The Success of “Avatar” Is Nothing to Celebrate

The Success of “Avatar” Is Nothing to Celebrate

Intellectually, the Avatar stories seem worthless, beneath contempt, indeed, beneath argument. This leads people to underestimate them but also to feel themselves somehow disarmed. One looks ridiculous if one complains that the stories are anti-American. It takes a certain courage to deal with that problem, and courage is in very short supply in our times.

The biggest box office success in cinema history, strictly in dollars taken in, is Avatar, the 2009 movie that made 3D a technology audiences would finally flock to. The movie made some $785 million in America, more than another $2 billion in the rest of the world, adding up to about $2.9 billion. Since then, it’s sold an additional $430 million in DVDs (including 3D Blu-ray editions). We have to use our imaginations when it comes to how much the movie was watched online in pirated copies. One is tempted to say that everyone has seen it. If there’s globalization, Avatar is it.

In 2022 we finally got a sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water, which is also an incredible success, having grossed more than $620 million in America in its first month, with another $1.5 billion in the rest of the world. I’m confident it will make more than $700 million in America. Very few movies attain this kind of success, fewer still since the COVID panics have crippled the movie theater business. Three more of these movies are slated to appear and perhaps rather quicker than the 13 years between the first two, given the astonishing success and the technological achievements involved in the production so far.

James Cameron is the man who made this franchise, which married his interest in science fiction, going back to Terminator (1984), and his interest in blockbuster success—that is, strong appeals to American passions—for example, Titanic, the movie he made before Avatar, which also became the most popular movie of its time (1997). One thing that has changed is that Cameron started out trying to appeal to men, then changed to appealing to women, but found astonishing success with a sentimentality missing from his early works, and now wants to appeal to families, to children especially. Some of the more perceptive critics pointed out how simpleminded the original was, even how it functioned as a kind of faux religion all its own. The sequel has also been panned by others as stunningly unoriginal and “full of itself.” This suggests to me they think the Avatar movies themselves to be childish.

The arrival of Avatar: The Way of Water at least makes clear what it is Cameron wants America’s children and, by extension, the world’s children to see and to believe. The first movie was an obvious retelling of Euro-American conflicts with Native Americans in the 19th century. The story summarizes, of course, but it also focuses on a simple teaching: Americans are evil and possibly monstrous. The Natives were innocent and, though proud warriors, peaceful. One may say this is nonsense and historically dubious; one may add that it is unpatriotic. But it may nevertheless be rather persuasive, especially because Cameron makes no arguments and starts no fights—he merely uses images that speak to things most kids are ready to believe.

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