At the time of Avatar’s initial release in 2009, the incumbent highest-grosser was another Cameron film, Titanic (1997). By far and away the highest earner at that point, Titanic’s place at the top seemed fairly unassailable – that is, until Avatar came along. Trading on its dazzling special effects and innovative 3D presentation, Avatar surpassed Titanic’s total within just seven weeks and went on to gross an astonishing $2,749,064,328 worldwide after its first run in cinemas. A 2010 re-release brought in another forty million to give it a grand total of $2,789,679,794, which remained the figure to beat for the best part of ten years.
Films tried and failed to match up. In January 2016, Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) became just the third film to break $2 billion, but ended its theatrical run well short of Avatar’s. It was the same story with 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War. But, at last, in 2019 a real competitor emerged. The grand finale of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Phase Three, Avengers: Endgame was long-awaited to say the least, and within three months it had nudged past Avatar’s total gross. After ten years at the top, Avatar’s reign was over.
In light of this dethroning, it is hard not to see the film’s Chinese re-release as a cynical way of reclaiming gold. Cameron has spent too long at number one to be content with number two. More charitably, you could interpret the re-release as a way of building anticipation for the upcoming sequels. However, these are still a long way off. Due to Covid production delays and the uncertainty around theatrical distribution, Avatar 2’s initial release date of December 2021 has been pushed back to December 2022, with films 3, 4 and 5 following at two year intervals thereafter.
Yes, that’s right, we’re getting four more Avatar films. With these sequels coming out so many years after the original, it is hard to know how they’ll fare. Though it was undoubtedly an event at the time, Avatar just doesn’t seem to have had the same cultural impact as the likes of Star Wars or the MCU and, personally, I don’t sense huge enthusiasm for more films. I have no doubt they will do well but I simply can’t imagine them doing the same sort of business as the first one. No, unless Avengers: Endgame gets a re-release, I think Avatar can feel fairly secure in its top spot for now.