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 )

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.


Avatar (2009)

Adjusted Score: 95144%
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: On the lush alien world of Pandora live the Na'vi, beings who appear primitive but are highly evolved. Because the... [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

cats scorecard disaster suspense superman basketball golden globes concert YouTube Red ratings popular Universal Pictures FX Superheroes feel good cancelled TV shows obituary Endgame halloween space Best Picture based on movie Academy Awards Photos Animation Brie Larson justice league book adaptation debate critics Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Countdown Starz renewed TV shows batman cancelled TV series Mudbound reboot telelvision teaser venice Film Festival Black History Month Adult Swim 24 frames all-time live event Rom-Com Paramount Pictures Certified Fresh blockbuster Disney Channel Pacific Islander FOX rt labs critics edition SXSW Oscars Hallmark Christmas movies WGN spider-man Ghostbusters what to watch Warner Bros. adventure Image Comics Bravo MSNBC 2021 singing competition game of thrones Best and Worst Summer Lifetime Christmas movies Funimation Disney streaming service psychological thriller ABC screenings films 21st Century Fox A&E WarnerMedia VOD Netflix Christmas movies talk show dramedy Polls and Games best CBS james bond crime thriller comic book movie Rocky Marathons The Witch X-Men Super Bowl kong Television Academy superhero Video Games Kids & Family Logo french Pixar Walt Disney Pictures black target lord of the rings animated Reality Competition broadcast VICE period drama television godzilla spanish language pirates of the caribbean Paramount Quiz video IMDb TV Amazon Studios Year in Review Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Nickelodeon mob social media Television Critics Association Western Instagram Live Musical TIFF Paramount Network 90s Britbox Avengers fresh Acorn TV Travel Channel sitcom sag awards TLC stoner USA Shondaland Alien 2018 Tomatazos series TCA Awards festivals theme song miniseries posters Disney Plus Sundance Now Spring TV latino YouTube Rock TV One Martial Arts breaking bad Black Mirror Captain marvel Chernobyl Syfy facebook romance Broadway action-comedy women rom-coms comic books The Arrangement streamig satire Universal critic resources versus cops mockumentary ID joker IFC Fox News Freeform boxing book comiccon TNT BAFTA werewolf First Reviews christmas movies sequel independent 79th Golden Globes Awards war HBO Women's History Month obi wan news rotten movies we love Oscar game show MTV TruTV legend PlayStation Netflix japanese Anna Paquin Discovery Channel Toys reviews italian Fall TV ghosts E3 ViacomCBS sequels tv talk A24 supernatural GoT OneApp trophy quibi summer TV preview black comedy laika 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards TV movies Thanksgiving toronto golden globe awards Wes Anderson prank comic CNN PaleyFest 72 Emmy Awards ABC Family Cannes BET Awards Pop TV summer TV summer preview marvel comics Shudder jamie lee curtis blockbusters kids New York Comic Con nfl child's play Trailer Hear Us Out BBC 20th Century Fox Set visit sopranos Holidays monster movies Writers Guild of America finale adaptation Hulu stand-up comedy Arrowverse king kong cars streaming Pride Month TBS indiana jones 94th Oscars Marvel deadpool 2017 natural history cooking Marvel Television ITV 45 Amazon Prime Exclusive Video 007 DC Comics parents Mary poppins die hard Premiere Dates chucky Calendar dexter SundanceTV Best Actress CW Seed directors spain mcc children's TV 73rd Emmy Awards President international Food Network cinemax south america blaxploitation interviews Disney+ Disney Plus dceu richard e. Grant Film revenge Stephen King Extras Creative Arts Emmys jurassic park Elton John travel emmy awards National Geographic NBA football Country free movies movies El Rey thriller The Purge IFC Films Spectrum Originals Hallmark Binge Guide HBO Go The Walt Disney Company movie nature Crunchyroll stop motion asian-american vs. Apple TV+ royal family Christmas Apple TV Plus TCM discovery boxoffice TCA Winter 2020 hidden camera Music Fargo vampires Cartoon Network Tokyo Olympics cults Nat Geo doctor who Pet Sematary Emmys heist movie a nightmare on elm street USA Network The Academy video on demand Grammys serial killer diversity technology Election Comics on TV Musicals Showtime Cosplay RT21 medical drama Lifetime japan hollywood scene in color romantic comedy know your critic political drama remakes franchise Sundance TV South by Southwest Film Festival 4/20 SXSW 2022 composers spanish TV renewals slashers Crackle spinoff transformers comic book movies Epix new york Character Guide screen actors guild trailers Song of Ice and Fire crime drama unscripted foreign sports Fox Searchlight psycho Biopics docudrama binge historical drama scary 93rd Oscars 2020 cartoon documentary LGBTQ anthology Paramount Plus razzies docuseries Tarantino young adult halloween tv cancelled The Walking Dead 2015 ABC Signature dreamworks name the review DirecTV archives Amazon zero dark thirty comedies festival Holiday Pop hispanic Vudu HFPA Horror high school Box Office LGBT San Diego Comic-Con Sci-Fi universal monsters Winners Best Director 2019 DC streaming service American Society of Cinematographers Family Baby Yoda Ovation Awards Tour NBC true crime streaming movies Prime Video nbcuniversal Lucasfilm GIFs new zealand wonder woman Disney Lionsgate Nominations Rocketman Mindy Kaling Turner Masterpiece criterion Hollywood Foreign Press Association mission: impossible Watching Series Fantasy scary movies VH1 police drama Action Mystery FX on Hulu Comic Book E! Sneak Peek 71st Emmy Awards live action Tags: Comedy elevated horror aapi spider-verse Podcast anime Valentine's Day fast and furious canceled CBS All Access crime CMT cancelled television hist 2016 History DC Universe Emmy Nominations biopic indie 99% Awards RT History Peacock 1990s witnail gangster australia Comedy Central FXX Ellie Kemper zombies classics rotten DGA HBO Max Columbia Pictures canceled TV shows adenture leaderboard zombie hispanic heritage month Schedule Mary Poppins Returns Star Wars rt labs BBC One TCA 2017 NYCC Apple Reality aliens robots Red Carpet Spike APB kaiju Turner Classic Movies crossover new star wars movies Tubi The CW Infographic Sundance Comedy Legendary OWN BBC America ESPN YA Sony Pictures olympics marvel cinematic universe PBS Comic-Con@Home 2021 casting TCA First Look biography Mary Tyler Moore dragons comics Esquire toy story worst movies Tumblr Winter TV strong female leads saw politics dark Focus Features BET AMC twilight TV Land YouTube Premium Neflix science fiction Trivia TV SDCC documentaries See It Skip It Star Trek MGM Heroines slasher Pirates Amazon Prime Video Drama art house AMC Plus MCU spy thriller king arthur harry potter genre Interview GLAAD worst award winner green book Trophy Talk rt archives Teen Dark Horse Comics Marvel Studios dc mutant Best Actor dogs Classic Film Superheroe Opinion