By the end of this month, Avengers: Endgame will likely become the highest grossing film of all-time worldwide, an unprecedented accolade that has been unchallenged for a decade. Many have tried – Star Wars: The Force Awakens was closest – but none have unseated the current title holder, Avatar.
No, not Avatar: The Last Airbender, the beloved Nickelodeon cartoon that was adapted into an execrable film by M. Night Shyalaman, although you might be forgiven the mistake. In 2009, legendary filmmaker James Cameron followed-up Titanic, his 1997 box-office busting historical epic, with a story about a race of gigantic blue aliens fighting back against the destruction and colonization of their home planet, with the help of a paraplegic soldier who was initially a spy for the military but came to love the aliens’ way of life (and the daughter of the clan’s leader). If that sounds out there, that’s because it was. Cameron is a wildly ambitious, pie-in-the-sky director, but Avatar initially seemed like it was beyond even his grasp. The technology that Cameron needed to create his fully-digital planet of Pandora wasn’t ready when he first conceived the project, and it took several years to bring his vision to life. With a reported $300 million-plus price tag, expectations for Avatar mirrored those for Titanic, which many predicted would destroy many careers, including Cameron’s. When the film debuted the weekend before Christmas, it made a relatively modest $73 million.
But instead of collapsing into box office oblivion, Avatar held firm with minuscule weekend decreases and remained on top of the US box office for a staggering seven weeks, smashing grossing records along the way. By its 47th day in theaters, Avatar had surpassed Titanic to become the highest grossing film in the U.S. It took even less time – 19 days – to hit the $1 billion mark globally. Aside from its unprecedented commercial success, Avatar was well-received by critics, and received nine Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. A second theatrical run helped Avatar gross an insane $2.7 billion worldwide, a sum that remains unmatched (domestically, The Force Awakens reigns supreme with $936 million). And yet, Avatar appears to have largely vanished from the cultural consciousness. The film pops up occasionally, but only either to contextualize other films’ box office success or discuss the long-delayed plans for two sequels (Avatar 2 is reportedly set for December 2020). Whereas other blockbusters like Star Wars, The Avengers, the Harry Potter series, even Titanic, have remained present in the zeitgeist, Avatar is undoubtedly faded. With all of its critical and commercial success, ten years on, what happened?
Avatar was a landmark piece of filmmaking, shattering what was conceivable for the big screen. James Cameron painstakingly crafted an immersive world of lush greenery, fantastic beasts, and stunningly vivid bioluminescence. It’s a film that demanded viewing on large format screens and especially 3D, which the film helped push into the cinematic mainstream. As jaw-droppingly beautiful as the film still is, the story hasn’t held up as well. The tale of Jake Sully infiltrating the world of the Na’vi under false pretenses, betraying their trust and then playing their savior after “proving himself” reeks of the same condescension that emanates from Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai and others under closer inspection. Even if you put the questionable sociopolitical issues aside, there’s nothing particularly distinctive from a narrative standpoint about Avatar, aside from the giant blue aliens. The love story at the film’s core – between Jake and Neytiri – is basically a rehash of The Ten Commandments (without the religion) and countless films before and after it. It lacks the magical tragedy of Titanic’s Rose and Jack, or the iconic characterization of Luke and Leila in Star Wars. In comparison, Avatar is quite forgettable.
Avatar’s weak impact also comes from a failure to cultivate its cultural footprint. Consider Titanic: James Cameron’s tragi-romance was less a box office behemoth than a full-blown cultural phenomenon. It captured the public’s imagination in every conceivable arena. Kate Winslet became a household name, and Leonardo DiCaprio became an international obsession akin to Beatlemania (“Leo-Mania” was an actual thing). The film won 11 Oscars, tied with Lord of the Rings: Return of the King for most Oscar wins. Its love theme, Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”, is one of the most successful songs in history, and the film’s largely orchestral soundtrack sold over 30 million copies worldwide. The presence of Titanic is still felt to this day, in internet debates about whether Rose and Jack could’ve fit on that door in the freezing ocean, and in “My Heart Will Go On” still being performed at awards shows. Now consider Avatar: Sam Worthington is no Leo DiCaprio (Zoe Saldana’s successes can be largely credited to Marvel), the film lost the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars to The Hurt Locker (directed by Cameron’s ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow), and most people probably don’t remember that British pop star Leona Lewis recorded the movie’s theme, the underrated and underperformed “I See You”. Titanic was inescapable for years after it first hit theaters; it took a year or less for Avatar to vanish. There were few commercial tie-ins to at least cash in on its blockbuster status; eight years passed before they opened an Avatar-themed park at Disney World. Even the concept of 3D films – considered to be Hollywood’s next frontier thanks to Avatar – has largely petered out, with ticket sales now so negligible that studios don’t even report their earnings anymore. To be fair, few films have utilized 3D in the way that Cameron did, but it is largely seen as a gimmick instead of a legitimate art form.
The lack of urgency to meet or exceed Avatar‘s 3D ambitions speaks to how inessential the film has become. Marvel’s interconnected strategy transformed Hollywood, with every studio plumbing the depths of their IP coffers to create their own “universes”. Meanwhile, the most significant 3D film to follow Avatar will likely be Avatar 2, which Disney just announced has been pushed back again to December 2021. James Cameron certainly deserves acknowledgment for helping advance the filmmaking process through his work, but Avatar itself has advanced nor evolved anything in popular culture. It’s a solitary, unimposing monument in the distance, towering over Hollywood with nothing but its box office haul. But even that tiny sliver of importance Avatar is poised to lose, as millions of moviegoers worldwide attend multiple screenings of Endgame, which closes out one of Hollywood’s most transformative eras. Endgame has and will continue to spawn a litany of think pieces, memes, reaction videos, costumes, conventions and breathless tributes from fans. Meanwhile, Avatar is lucky to be featured in an article about top-grossing films, specifically how it may or may not be beaten by another.
It’s a shame that Avatar, which inspired so much wonder and carried so much promise back in 2009, has faded so drastically from the public’s consciousness. It’s a remarkable cinematic and technical achievement that only James Cameron could’ve conceived and gotten away with. And yet, maybe his Herculean technical efforts left the film vulnerable in ways that ultimately undercut it. Maybe more time should’ve been spent on building a world, story and characters that audiences would want to return to and expand on, or not enough was done to leverage its commercial success across multiple mediums. These are all considerations that will certainly emerge again when Avatar 2 premieres in 2021, and maybe then Cameron and Disney’s marketing muscle will rectify the original’s mistakes.
Until then, Avatar fades from view once more, until another blockbuster knocks it further down the top-grossing list.