When concept art from the first two Avatar sequels was unveiled last week, the standard response was, “Who cares?”
Much has been made of Avatar’s lack of a cultural footprint, which provides an ironic contrast with James Cameron’s unwavering certainty that he will manifest an ever-increasing number of sequels upon the world. In the decade since the film’s release, it has become a joke. Those jokes perhaps have a larger footprint than the film itself: “name a character,” “Dances with Smurfs,” “Papyrus.”
In some ways, this feels absurd. When it was first announced, Avatar seemed like the ultimate folly from blockbuster director James Cameron, a largely computer-generated science fiction fantasy with no A-list cast members, a very heavy-handed environmental theme, and a mythology that required actors to deliver words like “unobtanium” with a straight face. Even if the film hadn’t been a financial success, it should have been anything but forgettable.
Regardless, only a fool bets against James Cameron. Avatar became the highest-grossing film of all time, unadjusted for inflation. It earned nine nominations at the Academy Awards, winning three. It jockeyed for the Best Picture Oscar and ultimately lost to The Hurt Locker. In a twist worthy of Hollywood, The Hurt Locker was directed by Kathryn Bigelow, Cameron’s ex-wife.
Avatar was broadly liked. It earned positive reviews, with critics singling out the special effects and immersive 3D cinematography. It earned an “A” CinemaScore. It had impressive legs, particularly in the context of the time, indicating very strong word of mouth. It even enjoyed a brief re-release in the summer of 2010. It ranked on IMDb’s Top 250 Movies of All Time for over two years.
Avatar dethroned Titanic as the biggest movie of all time, but Cameron’s earlier period piece romance casts a longer cultural shadow. More than 20 years later, people are still debating whether there was room for Jack Dawson on that floating door; Brad Pitt even alluded to the sequence at this year’s Golden Globes. Jonah Hill recreated an iconic scene on Saturday Night Live.
This year, Avatar was itself dethroned by Avengers: Endgame. However one feels about Endgame, it seems safe to say that it will linger in the popular memory longer, and not just because it is tethered to a gigantic 20-plus-film mega franchise. Among the Endgame fans pushing for the record, the desire to replace the forgettable Avatar with something more “worthy” was a powerful narrative.
To be clear, like any science fiction or fantasy property, Avatar did attract some hardcore fans. There was considerable coverage of the film’s more devoted followers (and how they “took over the world”) in the weeks after the film’s release. There were reports that some fans were even learning the Na’vi language. However, fan sites like LearnNavi.org tend to be rather quiet these days.
It seems safe to say that Avatar never produced a fandom to rival that of similarly successful properties, like Star Wars or the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Even Cameron’s Terminator franchise arguably has a more active and engaged following, spinning off into video games and comics, while it seems that the default response to news of the Avatar sequels is, “Are these still happening?”
There has always been something just a little too performative about these complaints. Even as people on Twitter complained about how little they remembered of Avatar, they demonstrated that they did remember Avatar. In a weird and roundabout way, the film’s lack of a pop culture footprint has become its own pop cultural footprint; its defining legacy is the insistence that it lacks a legacy.
This perhaps gets at what is unique about Avatar in this age of multimedia franchise fandom. Avatar is not a movie designed for fandom as has come to be defined in the 21st century, built around established intellectual property and designed to cultivate life-long associations and investment. It is not designed for the era of “explainer videos” and social media influence.
Avatar was one of the last original blockbusters to compete on that scale without a built-in audience. The film was aimed at the broadest possible audience – Cameron joked that the target audience for Avatar was “people with a pulse and $15 — or even just $15.” Avatar and Endgame were fundamentally built differently, designed to earn money in different ways.
Avatar earned $3.5M from midnight screenings; Endgame earned $28M from midnight screenings in China alone. Sixty-two percent of the opening audience for Avatar was over 25, as opposed to 53% for Endgame. Avatar was the number one movie for seven weeks, spending seven more in the top 10. Endgame topped the box office for three weeks and dropped out of the top ten after seven in total.
To be fair, Endgame was competing in a more crowded market. It had to earn more money quicker if it were to have any chance of supplanting Avatar. This is nothing new. Avatar’s seven weeks at the top looks modest compared to Titanic’s 15. It speaks to the shifting reality of movie production that Endgame needed a more enthused and motivated audience to break records than Avatar did.
Avatar looks more like older movies to hold the title of “highest-grossing film ever,” happy-go-lucky crowd pleasers like The Sound of Music, Gone with the Wind, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, or even Titanic. Each of those movies is probably better — and arguably more memorable — than Avatar, but none of them have the sort of intense and engaged fandom associated with modern blockbusters.
A cynical observer might argue that more beloved films like The Sound of Music or E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial would have been subject to the same broad mockery as Avatar, if they happened to stand in the way of franchises with more motivated and invested fandoms. Like everything else in culture, fandom has become polarized. Avatar has long been an obstacle to knock down, a target to attack.
It is entirely possible that the sequels to Avatar will bomb. After all, Hollywood history is littered with costly embarrassments – even those that arguably should have been guaranteed hits. These would not be the first sequels to a successful Cameron film to land with a dull thud. Of course, the Avatar sequels could also be hits.
There is something almost appealing about that prospect, in this highly fragmented and combative age. So many of the highest-grossing films of recent years are defined by their passionate fandoms, with audiences folding these films into their identity. This makes arguments over something as simple as a character arc in a Star Wars blockbuster equivalent to a religious schism.
The escalation is absurd and exhausting. In the past decade, blockbuster franchises have spawned death threats against critics and targeted harassment campaigns against actors. Every passing allusion to a major film from a few years ago becomes fodder in some larger battle being waged. Even the films themselves seem to get drawn into these heated arguments.
Against this backdrop, Avatar’s complete lack of a cultural footprint is not only a feature of itself, but perhaps its most appealing attribute. It is a film that millions and millions of people saw — before getting on with their lives.
In the current climate, there may be a lot to be said for a $2.79B movie met with a casual shrug rather than a raised voice.