“Avengers: Endgame” is now the biggest movie ever. But that’s still not as impressive as what “Avatar” did

All things considered, the box office total for James Cameron’s 2009 film is way more remarkable.
All things considered, the box office total for James Cameron’s 2009 film is way more remarkable.
Image: 20th Century Fox
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Avengers: Endgame is now the highest-grossing film of all time, Disney announced during its panel at the San Diego Comic-Con on July 20. The 2019 superhero blockbuster, originally released globally in April, finally surpassed the global ticket sales of James Cameron’s sci-fi film Avatar, which had held the record since 2009.

All in all, Endgame has grossed $2.79 billion at the global box office, besting Avatar‘s total by only about $1 million. Avatar needed a mere 41 days to beat the previous record holder, Titanic (also directed by Cameron), while it took Endgame 85 days to get past Avatar.

Cameron, who’s busy filming the long-awaited sequels to his original 2009 record setter, tweeted his congratulations to the Marvel movie:

There is no doubt that Endgame‘s manifold box office achievements are impressive: Not only is it now the biggest movie of all time, but it also had the largest opening of all time (even adjusted for inflation), the highest opening weekend market share ever (a staggering 90%), and the fastest time to $1 billion (just 5 days).

And yet, Endgame squeaking into the lead as the highest-grossing film of all time does not change the fact that Avatar‘s slightly lesser total is, holistically, the far greater accomplishment.

Consider this: Endgame was the culmination of more than 20 previous Marvel movies released over the course of a decade. It was the result of a multi-billion-dollar marketing blitz, and each Marvel movie was essentially a giant advertisement for the next. It was the finale of the world’s biggest and most popular cinematic narrative—one that has been a part of some viewers’ lives for longer than it hasn’t been. And it was all based on a series of comic books that were already enormously popular around the world before a single Hollywood film was ever made.

Avatar, on the other hand, was absolutely none of that. Cameron created an entirely new movie setting, populated with completely unknown characters, and turned it into the biggest movie in history (until Endgame, of course) at a time when original films were quickly dying off in favor of franchise extensions (Quartz member exclusive). Cameron got people to see a movie about tall blue aliens who had weird names and spoke a made-up language. And those aliens were not exactly portrayed by the world’s biggest movie stars—certainly no one on the level of a Robert Downey Jr. or a Scarlett Johansson.

Cameron’s movie was expected to be such a gargantuan flop that 20th Century Fox released Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel just a week later, hoping it would quickly change the narrative. That worry, we know now, was all for naught, but at the time Fox had a reason to be a nervous. Movies like Cameron’s failed a lot more often than they didn’t.

That Avatar‘s box office take is even in the same stratosphere as that of Endgame’s—let alone the 10-year record-holder—is an achievement far more miraculous than anything the Marvel superhero movie can boast. It had built-in advantages every step of the way—including, not the least of which, inflation. (Though playing the inflation game is a slippery slope, as Avatar obviously benefited from it compared to earlier films. Also, Avatar‘s high percentage of gross from the typically more expensive 3D tickets counteracts some of Endgame‘s inflation advantage.)

Endgame is likely to hold the new record for a while, unless Cameron re-releases Avatar prior to its 2021 sequel purely to spite the Marvel franchise. Either way, Disney—which has since purchased 20th Century Fox, and thus owns the Avatar franchise—will be thrilled. When it comes to the future of the box office, Disney is pretty much only competing against itself.