In 2009, director James Cameron released the biggest movie of all time. He'd already done so in 1997 when Titanic became the highest-grossing film ever made and ignited the cultural zeitgeist in a way that made it impossible to ignore. Now, 12 years later, he promised to do the same thing, only the focus was decidedly more epic.
Avatar pledged to be a groundbreaking cinematic experience, a $230 million production that offered audiences a chance to explore a whole new world, composed of the most up-to-date technology available. Never before had film lovers been given a chance to see such grandeur, and in 3D! Of course, this being a James Cameron movie (the man remains eerily skilled at making vast quantities of money), Avatar did break box-office records, and to this day it remains the highest-grossing film of all time, a solid $600 million or so above its closest competitor. The film was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, and won three. Like Titanic, it was an inescapable cultural giant for a brief, shining moment.
All things considered, Avatar has left behind a surprisingly small cultural footprint given the magnitude of its financial victory. There's a Cirque du Soleil production inspired by the film, and the Pandora-themed attraction at Disney's Animal Kingdom has proven popular, but this isn't a property we've spent much time thinking about over the following decade. There aren't thousands of avid fans keeping the fandom alive with fic and cosplay; you don't see people dressed like the Na’vi at conventions; even people who lived the film upon release don’t seem all that keen to keep it in conversations about modern sci-fi and its merits. The planned four sequels are going forward (although we have no idea how the impending merger of 20th Century Fox with Disney will affect that), and Avatar 2 is set to premiere on December 18, 2020.
It seems curious that Avatar has become such a nonentity in modern-day pop culture. In a landscape of superheroes, sci-fi epics, and the continuing domination of geek culture, one would think that, at the very least, Avatar would be part of those conversations. Instead, it’s more like a blip on the radar than a pioneer. We think more of its failings than its successes, particularly its tired story and the obvious parallels to Dances With Wolves and FernGully. Some stars involved with the film fared better than others. Zoe Saldana, who had already been catapulted to stardom via Star Trek, built on her buzz from Avatar and has become one of the highest-grossing actors ever. But then there's Sam Worthington. His reputation and public awareness seemed to dissipate along with those of Avatar itself.
The Australian actor had built up a reputation in his home country through various roles in film and television, but Avatar was positioned as his big Hollywood breakthrough, the movie that would define him as a key figure on the new A-list. Surely, in his leading role as Jake Sully, the paraplegic soldier who finds freedom and a new cause when he becomes one of the Na'vi, Worthington would reach the same level of celebrity and adoration that Leonardo Di Caprio did post-Titanic?
It didn’t quite work out that way.
Time has not been kind to Avatar or Worthington. Perhaps the sheer amount of hype surrounding them both only encouraged a quicker backlash than we were used to in 2009, or maybe it got overwhelmed by everything else going on in pop culture at the time. Nowadays, people are quick to note that, sure, Avatar looks great, but is it really a great movie? It’s a tough thing to judge objectively, especially so many years after that jaw-dropping premiere. Avatar was a film whose value was inextricably tied to the cinematic experience. This was a film you simply had to see on the biggest screen possible and in 3D. You didn’t watch the film so much as you allowed yourself to be engulfed by it. It was an Event, the kind that we didn’t get so much of in 2009. While you were watching it, truly overwhelmed by the spectacle of such astounding special effects, you could overlook the ropey dialogue, the less-than-stellar characterization, and the story that was a retread of every white savior narrative of the past century.
Sam Worthington isn’t bad in Avatar. Actually, given the sheer complexity of what he’s tasked with accomplishing based on such scant characterization, he does a rather good job grounding this ethereal experience of a movie. He’s more in the vein of an old-school action hero than the kind of leading men we expect today in the franchise age. It’s not tough to imagine him gunning down with Schwarzenegger in one of James Cameron’s Terminator movies (Worthington is indeed in a Terminator film, but not one made by Cameron). He accomplishes his duties well in Avatar, but he was never truly the star of it: That honor belonged to the effects, along with the sheer magnitude of Cameron’s ego.
That may be why he never went on to become a major star. But he was also entering Hollywood during a moment of flux. In 2010, a few month after Avatar's release, the second Iron Man movie would premiere. The following year, both Thor and the first Captain America film opened, building the road for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The franchise age was booming and would only get bigger, but these were franchises that spent movie after movie building characters as well as worlds. You cared about Jack Sparrow far more than the stories he was involved with. You became attached to Thor and Steve Rogers and Tony Stark. And in the more spectacle-driven blockbuster hits like the Transformers series, the deafening bombast was unbeatable. That didn’t help Avatar’s cause either. It didn’t take long for the effects in that film to become commonplace. What was once a groundbreaking experience soon evolved into the blockbuster norm. We barely bat an eyelash when we see films where 99% of what’s on screen is CGI.
Those films are also driven by actors in a way Avatar isn’t. It’s curious to imagine a world where Jake Sully was played by Chris Evans or Channing Tatum, both of whom Cameron admitted were in the running for the job. Now both are major stars: One is Captain f*cking America and the other is Magic Mike. Both have become distinct figures in the franchise age, defined not only by their action prowess and traditional leading-man good looks but by their humor, versatility, and embracing of the geek worlds. Worthington hasn’t gotten much chance to show that kind of range, nor has he become a Chris-like figure. He’s certainly got the capabilities for it, but sometimes, things just don’t click.
Avatar 2 comes with lofty expectations, at least from some. There are bigger actors in this one, including Kate Winslet, and Cameron has promised the most state-of-the-art underwater effects committed to film. It’s always foolish to bet against the possibility of James Cameron making all the money, but it remains to be seen if the Avatar sequels can reignite any widespread audience enthusiasm and lead to long-term fandom commitments. It’s a decade since Avatar changed the game, but it didn’t remain the winner for very long.