The teaser trailer for Avatar: The Way of Water, or Avatar 2, has already drawn over 12 million views on YouTube ahead of the film’s release in December. It’s been almost 13 years since the first film in the series debuted and became the highest-grossing movie of all time. Adjusted for inflation, the $2.8 billion Avatar pulled in back in 2009 would be worth roughly $3.8 billion today.
And yet, despite that box office record, which paved the way for four upcoming sequels, the tall blue characters known as the Na’vi, and their world called Pandora have failed to seep into the cultural zeitgeist in the same way as other popular movie franchises. Yes, Disney World has an elaborate Pandora – The World of Avatar experience, but there are few overt signs that film itself has insinuated itself within popular culture like, say, superhero films from Marvel and DC.
Unlike many hit movies, it’s difficult to recall a particular catchphrase from the film. Likewise, it’s not particularly common to see a child sporting an Avatar backpack or becoming Na’vi blue for Halloween.
Nevertheless, the success of the initial film led 20th Century Studios (owned by Disney as of 2019) to approve the production of the sequels that reportedly have a collective budget of $1 billion, or roughly $250 million for each film.
After more than a decade out of the pop culture spotlight, even past record-breaking success makes such a massive bet on director James Cameron’s vision something of a mystery given Hollywood’s current dedication to superhero tentpole movies.
However, a look at Cameron’s track record underscores why the studio is giving him so much leeway—and funding. Historically, Cameron has mastered the art of the sequel, delivering genre-defining films like Terminator 2 and Aliens, two box office wins that led to multi-decade spanning sequels.
Adjusted for inflation, Cameron’s The Terminator in 1984 earned $216 million at the box office, compared to $1.1 billion for the sequel Terminator 2. The gap wasn’t as wide for the Alien franchise, which earned $420 million for the first Alien film in 1979 (directed by Ridley Scott), and $343 million for the Cameron-directed sequel Aliens in 1986. Still, Cameron’s sequels set the foundation for the subsequent movies in the franchises that are still releasing new updates decades later.
Some cinema purists complain about Hollywood’s devotion to the superhero genre, but moviegoers continue to confirm the wisdom of investing in the seemingly endless stream of comic book-to-screen adaptations.
One year before the release of Avatar in 2009, the modern Marvel superhero film era took off in earnest with Iron Man. Since then, special effects have improved to the point where computer-generated imagery (CGI) characters like Rocket Raccoon (Guardians of the Galaxy, 2014) and Ultron (Avengers: Age of Ultron, 2015) have become normal. The initial wonder of seeing Avatar’s realistic CGI aliens performing alongside human actors is no longer the draw it was over a decade ago.
Similarly, the 3D experience and the accompanying 3D glasses Avatar used to differentiate itself from other films have largely been abandoned by movie theaters as a bit of an anachronistic gimmick. So now, after the stunning CGI and 3D imagery, what audiences are left with is… a return to Pandora. It’s not clear that this is a story fans have been anxiously waiting for Cameron to expand on, but four sequels are coming and Disney will be doing everything in its power to make sure they succeed.
In addition to Avatar at number one, Cameron also holds claim to the third high-grossing movie of all time with Titanic, so he’s earned the confidence of the Hollywood machine. But with the average budget for each sequel higher than Spider-Man: No Way Home and Jurassic World, (number six and seven all-time grossing, respectively), repeated delays, and releases scheduled out until 2028, breaking even won’t be enough.
If Avatar’s sequels don’t break new records, this could be the beginning of Cameron’s own “Titanic” with the unseen glacier being audience fatigue for a 3D-rendered world of statuesque blue people.