A funny thing happened in the wake of James Cameron’s Avatar breaking every known box office record in the winter of 2009. Despite the film’s immense ticket sales and word of mouth, its multiple Academy Award wins and general status as a movie that dominated the blockbuster conversation of the era, Avatar felt to many as if it relatively quickly receded from view and memory. No industry observer doubted the immense influence its massive financial success had on Hollywood from a technical standpoint—the 3D cinema wave it kicked off persisted for years afterward, with results that could rarely rival the visual splendor of what preceded them. But a sentiment began to arise among film geeks and internet armchair experts in particular, that although Avatar may have been an undeniable technological watershed moment, it ultimately made very little impact on popular culture. Some claimed that the film had already been “forgotten.” Over time, this opinion has become almost a running gag online: The idea that despite being the #1 box office earner of all time, Avatar has relatively little cultural cache.
And you know what? For a long time, I would have largely agreed with that opinion. There are oddities to the phenomenon that was Avatar, a film that is extremely difficult to untangle from its own technology and the precise moment it arrived in multiplexes. In the years that have followed, it’s not like Avatar media has surrounded us in a perpetual drip of hype, a la Disney properties such as Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In fact, I would wager that for the vast majority of film fans, the amount of thought devoted to Avatar in the last 12 years has been exceedingly minimal.
And yet, the arrival of prominent marketing materials, such as the first full-length trailers, for James Cameron’s rapidly approaching and long-delayed first sequel Avatar: The Way of Water has seemingly kindled a new sentiment among those same cynical film geeks. Unabashed Avatar fans are coming out of the woodwork, while many others indifferent to the franchise are reevaluating their memories of a movie they first watched almost 13 years ago. And in the process, it feels like emotions and attachments are being awoken that some film fans never even knew were there. It’s a process that seems to be reshaping the legacy of Avatar in real time, a persistent line of questioning that is challenging whether we’ve shortchanged Cameron’s space epic for more than a decade at this point.
The Derision and Delay of Avatar
It’s hard to say why Avatar often felt so much like a punchline in the 2010s, though I can only imagine it began with the universal, contrarian tendency to minimize the validity of something of mass-market popularity that “everyone else” supposedly knows and enjoys. As the decade went on, though, I think it’s fair to say that Avatar as a franchise really did fall out of the public view for quite a while, and there are myriad reasons for that.
On the most basic level, the Avatar franchise really didn’t receive many effective follow-ups in the more than a decade since the first film was in theaters. Obviously, there was no direct sequel film until the pending release of Way of Water, almost 13 years later. But there were also no immediate film or TV spin-offs, which one would no doubt have expected of a property with such an unimaginably high box office gross. Where was the Avatar animated series, or prequels? Where were the comics? Where were the fan conventions? Where were the videogame franchises, for that matter? The film was followed by a single, uninspired videogame released the same year in 2009, and online services for that game have been shut down for the last 8 years. Surely the world of Pandora could have inspired numerous open world games in the style of something like Horizon Zero Dawn? The possibilities feel endless, but they were very minimally exploited, and those missed opportunities led to a dwindling of Avatar conversation that has only been rekindled in the build-up to the upcoming film. Or to invoke another metric: How many Avatar quotes can you think of? Or how many Avatar Halloween costumes have you seen in the last five years? Probably not many.
Nor did Avatar really produce any bonafide movie stars, and most of its cast was either widely successful before the film was produced, or as a result of other roles afterward. Protagonist Sam Worthington is obviously the most visible example of this—he fronted Avatar and Clash of the Titans in tandem, but Hollywood seemed to quickly discard him as a generic, white leading man in the years to follow. Michelle Rodriguez had already become a Fast and the Furious franchise staple by the time Avatar arrived. Stephen Lang, as the primary antagonist, is still a cult actor largely known to genre geeks even after the exposure that Avatar gave him. Sigourney Weaver was already an icon. The one performer whose career undeniably did skyrocket in the years following Avatar was actress Zoe Saldaña, but was the role of Neytiri to thank? Or the roles of Uhura and Gamora, in the Star Trek and Guardians of the Galaxy franchises? I’d be surprised if Avatar was the most frequent first film mentioned, if you polled people on the street about Saldaña’s film credits.
The one genuine breakout star of the 2009 film.
