During the press tour for Avatar: The Way of Water, James Cameron had some unkind words for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, he seems to have missed the irony of his statements, given that many of his and others’ criticisms about Marvel movies could easily be said about the Avatar films as well. Strangely enough, Cameron had previously congratulated Avengers: Endgame for surpassing Titanic at the box office, calling the film an “amazing achievement” and saying it showed that the movie industry was “alive and well.” It’s possible that Cameron just wanted to drum up some attention for The Way of Water ahead of its release by taking shots at Marvel, but now that he invited the comparison, it only makes sense to see if his statements hold up.
The first Avatar film was incredibly popular and inspired many other filmmakers with its technological innovations. However, even when it was first released, audiences were critical of its thin plot and characters. Jump ahead 13 years, and many viewers are now accusing Avatar: The Way of Water of just being the first film underwater. While the visual effects are once again beautiful, Cameron’s criticisms of Marvel partially focused on the films’ writing — something Avatar has never impressed with. Apart from just Cameron’s criticisms, the same kinds of things critics and fans complain about when it comes to the MCU can easily be applied to the first two entries in the Avatar series.
Avatar: The Way of Water Is a Sequel and a Spectacle
A common critique of the MCU is that it has prevented any new creative films from getting made. James Cameron said that he enjoys Marvel films but also criticized the studio for not making other types of stories. However, Avatar: The Way of Water isn’t exactly a new idea. It is a sequel to Avatar and is projected to have up to three more sequels if it performs well enough at the box office. Cameron has also said an Avatar TV show isn’t impossible but would have to happen further down the line. This mirrors the MCU’s transition over to Disney+ in the last few years, the same streaming service said Avatar show would likely premiere on. Avatar may have been original when it came out in 2009, but now Cameron is turning it into yet another Hollywood franchise.
Both Marvel movies and the two Avatar films are largely about the spectacle. Though the MCU has some slower entries that are more character-driven, it’s clear that many fans are going to see moments like Captain America beating on Thanos with Thor’s hammer. Avatar: The Way of Water looks incredible, especially the underwater scenes, and it definitely beats out a lot of MCU films in terms of looks. However, that doesn’t stop the movie from also being mostly just a spectacle. Any comparisons critics like to make between MCU films and theme park rides can be just as easily applied to The Way of Water. Despite what Cameron claims, there are a lot of similarities between his work and Marvel movies.
Avatar Uses Formulaic Stories and Shallow Characters
One of James Cameron’s criticisms about the Marvel Cinematic Universe was its lack of diversity in storytelling, which is very ironic given how closely Avatar: The Way of Water mirrors the plot of Avatar. Both films feature humans seeking a rare resource that the RDA wants to steal, a romance between a Sully and the daughter of a Na’vi chief, and a character having to bond with a seemingly dangerous animal. Unobtainium was swapped for Tulkun Enzymes in this film, a smart move, given that its name had been roasted for the past decade. However, the scene where a scientist explains how valuable Tulkun Enzymes is beat-for-beat the same scene as the introduction to Unobtainium. This lack of creativity in the script can be excused, given the unique visuals of the film, but it doesn’t explain why Cameron thinks Avatar is any more original than the MCU when it comes to telling stories.
Another criticism Cameron had of the MCU was its characters. Cameron claimed that the characters were too immature and needed to grow up, implying that they were not very complex. Though the characters in Avatar aren’t nearly as quippy, they aren’t any more well-developed than those of the MCU. If anything, fans know far less about Avatar characters than they do Marvel heroes. The stories of the Avatar films are very simplistic, and there is little to no moral complexity. The heroes make the obviously good choice of defending Pandora, while the villains are more a personification of greed than actual people. This type of storytelling is fine, but Cameron shouldn’t be claiming his films have more complex characters when most of them feel more like symbols than people.
MCU Actors Are Just as Much Movie Stars as Avatar Cast Members
One criticism director Quintin Tarantino levied at Marvel films that turned a lot of heads was when he said the actors in them weren’t movie stars; their characters were. This statement drew a lot of criticism of its own, with many fans pointing to big names like Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans, who have a lot more star power than Avatar lead Sam Worthington. While this particular statement didn’t come from Cameron, it could easily be applied to both Avatar and the MCU, which happen to share a star in Zoe Saldaña. If the MCU actors aren’t movie stars, neither is the cast of Avatar, especially given that one star is a part of both franchises. Even if Cameron wasn’t claiming that Avatar had movie stars, this only furthers the similarities between the two franchises.
Just because Avatar: The Way of Water isn’t part of the MCU doesn’t mean it’s all that different from a Marvel film. In fact, in a lot of ways, it is the same as one. It is a big-budget action movie, an installment in an ongoing franchise, and it often places more importance on visual spectacle than storytelling. Even James Cameron’s own criticisms of Marvel can be just as easily levied against the Avatar films. Avatar 3 has to make some big changes to the franchise if Cameron truly wants to create films that are different from Marvel.
Avatar: The Way of Water is now playing in theaters.