Remembering When Avatar Was Bigger Than Marvel

Despite internet hyperbole to the contrary, Avatar was the biggest movie ever a decade ago and left a sizable footprint on the culture.

Zoe Saldana in Avatar 2009
Photo: 20th Century Fox

For what feels like an age and a half (at least in internet time), most of the editorial written about Avatar: The Way of Water—a sequel which has taken 13 years to arrive—has focused on one thing: the gap between movies. “Why ‘Avatar’ Never Really Managed to Take Root in Pop Culture,” one essay sniffed two years ago;  “Avatar doesn’t really seem to have much cultural footprint” opined another only a few months back. Even writer-director James Cameron has been pressed on this, with the filmmaker brushing off the critique during the The Way of Water press tour.

These seemingly agreed upon talking points are ironic on two fronts. First, they appear to mirror history where the press ran the gamut from skeptical to outright hostile ahead of the release of Cameron’s Titanic (1997) and, to a lesser extent, the first Avatar in 2009 (that is until press screenings triggered sudden rounds of euphoria from early critical notices). Secondly, the alleged conventional wisdom ignores fairly recent history where the first Avatar movie truly was king of the world.

While it remains unknown whether Avatar: The Way of Water will be able to duplicate the ultimate critical or financial success of its predecessor and Titanic, which both took turns as the highest grossing movie of all-time for at least nine years, it takes a special kind of selective memory to omit the sizable impact Avatar had on pop culture, and how in retrospect it appears to be one of the last of its kind: a standalone blockbuster that could change the world.

But believe it or not, there was a time when Avatar was the biggest monster in town, dwarfing even Marvel Studios and the then-recent spate of Star Wars prequels from George Lucas. Here’s how.

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Opening Pandora’s Box

When Avatar premiered in December 2009, the relatively quieter form of healthy skepticism that movie received was due to it being Cameron’s first picture in 12 years (sound familiar?). He was following up the biggest hit ever, at least while ignoring inflation, but he used Titanic’s clout to make a nearly entire CGI spectacle that demanded audiences submit themselves to 3D glasses—an exhibition gimmick that previously failed to really rise above the level of a kitschy novelty at various points in Hollywood history.

Of course those misgivings were dispelled when the movie achieved at least the perception of being a game-changer in how audiences would watch movies, akin to the first time audiences heard sound in The Jazz Singer (1927) or responded to the striking transition between a sepia-tinted black and white and color in The Wizard of Oz (1939).

And audiences more than just went along with it… they fell in love with it. Hard. Despite the too-cool-for-school dismissals of the terminally online in 2022, many of the same type of fandoms were instantly worshipful back then of Avatar’s sci-fi vision of a distant alien world called Pandora. There, the rivers and trees were luminescent, and the natives were anthropomorphic ideals: Zoe Saldaña and Sam Worthington with the ears of a cat, the tails of a pair of lions, and the complexion of the Smurfs.

Overnight, internet communities and nascent early adopters on social media became immersed in Cameron’s vision. On the fan site “Tears of Souls,” which was started just months after Avatar’s release, thousands of fans were reading up on lessons from a USC professor on “how to read” and phonetically speak Na’vi (the language of the fictional Na’vi aliens in Avatar); others were comparing how many times they’d seen Avatar in theaters; and one fan who introduced himself as Human No More was advising other members of the internet forum on how to best alter their body to resemble a Na’vi.

According to Human No More, changing one’s skin color to match the shade of blue on Saldaña’s Neytiri was “theoretically possible through tattoos, but in the future could hopefully be done better, perhaps actually changing the produced color.” The user also noted that at least one fan had already achieved UV tattoos of bioluminescent dots that resembled the Na’vi, though actual bioluminescence that works in the dark, as opposed to only under UV, has frustratingly remained elusive.

Elsewhere, CNN caught less than a month after Avatar’s release that the tenor of excitement on the “Avatar Forums” had taken a dark turn.

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A user named Mike suggested he was even considering self-harm while contrasting the beauty of Pandora with what he perceived to be the drabness of life on Earth:

“Ever since I went to see Avatar I have been depressed,” Mike lamented. “Watching the wonderful world of Pandora and all the Na’vi made me want to be one of them. I can’t stop thinking about all the things that happened in the film and all of the tears and shivers I got from it. I even contemplate suicide, thinking if I do it I will be rebirthed in a world similar to Pandora and everything is the same as in Avatar.”

Another fan in the same article, that CNN separately learned was a 17-year-old boy in Sweden, said, “When I woke up the morning after watching Avatar for the first time yesterday, the world seemed… gray. It was like my whole life, everything I’ve done and worked for, lost its meaning. It just seems so… meaningless. I still don’t really see any reason to keep… doing things at all. I live in a dying world.”

These reactions are startling, and their apparent cognitive dissonance with the actual beauty of the real world that inspired Cameron to make Avatar after spending years exploring and documenting the sea is also depressingly ironic. However, this level of passion and fan devotion to one movie and one vision denotes the intoxicating allure of the world-building Cameron committed to in the 2000s… and its impact immediately exceeded more than just its $2.9 billion in box office receipts.

