Tom Cruise's "Top Gun: Maverick" easily took on "Jurassic World", "Minions" and a trio of films from Marvel. But in the end it was no match for James Cameron.
"Avatar: The Way of Water" has surpassed "Maverick's" box office haul in just its first three weeks in theaters, raking in an astonishing $1.51 billion worldwide since Dec. 16 according to Box Office Mojo data.
The figure makes it the highest-grossing release of 2022, and has allowed it to leapfrog 2015's "Furious 7" to become the No. 10 highest-grossing film of all time.
Box office watchers don't expect "Avatar 2" to slow down any time soon. The film has a clear runway to continue raking in ticket sales and is expected to have a firm grip on IMAX, Dolby and other premium display formats until the release of "Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania" next month.
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It's welcome news for Cameron, who in the run up to the film's release claimed that it would need to earn at least $2 billion just to break even. Along with the original "Avatar" ($2.92 billion) and "Titanic" ($2.2 billion), Cameron has now directed three of the 10 biggest blockbusters ever.
"I really wonder what kind of legs it will develop now that we're out of the holidays," Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at BoxOffice.com tells CNBC Make It. "The first movie famously just kept going and going and going."
"[James Cameron] built a career on movies that have a slow burn at the box office, and it really is on display again with the sequel," he adds.
"Avatar's" box office dominance wasn't a given from the outset. The film's opening weekend fell short of box office expectations, and the winter storms that hit large swaths of the country also depressed audience numbers.
The global appetite for "Avatar 2" has helped carry the film. While "Top Gun" earned $718 million in the States and $770 million abroad, $1.05 billion of "Avatar's" ticket sales have come from overseas, with American audiences contributing a comparatively modest $464 million as of Jan. 6.
"Avatar" also isn't behaving like a typical sequel. Most sequels in major franchises normally see frontloaded box office returns as fans rush to theaters opening weekend and then quickly drop off week-after-week, but "Avatar" hasn't seen any steep drops over its first three weeks.
"It's behaving like something that people didn't go see back in the day," Robbins says. "There's been a return to 'Avatar' in the way that makes it somewhat of an original movie for a lot of people. They're rediscovering the franchise through this sequel."
Whether or not it will be able to match its predecessor and become the highest-grossing film ever made remains to be seen, but "Avatar: The Way of Water's" performance so far is making Cameron's $2 billion forecast look good.
""When that first weekend maybe didn't quite hit some of the high-end expectations it called into question whether it could get there," Robbins says. "Now here we are and it's over $1.5 billion and has a pretty healthy runway to make up a lot more. So the odds are better than ever."
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