameron’s Titanic went on and on and on in theatrical exhibition, so will Avatar 2 dominate screens for another month, racking up hundreds of millions of dollars in the process. The first film made much of its money from repeat viewings. It’s likely that, on a cold January evening, even those who were largely indifferent to its sequel will find themselves drifting back to see it again if there’s nothing else on, purely because it’s a known quantity by now: the Blue Man Group of movies.

Avatar 2 has a few advantages over other blockbuster films: it’s an original idea, isn’t based on a comic book, and doesn’t feature tiresome attempts at world-building that revolve around introducing incomprehensible characters for a few moments so they can later appear in their own spin-offs. But its extraordinary success means that we have to acknowledge a universal truth: James Cameron knows what people want to see more than pundits do. It’s been true throughout his career, and it will no doubt continue to be true until he either retires or dies. Truly, the man is the king of the world.