‘Top Gun: Maverick’ and ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’: Can a Sequel Be Too Late?

The Tom Cruise and James Cameron blockbusters count on long memories and younger audiences caring about films before their time.
Tom Cruise
"Top Gun: Maverick"

In the noisy circus of CinemaCon, two presentations cut through the static: Disney debuted the trailer for James Cameron’s “Avatar: The Way of Water,” while attendees got their first look at Paramount’s long-long-long-awaited Tom Cruise sequel “Top Gun: Maverick.”

The two films share high expectations — make that sky-high expectations. “Maverick” projections hope for a $250-300 million domestic take — and more than double that for “Avatar 2.” If either went higher few would be surprised — each is a sequel to a title that was the best-grossing film of its year — but does success have a freshness-by date?

“Top Gun” was the #1 film of 1986 — 36 years ago. “Avatar” opened 13 years ago, in 2009. “Top Gun” isn’t breaking any records — 54 years passed between “Mary Poppins” and its 2018 sequel. “Mary Poppins Returns” grossed a respectable $180 million domestic, but that was about a quarter of the original (in adjusted figures). At best, the film broke even. Early screenings for “Maverick” suggest it will not have the same problem.

In adjusted numbers, “Avatar” grossed just under $900 million domestic. It was a phenomenon on release, transcending normal box office dominance to become an event that thrived with repeat viewings.

“Top Gun” was a zeitgeist film that became a pop-culture touchstone. Part Reagan-era patriotism, part celebration of male bonding (with hints of a gay subtext that became a Quentin Tarantino monologue in the 1994 “Sleep with Me”) and backed by a soundtrack that sold over 12 million copies. It stands as an archetypical movie of the 1980s much as “Casablanca” defined the 1940s.

Still: That’s a long time ago. Imagine Cecil B. DeMille’s smash “Samson and Delilah” or “All About Eve” — two massive hits of 1950 —  getting a sequel in 1986. Tom Cruise was not yet 24 when he made “Top Gun”; today he’s 59 — the same age as John Wayne when he starred in “True Grit.” The 36-year absence could also prove to be a silver lining: For many viewers, the film could feel fresh and original.

“Top Gun” has been a basic-cable staple for decades, but two-thirds of today’s moviegoing audience is under 40: Paramount released “Top Gun” when they were, at best, three years old. The audience is also more diverse, with half being non-white. With its all-white cast, “Top Gun” was the Abercrombie & Fitch of movies.

“Top Gun: Maverick” is a little more diverse. The supporting cast includes Danny Ramierez, Bashir Salahuddin, Manny Jacinto, and Jay Ellis, but that’s not enough to make that part of the film’s core appeal. Initial reports suggest it has a technical bravura and action/flight scenes that top the original and a visceral on-screen experience can pay huge dividends.

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation/Kobal/Shutterstock (5885988aj)Zoe SaldanaAvatar - 2009Director: James CameronTwentieth Century-Fox Film CorporationUSAScene Still
“Avatar”20th Century Studios

The “Avatar” sequel is the first of four announced followups, all of which were filmed at the same time at an initial estimated cost of over $1 billion. Its release date has been pushed and pushed again: It was first announced in 2014. The 2009 film represented a massive advancement in 3D technology and few films since have used it with as much invention.

Since the 3D was so essential to the film, it doesn’t have the same currency as a home-entertainment title. Still, rival studios aren’t taking any chances: For now, they’ve allowed the “Avatar” release date of December 16 to go unchallenged. (Disney will re-release the original in theaters in September.) The last time Cameron attempted a sequel was “Terminator 2,” which grossed nearly 10 times its original.

Do both sequels have enough of what contemporary audiences want? Probably yes — but hardly a given. The new “Top Gun” looks like it’s managed to make nostalgia fresh. The second “Avatar” remains more of a mystery.

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