[Note: This post was originally written in 2019, but has been updated with new information from 2022.]
In May 2019, Avengers: Endgame was very close to becoming the highest gross film of all-time worldwide. It was an unprecedented challenge to a record that had held for a decade. Ultimately, Endgame failed in its quest. Many films have tried but none could unseat the box office behemoth that is Avatar.
And yet, Avatar has been strangely absent from pop culture since its 2009 release. With its sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water, releasing in December, it’s worth exploring Avatar and its impact on Hollywood, if there was an impact.
So, what happened to Avatar?
James Cameron’s Impossible Dream
In 2009, filmmaker James Cameron finally released his follow up to Titanic, the highest-grossing film in history and winner of 11 Oscars. Avatar was the story of giant blue aliens fighting back against the colonization of their planet by humans. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic soldier who infiltrates their community, aids them after falling in love with their way of life. (He also falls in love with the clan leader’s daughter Neytiri, played by Zoe Saldana).
If that sounds out there, that’s because it was. Even for a wildly ambitious director like Cameron, Avatar seemed beyond his grasp. He initially wrote the film’s treatment in 1994, and was supposed to begin filming after Titanic changed Hollywood. However, the technology he needed to bring Pandora to life didn’t exist yet. It would take a decade and reportedly $237 million for him to bring Avatar to the big screen. The exorbitant price tag led to speculation similar to Titanic’s pre-release: it would flop disastrously and end Cameron’s career.
A Dream Fulfilled, and Then Some
When Avatar debuted in December 2009, it made a modest $73 million. That’s a catastrophic number for a film costing over $200 million. Instead of collapsing into oblivion, Avatar held firm. It remained atop the North American box office for seven weeks, with small decreases in its subsequent weekend grosses. In 19 days, Avatar grossed $1 billion globally. By its 47th day, it surpassed the unsinkable Titanic to become the highest grossing film in North America. After a second theatrical run, Avatar left multiplexes with a worldwide gross of $2.7 billion, a sum that remains unmatched.
Despite its incredible box office and nine Oscar nominations, Avatar had vanished from the cultural conversation. Before The Way of Water‘s trailer dropped, it only popped up occasionally in discussions about box office successes and debates about its sequels. Blockbusters like Star Wars, the MCU, and even Titanic are constant presences, kept relevant by social media, memes and comments sections of YouTube videos. On any given day, you’ll see a screenshot of Chris Evans’ Captain America understanding a reference on your timeline. Can you say the same for Jake Sully or Neytiri? (Even though Neytiri screaming in agony seems like easy out-of-context meme fodder.)
With all its initial success, what happened?
A Technical Marvel, But What Else?
Avatar was a landmark that shattered our perceptions of what film could accomplish. James Cameron painstakingly crafted an immersive world of lush greenery, fantastic beasts, and vivid bioluminescence. Avatar demanded large-format screens and 3D, turning a theater gimmick into an artistic tool with mainstream appeal. It is a jaw-droppingly beautiful film that still holds up, visually.
The same can’t be said for its story.
Avatar’s central narrative is quite derivative of films like Dances with Wolves and The Last Samurai. An outsider infiltrates and undermines a close-knit community, only to save it after realizing how “special” it always was. Avatar only differs aesthetically and technologically. Everything else – the lack of hard work to rebuild the broken trust, the simplistic anti-imperialist message – is largely the same. (Of Avatar’s nine Oscar nominations, none were for the screenplay.)
The characters themselves are stunning creations, but they feel narratively flat. They lack specific interiorities that fans latch onto and build in their imaginations. Beautiful imagery makes an impact, sure. But it’s the characters within those images that audiences carry with them when they leave the theater.
That is where Avatar falters.
A Faded Cultural Footprint
Avatar has struggled to leave a deep cultural footprint. Consider Titanic. It fully captured the public’s imagination, and didn’t let go. (“I won’t let go, Jack” is one of many famous quotes.) Kate Winslet became a household name, and Leonardo DiCaprio became an international obsession. The love theme, Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” is one of the biggest pop hits in history. Its orchestral soundtrack sold over 30 million copies worldwide. People still debate whether Rose and Jack could have fit on that door.
Now consider Avatar. Sam Worthington is no Leonardo DiCaprio. (Zoe Saldana is successful in her own right.) The Hurt Locker bested Avatar for the Best Picture and Director Oscars. (Coincidentally, Cameron’s ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow directed The Hurt Locker.) Few people likely remember that Leona Lewis recorded the movie’s love theme “I See You.” (I contend that should’ve been a much bigger success.) It took eight years for Avatar to cash-in on its blockbuster status with a theme park at Disney World.
Even Avatar’s technical legacy has petered out. 3D ticket sales are so negligible that studios don’t even report their earnings anymore. (Few filmmakers have leveraged 3D as Cameron did, reinforcing it as a gimmick.) The lack of urgency to surpass Avatar‘s ambitions speaks to the film’s impact, or lack thereof. Studios regularly scramble to build “universes” in response to Marvel’s unprecedented success with the MCU. Meanwhile, the most significant 3D film to follow Avatar will be its sequel.
So, what happened to Avatar? It became a solitary monument in the distance, towering over Hollywood with its box office haul, but little else.
What Comes Next?
There is no denying Avatar as a filmmaking achievement that inspired wonder and held so much promise. There’s also no denying that it has faded since its record-breaking release. Perhaps its technical effort left its story, characters, and universe vulnerable, with few compelling reasons to revisit them. Maybe 20th Century Fox should’ve pushed its commercial viability further into so that it could’ve made a deeper impact.
It’s also entirely possible The Way of Water will recapture our attention. The teaser trailer was viewed nearly 150 million times, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Maybe Avatar doesn’t need an active presence, and its domination is predicated on a hibernation period.
At least, that’s what Cameron and Disney are hoping for as we get closer to The Way of Water’s release. Cameron’s out-there instincts have been proven correct before, with Titanic and even with Avatar. Betting against him is usually unwise. However, the pop culture landscape has changed at least twice since 2009. We won’t know for sure until December if he can pull off another impossible dream.