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Avatar: The Way of Water opens under expectations but could still become a box office juggernaut

James Cameron's sci-fi epic missed projections for its opening weekend. But the film is playing the long game.

After a long wait, Avatar: The Way of Water isn't making quite as big of a splash at the box office as expected — at least not yet. 

James Cameron's hotly anticipated sci-fi epic grossed an estimated $134 million domestically this weekend. While impressive, that's a bit under expectations, as projections suggested The Way of Water would debut with between $150 million and $175 million. 

At the same time, it's far too early to deem the film a disappointment. The original Avatar only opened with $77 million in 2009, yet it went on to become the highest-grossing film of all time worldwide because it continued to grow its audience in the subsequent weeks. Avatar's final domestic total of $760 million was nearly 10 times its opening weekend haul, whereas a typical blockbuster can expect to gross between two and four times what it makes opening weekend. 

For The Way of Water, it was always less about a massive debut than about whether the film will have strong legs, and there's reason to believe it will. Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the sequel an A, the same grade as its predecessor. So it wouldn't be surprising to see more moviegoers flock to the film — and maybe even see it a second or third time — during the holidays and beyond, especially after hearing what a visually stunning spectacle it is. 

Because the Avatar films are generally seen as being driven more by visuals than story, audiences may have also felt less of a need to see The Way of Water immediately to avoid spoilers, which is often the case with a Marvel blockbuster, for example. But if The Way of Water could gross around six times its opening weekend, a less "leggy" performance than the original, it would exceed the first film's domestic gross in the end. 

Ultimately, then, The Way of Water's performance in its second, third, and fourth weekends will give us a better idea of whether Cameron can continue his reign as king of the box office world.