Cynical film geeks likewise made Avatar something of a punching bag in the 2010s for the constant string of setbacks and delays that Cameron and co. experienced every time they were attempting to make progress on the long-awaited and increasingly ambitious string of sequels. The Way of Water is a film that was first announced by Cameron in 2010, aiming for a 2014 release at a time when it was meant to be one of only two Avatar sequels. That number eventually ballooned to four sequels, making the planning process vastly more complex. And as is typical for a James Cameron epic, technological limitations and boundary pushing exploration of what is possible in cinema added their own challenges, particularly in the dimension of filming motion capture scenes underwater—these challenges ultimately set back post-production of The Way of Water by several years, even though most of its principal photography was completed in 2017. A release date was then set for the summer of 2020, only to be undone by the unseen calamity of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. This created yet another cascading series of delays, which led to the release date we’ve finally landed on: Dec. 16, 2022. And all along the way, there’s been no shortage of online derision for the thought of four upcoming sequels to Avatar, with viewers questioning whether the effort and money being put into the series could possibly pay dividends on a property that “no one really cares about in 2022.”
But what is the truth of it? Was Avatar a flash in the pan, an important technical moment in film history immediately digested and surpassed by more enduring franchises? Or is it a sleeping giant, ready to reassert itself as a cultural phenomenon? The more I read, the more I wonder if the latter is more accurate.
It seems inherently wrong to even begin making an argument that a massive blockbuster—the number one highest grossing film in history—could somehow be underappreciated, or fresh and culturally vital in a way unusual for blockbusters of its ilk. The indie film geek in me revolts at the very idea of saying that. And yet, the more I think about it, the more “freshness” there actually is to the idea of all these Avatar sequels. This is, after all, an original setting we’ve only seen depicted in detail a single time before. Pandora still feels lush and full of possibilities, like we’ve only gotten the barest glimpse of what it potentially has to offer. In comparison with the intricately explored universe of say, the MCU, so much of the world of Avatar, both on Pandora and beyond, is still a blank slate. It’s hard to look at that kind of openness and not be curious about what the boundless imagination of James Cameron could yield, with the filmmaking legend allowed to run wild.
Nor did I ever really have a true understanding of how much of an impression the setting of Avatar had on a certain subset of the moviegoing population. Within my own circle, I recall conversations about the visual splendor of Avatar and the depth to the images afforded by the groundbreaking 3D presentation, but it seems many other viewers were affected by Pandora in a much more profound and personal way. In fact, support groups blossomed in the months after the film’s release, seeking to aid viewers experiencing intense depression and even suicidal feelings, owing to the fact that “the dream of Pandora was intangible.” These were viewers so struck and moved by what they saw on screen, that they developed a subconscious yearning to be a Na’vi on Pandora, reveling in a utopian life unsoiled by industry and technology, to the point that their actual, modern lives filled them with disgust. Even now, I’m still seeing references on movie forums such as reddit to viewers who experienced this so-called “Pandora Depression.” These users describe feeling changed by Avatar, for literal weeks or months afterward. They sure as hell wouldn’t describe the film as having lacked a lasting cultural impact.
The technical side, of course, is the one area that has never been in dispute. Avatar redefined the type of showcase experience that moviegoers expected from blockbuster entertainment in the years afterward, much like Star Wars did in 1977, or Jurassic Park did in 1993. It was a sea change moment, a raising of the bar that made things that much more difficult for competitors aspiring toward any kind of similar impact. Dropping an FX-laden, CGI-dependent blockbuster into theaters in the years after Avatar was not an enviable position to be in, because they had the specter of James Cameron’s megalith to contend with, and few even ended up in the same conversation as visual splendors. In fact, audience cynicism toward processes like 3D may have actually been the most lasting development of this post-Avatar era, as so many wretchedly post-converted and shoddily assembled 3D films were released in the 2010s that they may have managed to sully the reputation of Avatar via osmosis. Sam Worthington was even involved in one of the most blatant offenders, the 3D post-converted Clash of the Titans.
Perhaps it’s most fair to say that Avatar’s undeniably big, splashy and immediate cultural impact in 2009 was followed by a long period of almost subliminal gestation in the decade and change that followed. It’s a period that has been long enough to view the original from a distance; far enough even for nostalgia to be involved, which might explain the powerful response that trailers for The Way of Water have triggered in some viewers. Online observers, often so cynical, are looking at these trailers and seemingly experiencing a wave of memory, perhaps a crystalized moment of a slightly more hopeful epoch in American culture, at a time when it felt less like our government was about to melt down around us. Kids of the 1990s and 2000s are perhaps experiencing this most strongly—these are the ones who saw Avatar as a pivotal moment in their adolescence, and we shouldn’t be too surprised by them experiencing unexpectedly profound emotions at its return in 2022.
At the end of the day, the entire “Avatar lacked cultural impact” argument feels increasingly likely to be itself abandoned and forgotten in the years to come. The sheer power of James Cameron, blockbuster filmmaker—the man behind Aliens, Terminator 2, Titanic—was simply not something that could be minimized in the long run. Eventually, the king was always going to return, and you can be certain he’ll make a splash when he does.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre guru. You can follow him on Twitter for much more film writing.