Does Avatar Matter?
Cultural impact and artistic relevance are two very different things.
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1. Does Avatar Matter?
In anticipation of the coming release of Avatar 2: The Way of Water, 20th Century Studios has remastered and re-released the original, causing many movie fans to ask, Should we care?
Be honest: you hardly ever hear, think, or talk about Avatar.
📊 The stats: Released in 2009, it's still the highest-grossing movie of all time, with $2.9 billion in box office.
That puts it more than $100 million ahead of #2, Avengers: Endgame, released in 2019.
But: Until Avatar 2 is released in December, there's never been a sequel, TV series, or any significant spin-off from the I.P.
Plus, it's largely been overwhelmed in our cultural consciousness by the Marvel/Star Wars/Disney-industrial complex.
Now Avatar is a part of that same machinery, and Avatar 3, 4, 5, and who-knows-how-many-more are in the pipeline.
🧪 The analysis: Whether or not Avatar is culturally relevant might be missing the point.
It's the most popular movie of all time. Millions of people adore it and have seen it multiple times. If that's not cultural relevance, then I'm not sure what is.
The Super Bowl is also massively relevant, watched by millions of people who aren't even football fans. It is an event, a cultural touchstone.
But that relevance is in almost no way related to the game itself. The Super Bowl doesn't matter because of who wins or loses, or how well the game is played.
The Super Bowl matters because it's the Super Bowl. It matters because it happens. Whether or not it advances the sport of football in any way is totally immaterial.
So, the real question is not whether Avatar is culturally relevant, but instead, is it artistically relevant?
This did, finally, prompt me to watch it. I wasn't exactly avoiding it all these years, but also not excited.
It never seemed like my type of flick: long runtime, warmed-over plot, formulaic character arcs, animation.
And my instincts were right. The movie is not for me.
Ultimately, the reason Avatar doesn't hold any real estate in the cultural zeitgeist is because it doesn't have anything new or engaging to say.
There are no big ideas or any new questions. The ideas & questions it does have are handled ham-fistedly.
No character moments catch the audience off-guard. Nothing unexpected happens. The plot can be predicted from the poster. And it takes 162 minutes to get there.
The legacy of Avatar is that it has no legacy.
It's a movie made to be experienced and then forgotten. A theme park ride playing in 3000 theaters simultaneously across the country.
The cultural impact of Avatar is due to its popularity — like Beanie Babies, or Tiger King — not because of what it did or had to say.
Sometimes a large number of people can enjoy something without it being important to them.
Does anyone actually care what Joe Exotic is up to these days?
Avatar definitely has its place in our culture & film history, and maybe even deserves to be the most popular movie of all time.
But artistically, it's inessential.
📚 If you’re interested: The internet has no shortage of thoughts on the subject. Here are some recent podcasts:
The Filmcast has been quasi-obsessed with the cultural relevance of Avatar for years now. In a recent episode, they attempt to end the debate once and for all. (They don't.) Watch here.
The Big Picture was joined by Blank Check to discuss the lasting impact of Avatar, and ask, is it actually good?
2. 📺 The 'Tube:
Over on our YouTube channel, we revisit our discussion on 2009's Big Fan.