News

Avatar Was the Biggest Movie of All Time, so Where Are Its Fans?

10 years after James Cameron's sci-fi adventure premiered, we look at its cultural impact -- or its lack thereof -- to figure out why it failed to inspire a cult fanbase.

by | December 18, 2019 | Comments

When you look up the numbers for James Cameron’s Avatar, they are impressive: fastest film to cross the $1 billion mark (after just the 19th day of its international release), highest opening weekend for a non-franchise movie ($242 million), $2.789 billion at the global box office.

When you look at the fanbase: crickets.

How is that possible? How can a movie — not just any movie, but a science fiction movie — be this huge and have no discernible fanbase? No visible, active, enthusiastic devotees who dissect it and repurpose it and build stories around it like almost all genre fans do. The word “Ewok” is never spoken in Return of the Jedi, but if you stop anyone on the street and ask them to name the cuddly Star Wars teddy bears, everyone knows what they are, even if they aren’t an avowed fan. If pressed, it’s doubtful anyone could even name a single Avatar character.

Mind you, we’re not talking about Avatar‘s industry impact here. As a delivery system for the next evolution in 3D technology, it was truly groundbreaking, and it sparked an obsession with 3D movies that still hasn’t quite abated (although audiences have seemingly caught on to the idea that not everything needs to be seen this way — remember Baz Luhrmann’s disastrous The Great Gatsby?). No, what we’re talking about here are fans. Rabid, canon-obsessed fans, who pick apart every detail, cosplay in meticulous costumes, cover their desks and computers with figures and collectibles, and perhaps most importantly, keep the story alive on their own through fanfic, home made movies, and artwork. It’s here that Avatar‘s impact is barely felt at all.

©20th Century Fox. All rights reserved courtesy Everett Collection
(Photo by ©20th Century Fox. All rights reserved courtesy Everett Collection)

Sci-fi fans don’t need a ton of fodder to latch on to a property, either. Joss Whedon’s Firefly didn’t even air a full season and fans rallied around it so passionately that they willed a movie into existence, kept spin-off comic books on the shelves, and still show up at conventions and fests proudly displaying their browncoat allegiance. Star Trek was a ratings flop when it first aired, but planted enough fan seeds that it eventually went from cult series to movie franchise to extended, multi-timeline, multi-format colossus. Akira was a single, standalone anime film from 1988 and you still see its iconic poster repurposed for everything from Batman to SeinfeldBlade Runner was a bomb but still got comic book spinoffs and unofficial merch. When was the last time you saw someone wearing an Avatar shirt? A quick Google search for “Avatar fan films” brings up a lot of results… for the Avatar: The Last Airbender anime series.

In honor of the movie’s 10th anniversary, let’s consider some of the factors that may contribute to Avatar‘s struggle to gain a fandom foothold, and whether or not the planned sequels can help.


Avatar Was An Experience, Not A Story

©20th Century Fox. All rights reserved courtesy Everett Collection
(Photo by ©20th Century Fox. All rights reserved courtesy Everett Collection)

It’s kind of fitting that Avatar got a recent boost from the announcement of a Disney World theme park based on the planet Pandora (albeit a short-lived boost; interest waned the minute the ribbon was cut on Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge), because Avatar has always been about an immersive experience more than a gripping story. Soon after the film’s release, you began to see stories about “Avatar Depression” – people who loved virtually sailing through Pandora so much that they were sad they couldn’t actually live there (America being neck-deep in a throttling recession didn’t help). The idyllic jungle world was so detailed and beautiful – especially in 3D – that people just wanted to exist inside it. The characters and plot, neither of which were especially well crafted, seemed to just get in the way. Cameron himself even hinted at this during the press tour, saying to the Los Angeles Times:

“You’ve got to compete head on with these other epic works of fantasy and fiction, the Tolkiens and the Star Wars and the Star Treks. People want a persistent alternate reality to invest themselves in and they want the detail that makes it rich and worth their time. They want to live somewhere else. Like Pandora.”

