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: 92.38%
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

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