The 3D Legacy

Of course Avatar’s impact was more tangible and lasting than the ephemeral sentiments of fan culture. It was a box office behemoth swallowing whole records at a time when the previous year’s The Dark Knight had only recently become the first superhero movie to cross $1 billion. Meanwhile the first MCU movie ever, Iron Man, released the same year, only totaled $585 million. And even after the success of Marvel’s entire first phase, the MCU formula didn’t see an installment cross the $2 billion ceiling until Avengers: Infinity War in 2018.

But beyond its own numbers, Avatar’s success was the kind of tide that raises all boats. Somewhat presciently, one fan on “Avatar Forums” mused in January 2010 that “all I have been doing as of late [is search] the Internet for more info about Avatar. I guess it helps. It’s so hard I can’t force myself to think it’s just a movie and to get over it, that living with the Na’vi will never happen. I need a rebound movie.”

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He and millions of other moviegoers got it in March 2010 when Tim Burton and Disney’s Alice in Wonderland became the first film released in theaters utilizing 3D glasses since Avatar. And despite lukewarm reviews, and being generally viewed in retrospect as a turning point for the worse in Burton’s career, Alice in Wonderland grossed an astonishing $1.02 billion in theaters. That is something even Disney’s most optimistic bean counters failed to anticipate. After all, star Johnny Depp’s then popular Pirates of the Caribbean movies had yet to cross the $1 billion threshold in the previous decade.

However, the hunger for more 3D wonderment was demonstrable in the spring after Avatar. It was lucrative, too. Whereas the 2010s would end with a consolidation of franchises and endless tentpoles based purely around intellectual property and a handful of brands (thereby concentrating the wealth to only a few studios), Avatar’s reinvention of 3D opened the door for films of all temperament to get in on the innovation and commercial bandwagon.

These could range from more blockbusters like Worthington’s own Clash of the Titans in 2010 and Disney’s Tron: Legacy later that year, to raunchy R-rated comedies and genre movies that took the piss out of what could rightly be perceived as a gimmick by some observers, as seen in A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas in 3D (2011) and Piranha 3D (2010). Even auteurs who would later dread what a focus on IP brands like Marvel and Star Wars would do to the industry, experimented with 3D as an extension of art, as seen in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011) and Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013).

And sure enough, there were those who did exploit it solely as a gimmick that created a premium surcharge to be placed on ticket prices, inflating box office grosses for the studio if not necessarily audience enjoyment. Quickie low-budget fad-chasers like Saw 3D were certainly guilty of this, although if we’re being honest, what likely burned audiences out on 3D was more the big budget studio tentpole movies where the 3D was treated like an afterthought, including many of the Marvel movies of the 2010s, such as all three Captain America movies, the first two Thor films, the first Ant-Man, and both of Joss Whedon’s Avengers. These were movies that were shot with traditional two-dimensional cameras and converted in post-production in an often harried manner to take advantage of those 3D ticket prices.

Speaking entirely anecdotally, what killed 3D for critics was turning up a half-dozen times a year for big studio movies where 3D glasses were mandatorily handed out, and their sole benefit appeared to be a dimming of the already gray-washed film’s color palette. 

An Escape with No Exit

In a nutshell, it’s demonstrably false to suggest Avatar had no impact on the culture, be it among fandom communities or in how folks simply experienced going to the movies. Even to this day in Orlando, Avatar has as big a presence at DisneyWorld as Star Wars does, with many attendees seeming to admire the nightly bioluminescence for its artistic beauty more than the faux-rust stains on the walls at Galaxy’s Edge.

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However, there is little denying that Avatar has revealed a diminished impact on the culture as the years have passed, with more than a decade now separating its release from Avatar: The Way of Water. Yet I might suggest this has more to do with how audience tastes have changed in that time than it does with Avatar itself. The first film was the product of a decade-long odyssey of passion and ego, and it was intended to stand by itself as an insular work.

In other words, it willfully ignored the emerging trends of Hollywood blockbusters which already favored franchises and sequels by 2009, but would soon pivot toward entire “shared universes” where the dopamine hit of more content is always promised. At the beginning of the 2010s, it was still a novelty when franchises like Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games could have a sequel out every year; now if Marvel Studios and its most direct competitors don’t have at least two films in cinemas every 12 months, and a similar amount of new limited series content on streaming, fandoms get restless.

Thirteen years ago, fans bemoaned not being able to live on Pandora year-round; in 2022 they never have to leave the worlds of Marvel, DC, or Star Wars.

Cameron also waited that long to feed a mainstream pop culture that’s become defined by endless, instant gratification. So is there still room for something as antiquated as a three-hour blockbuster not based on a comic book or 40-year-old relic of Gen-X nostalgia? Maybe not. But you know what? I wouldn’t bet against him.