Avatar the film had become like one of those videos they show while you wait in line for a theme park ride. You sort of half pay attention – yeah, yeah, blah blah blah – while you anticipate strapping in and blasting off. People didn’t see themselves in the characters the way Trekkies saw their own scientific curiosity reflected in the crew of the Enterprise, or leave the theater wanting to be any of them the way every young boy left Star Wars believing Han Solo was the coolest person in any star system. Which brings us to…


It Was Populated by Bland, Forgettable Characters

©20th Century Fox. All rights reserved courtesy Everett Collection
(Photo by ©20th Century Fox. All rights reserved courtesy Everett Collection)

Who left Avatar wanting to be Jake Sully? (And again, raise your hand if you actually remembered that Jake Sully was the name of Sam Worthington’s main character.) Part of it can be blamed on Worthington’s thoroughly charisma-free performance, but it’s not like bad acting in sci-fi has ever been a hindrance (take a bow, Mr. Shatner). It’s more that the characters seemed stock and, again, like an afterthought. A fanbase grows when you capture the audience’s collective imagination, but that has to go beyond visuals. No one wants to necessarily live on Tatooine, but you want to imagine more adventures for Luke. The crew of the Serenity is made up of scoundrels and misfits scouring the intergalactic old west – they can literally go anywhere and run into anyone. You like them, so you want to see them in new adventures, even if it means writing them yourself.

Between the generic scientists, the stoic, one-note Na’vi, and the bland corporate villain, Avatar just provides no grist for the fan mill. Who’s writing the further adventures of Norm Spellman (Joel David Moore)?


It’s All In the Timing, Maybe?

Mark Fellman TM & Copyright ©20th Century Fox. All rights reserved/Courtesy Everett Collection
(Photo by Mark Fellman TM & Copyright ©20th Century Fox. All rights reserved/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Some argue that Avatar, being an original standalone movie without any pre-existing source material, faced a steeper hill to climb than some others. But a lot of sci-fi films could claim that very same thing at the time of their release and still have fanbases to show for it. Of course, the intense labor involved in making one of these films made it impossible for Cameron to strike while the iron was hot. In fact, he just recently announced completion of principle photography on Avatar 2 (which was received with very little fanfare) and that movie still won’t be done until December 2021. Without fans keeping the flame lit through fanfic and cosplay and general enthusiasm, it just feels like an anti-climactic, “Oh yeah, Avatar. I remember that.” For a movie that made $1 billion in 19 days, this is an incredibly unlikely place for it be.

Cameron is also no George Lucas, in the sense that Lucas never had qualms about selling Star Wars, and in fact devised new ways to sell and re-sell it over the years to keep that enthusiasm firing away. There were new theatrical versions, new toys, new games, and new fashion brand tie-ins seemingly every year. Cameron doesn’t have that kind of hucksterism in him, and is content to let the movie speak for itself. Which may be why it’s lost some steam over the past decade.

But for better or worse, the sequels (plural, as Cameron has teased at least three more installments) will really be the test of whether or not Avatar can develop anything close to a rabid fandom. He has promised to go deeper into the mythology and ecosystem of Pandora, which may help stoke some of the dormant wanderlust people experienced in 2009. But it’s a gamble — a big, unwieldy, expensive gamble. Not only do the films have to reignite interest in the story after 12 years, they have to overcome the fact that the franchise may not have the wow factor it once did, now that bloom is off the 3D rose. It’ll be a challenge, and so far, Avatar has found an enthusiastic core of fans to be mostly unobtanium.


Avatar was released on December 18, 2009.

#1

Avatar (2009)
82%

#1
Adjusted Score: 92.459%
Critics Consensus: It might be more impressive on a technical level than as a piece of storytelling, but Avatar reaffirms James Cameron's singular gift for imaginative, absorbing filmmaking.
Synopsis: "Avatar" is the story of an ex-Marine who finds himself thrust into hostilities on an alien planet filled with exotic... [More]
Directed By: James Cameron

Like this? Subscribe to our newsletter and get more features, news, and guides in your inbox every week.

