Avatar is back at the top of the box office over a decade after it became the highest-grossing movie of all time, proving its box office success was never a fluke. Thanks to a re-release prior to the arrival of its sequel Avatar: The Way of Water in December, James Cameron is filling theaters again, despite doubts that Avatar‘s box office success was a repeatable feat.
James Cameron’s box office track record shouldn’t be doubted. While he’d seen big box office success with numerous movies before 1997, Titanic was his first movie to become the number one movie at the worldwide box office, a record it held for over a decade until it was beaten by Cameron’s next movie – Avatar. While Avatar is still the top box office earner of all time, it briefly lost its seat to Avengers Endgame, but a 2021 re-release put Avatar back on top.
A lot has changed in Hollywood since Avatar‘s release, but with multiple Avatar sequels on the way, there’s been a healthy dose of skepticism regarding whether or not Cameron’s return to Pandora can sell tickets like the first movie. Thanks to the success of multiple Avatar re-releases over the years, including the recently released remastered version, the box office success of Avatar and the audience demand for Avatar 2 shouldn’t be in question anymore.
Avatar Criticisms Say Box Office Was a Fluke
Avatar‘s 2009 release was huge technical breakthrough for CGI and 3D effects, which became a major influence on its box office. Since ticket prices for 3D and IMAX showings are more than regular ticket prices, Avatar’s VFX spectacle was a major factor on its box office haul because in incentivized people to experience it in the most premium format possible. Since 3D movies aren’t as popular as they once were and the theatrical landscape has shifted so much since Avatar‘s release, Avatar’s outstanding box office success is commonly considered an anomaly that can’t be repeated.
While big original blockbusters like Avatar were popular in the 2010s, the years since have been dominated largely by Superhero movies and shared universe franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Since Avatar is a sequel, it technically counts as a franchise, but with a 13-year gap since Avatar‘s initial release, the chatter around the property doesn’t compare to MCU, which has averaged more than two movies per year since 2008.
It’s understandable why Avatar would feel out of place when compared to the MCU and other box office hits of the last 13 years, but that would be a complete misunderstanding of what actually made Avatar a success in the first place. Cameron has seen massive box office success in multiple genres and in multiple eras, and Avatar‘s performance to date has already proven it’s still a viable box office contender.
Avatar’s Theatrical Re-Releases Were Huge Box Office Successes
Avatar‘s recent re-release brought in $30 million at the global box office in its first weekend, scoring $10 million of that haul at the domestic box office. Despite being a 13-year-old movie, available on physical media, digital, and VOD, and recently available to stream on Disney+, Avatar still topped the global box office. For comparison, Spider-Man: No Way Home, the highest grossing movie of 2021 and the sixth highest grossing movie of all time, also returned to theaters in the beginning of September on nearly 4,000 screens (compared to Avatar‘s 1,800) and has only grossed $9 million domestically. As with its initial release, IMAX sales make up a significant chunk of Avatar‘s box office haul.
While the re-release box office success is a big indicator of Avatar‘s maintained box office draw, it shouldn’t be that big of a surprise considering a 2021 re-release in China grossed $57 million in China. Including other re-releases in 2010 and 2020, Avatar has made over $134 million globally from re-releases alone. Additionally, Cameron also saw huge re-release success with Titanic‘s 3D re-release in 2012, earning $350 million worldwide. While Cameron’s name alone doesn’t drive ticket purchases, the massive success of Titanic and Avatar – both in their initial release and in additional releases over a decade after their initial box office run – should be proof enough that the performance of his movies doesn’t follow traditional box office convention.
Avatar is Still Hot at the Box Office, and Avatar: The Way Of Water Will Be, Too
Criticisms of Avatar‘s story are one of the many reasons its cultural staying power is discounted, but Avatar’s simple story is also part of the reason the movie is so successful. Avatar‘s story has been accused of being a sci-fi retelling of Pocahontas, Dances With Wolves, Fern Gully, Dune, Princess Mononoke and more. Of course the similarities to those stories can’t be overstated, but there’s a reason those tropes are so common in popular works. The simple story and classic character archetypes have a resonance in many different cultures around the world, and while its story hardly reinvents the wheel, it provides a resonant backbone to deliver the pure 3D spectacle of Pandora.
While Cameron’s ability to repeat his past box office success is regularly in question, his skill behind the camera is not. He’s created some of the most innovative blockbusters in Hollywood history, delivering the kind of big screen spectacle that convinces audiences to buy a movie ticket when they could watch the same movie at home. Avatar: The Way of Water has a lot in common with its predecessor, but there’s far more going on under the hood than a simple Avatar sequel. Cameron has long been obsessed with the ocean and shooting movies underwater, such as his 1989 film, The Abyss, and for Avatar: The Way of Water pushed that boundary even more, developing new motion capture technology to use underwater as well as numerous VFX advances in areas like the texture and behavior of water.
The success of Avatar: The Way of Water remains to be seen, but at this point it wouldn’t seem wise to bet against it. With Cameron’s box office track record and this new proof of sustained demand for the original Avatar thanks to its huge re-release box office performance, Avatar: The Way of Water has all the ingredients it needs to make a huge box office splash.