5 Years After 'Avatar': Is the All-Time Biggest Blockbuster Now an Afterthought?


Exactly five years ago today, on Dec. 18, 2009, the top-grossing movie in history was released. Transporting audiences to the alien world of Pandora, with much-hyped use of 3D and performance capture, James Cameron’s Avatar was an instant smash, earning nine Oscar nominations including Best Picture, and grossing an astonishing worldwide haul of $2.78 billion. It seemed like the future of cinema had arrived. And yet a half a decade after its release, it actually feels like the longer-term impact of the movie has been oddly negligible.

Certainly the immediate effects on the industry were seismic, with every studio rushing to convert their prospective blockbusters to 3D. (Even now, it’s rare for a tentpole to only come out in two dimensions.) It was also a huge cultural event at the time, with the usual SNL parodies, Oscar gags, and Comic-Con cos-players making the rounds. It was even reported that some fans were left bereft and suicidal at the realization that Pandora wasn’t real.

But by the time the film made it to home video, the Marvel movies were starting to seize the pop culture mantle — Iron Man 2 hit theaters in 2010 and Thor and the first Captain America would follow the next year. The Marvel universe, with its steady stream of world-expanding movies was soon on its way to becoming this generation’s Star Wars (well, before the new Star Wars, at least),the franchise that united kids and their parents and became a multi-media behemoth. Since then, Avatar has definitely slipped from the pop culture conscious: The official Avatar Twitter account has 25,000 followers (compared to a million each for Star Wars and The Avengers), and Avatar Nation, the first relevant search result for “Avatar fansite” hasn’t been updated in over a year.

In large part, that’s been about visibility. Cameron began developing Avatar sequels fairly soon after the film’s success, originally targeting the first for this December, with parts three and four set to follow in 2015 and 2016. Writers have been hired, but the film’s haven’t yet gone into production, with Cameron telling Empire Magazine this month, “We will start shooting promptly as soon I get the scripts done, whenever that is.”

Even assuming Avatar 2 hits its new target date of December 2016, twelve interlinked Marvel movies will have been released in theaters since the last time audiences hung out with the Na’vi. Rival mega-franchise Star Wars, which returns to theaters in a year, survived long gaps between its trilogies, but the fan base was sated in the fallow years by countless spin-off novels, comic books, cartoon series and the like.

Surprisingly, there hasn’t been much more in the way of Avatar world extending. Cameron announced in 2013 that writer Steven Gould had been hired to pen a series of spin-off novels, but none have yet hit bookstores. Meanwhile construction on an Avatar Land at Disney’s Animal Kingdom began this year, but it won’t be open to guests until 2017.

Few could deny that Avatar captured the imaginations of millions back in 2009 and 2010, but interest seems to have waned over the years. Was the film’s success a one-off, a mix of Cameron’s old-school showmanship, curiosity in the much-hyped 3D format, and a lack of serious tentpole competition? It’s feasible that Avatar 2 — when it arrives — could make the kind of money that most studios dream of, and still end up being the first follow-up to gross a billion dollars less than its predecessor.

But that’s in part because Cameron has set a consistently high bar for himself, and usually finds ways to clear it in spectacular fashion. (Even Avatar was greeted skeptically at first: South Park aired their ‘Dances With Smurfs’ episode before the movie even opened). While he might have dropped the ball by letting years pass before returning to Pandora, he did tell Empire that the follow-ups will make you “s—- yourself with your mouth wide open.” Only a fool would take that as an idle threat.