Tag Cloud

20th Century Fox Adult Swim Spring TV Baby Yoda rotten movies we love indiana jones Song of Ice and Fire Avengers Fox News Quiz Peacock Comedy Central social media Christmas Podcast historical drama Apple TV+ OWN war Syfy children's TV USA Network 2016 Marvel transformers blockbuster video movie Oscars CBS All Access Summer thriller Writers Guild of America adaptation composers elevated horror VICE Emmys Amazon X-Men Nat Geo cancelled The Walking Dead canceled YouTube Premium USA justice league Columbia Pictures 2017 comedies Dark Horse Comics Mary poppins Mystery Western hist spanish language Tumblr The Witch biography Hear Us Out Sundance American Society of Cinematographers movies police drama Teen canceled TV shows zombie Year in Review Brie Larson screen actors guild name the review Crunchyroll MSNBC Shudder Action Warner Bros. Pop Pixar period drama anthology concert Pop TV Reality Netflix Christmas movies SDCC BAFTA finale Winners TNT cancelled TV shows ABC comic Travel Channel Music cooking mutant TV renewals what to watch TLC slashers Marathons Trailer Certified Fresh TCA 2017 news dramedy true crime Animation CNN Countdown Captain marvel political drama all-time Ellie Kemper Cannes RT21 2019 dragons New York Comic Con Bravo Black History Month Rocky natural history spy thriller E! Lucasfilm Freeform unscripted Mary Tyler Moore VOD zombies supernatural foreign Pirates free movies Photos book DC streaming service 2020 joker Emmy Nominations reboot cars travel TCA crime drama science fiction Cosplay series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt TCA Winter 2020 Women's History Month DGA President Trivia Rom-Com GLAAD CW Seed Hulu Red Carpet YouTube San Diego Comic-Con Awards toy story Superheroe BET Awards WGN 71st Emmy Awards ITV Discovery Channel discovery CBS cats Crackle Tomatazos GIFs halloween cartoon Chernobyl Comedy Turner Star Wars Valentine's Day doctor who stoner blaxploitation TIFF PBS Lionsgate FXX 24 frames Television Academy jamie lee curtis aliens strong female leads Film Festival Lifetime Nominations reviews LGBTQ disaster Fantasy Sundance Now Comic Book GoT based on movie psycho Hallmark Christmas movies Calendar serial killer IFC Sundance TV Family Comics on TV YA indie directors spinoff kids boxoffice TV MTV Walt Disney Pictures 4/20 Ghostbusters Stephen King Funimation A24 Ovation richard e. Grant YouTube Red Watching Series casting DC Comics romantic comedy Vudu FX on Hulu AMC Star Trek award winner Set visit FOX comics HBO south america Universal Lifetime Christmas movies Holiday renewed TV shows Classic Film animated El Rey latino Masterpiece docudrama Mindy Kaling revenge Infographic Food Network APB TBS documentary crime Disney+ Disney Plus Amazon Studios Toys Epix television First Reviews films universal monsters Polls and Games asian-american DC Universe NBC dogs twilight VH1 stand-up comedy Thanksgiving Kids & Family Biopics game of thrones ratings 2018 National Geographic Sony Pictures dceu HBO Go FX BBC One vampires Nickelodeon parents spain zero dark thirty best NYCC The CW Musical Starz Spectrum Originals screenings Academy Awards PaleyFest Marvel Studios Creative Arts Emmys comiccon Apple miniseries Paramount batman cancelled television documentaries BBC America SundanceTV Country video on demand robots Sci-Fi DirecTV Mudbound Interview Disney streaming service Awards Tour Anna Paquin Pet Sematary Extras Grammys binge HBO Max Rock green book 21st Century Fox ESPN mission: impossible cops diversity Heroines chucky Esquire Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Martial Arts Tarantino teaser Video Games E3 Sneak Peek PlayStation scary movies SXSW Disney 45 harry potter Film criterion Britbox Logo a nightmare on elm street Superheroes Schedule crime thriller witnail First Look nature Drama dc talk show Showtime tv talk Black Mirror 007 satire Amazon Prime Shondaland OneApp critics Holidays Pride Month romance game show Binge Guide cancelled TV series technology Acorn TV versus sitcom werewolf CMT Election MCU WarnerMedia space Mary Poppins Returns Musicals History dark Fall TV Endgame psychological thriller Cartoon Network medical drama Arrowverse Spike hispanic cults golden globes anime festivals Super Bowl TruTV child's play ghosts Disney Channel See It Skip It franchise theme song TCM The Arrangement facebook sequel sports quibi BET die hard Amazon Prime Video A&E Netflix Turner Classic Movies Elton John singing competition Character Guide Apple TV Plus Best and Worst Paramount Network IFC Films cinemax sag awards Horror adventure christmas movies Winter TV 2015 Tubi breaking bad streaming Box Office crossover TV Land Opinion ABC Family RT History politics Reality Competition LGBT Trophy Talk Premiere Dates Hallmark Marvel Television spider-man Rocketman BBC Disney Plus independent mockumentary The Purge