On July 22nd, Avengers: Endgame surpassed $2.79 billion in the box office and beat out James Cameron’s 2009 fantasy thriller Avatar as the highest-grossing movie of all time. The only winner here is Disney, which owns both franchises — but don’t tell that to diehard Avengers fans busy gloating over their victory. Apparently, nothing proves a blockbuster’s artistic superiority quite like inconceivable amounts of money.
Yes, actually. Hardcore Avatar fans exist, and they’re pissed. They’re pissed that their favorite movie is no longer on top. They’re pissed that Marvel Cinematic Universe fans — or “MCU scum” — are gloating all over their online communities.
And they’re pissed Endgame was able to beat Avatar “only” because of its re-release.
So what’s it like for the small but proud Avatar fandom out there as they wait patiently for the sequel to drop in 2021? I talked to a few diehards to find out.
Nick, a 30-year-old in Massachusetts who’s watched Avatar on DVD at least once a year since seeing it in theaters, believes Avatar is “unmatched in building an immersive world in cinematic form.” For Nick and his peers, no other movie — and especially not Endgame — will match the experience of seeing Avatar.
For them, it’s more than a movie.
“The world is rich with detail,” Nick explains. “[The movie’s] pacing, storytelling devices and presentation were crafted with care to draw the audience in and keep them under its spell for the full runtime. I honestly think that watching it on a tiny screen or on some rebroadcast on TV with constant commercial interruption does it a disservice. The word gets thrown around a lot to the point of uselessness, but Avatar really is an experience.”
Mike A., a 24-year-old in Brazil, saw the movie in theaters when he was 14. “Everybody was talking about the movie,” he says, and his entire family went to see it together. “It was the first and only time I saw my father in a movie theater, and that for itself was already memorable enough. But we were all blown away.”
That was the only time Mike saw the movie in theaters, and to this day he regrets not seeing it once more in 3-D.
“It was also one of the first movies I remember feeling emotional about,” he says. “The feeling of exploration stayed with me. The movie created a whole new world for me in the most beautiful way I could imagine. Every time I play it, I get the same feeling again.”
Daniel, a 22-year-old in Los Angeles, will never forget the first time he saw Avatar in theaters. It was one of the best experiences of his life, he says — even though the trolls were out from the beginning. “I remember telling people how excited I was for the movie, but no one really seemed to care about it. There responses were pretty much, ‘Avatar? That movie with the blue people? It looks weird.’”
Nevertheless, unable to go to the movies alone, 12-year-old Daniel skipped class and “dragged” his brother and sister along to the theater in Burbank. “I had never seen anything like it!” he says. “I still have my ticket stub from that night, and I don’t ever plan on throwing it away.”
“The film holds up 10 years later and visual effects are better than a lot of films being released today,” he tells MEL. Even on Blu-Ray, he adds, “James Cameron transports you to another world.”
Daniel explains that the biggest knock on Avatar is that its storyline is too simplistic, but he thinks the simple plot allows the film to have more depth. “This gets me into a lot of arguments with snobs,” he says, “but if these people would just read the works of [literary theorist and professor] Joseph Campbell, they would understand that pretty much every story is the same.
“Since Avatar follows the hero’s journey so closely and simply, it’s easy to grasp, and James Cameron can introduce other things like the culture of the Na’vi and their language,” Daniel argues.
Though much of the Avatar criticism centered on its race issues and white-savior problem, Daniel believes people just hate on the movie because it was too popular. “Avatar is singled out because of how popular it became, not because it’s a bad movie,” he tells me. “After 2009, when it was a huge hit, the contrarians started to come out and dislike it simply because it was popular. I’ve never agreed with that kind of mentality. Hating something popular doesn’t make you cool or distinguished. It makes you a drag to talk to.” (One fan theory on Reddit even suggests Avatar was an intentional parody of white-savior films.)
“MCU trolls also love to say silly things like ‘Avatar had no cultural impact,’” Daniel continues. “Avatar was literally nominated for best picture that year but ended up losing to The Hurt Locker. Does anyone talk about The Hurt Locker anymore?”
And while we’re addressing Avatar’s criticisms, Nick wants to take this moment to “clear up an extremely annoying yet popular” misconception.
“The Na’vi don’t have sex via their ponytails,” he says. “That’s a neural link. Imagine sharing minds with your partner during the act, feeling what each other feels, knowing what the other is thinking. The rest is done the same way humans do. That’s all.”
The Surviving Fanbase
Since it’s become more popular to hate on Avatar than it is to genuinely show support for the movie, how and where do Avatar fans find community?
Nick recently started studying Na’vi — the language invented for the movie, spoken by the blue people — which has gotten him more involved in the Avatar community.
“Without hesitation, I can say there is not a more passionate, helpful or welcoming group,” he says of the Avatar fandom. “There are a few annual meetups, but recent ones haven’t been very large, usually 10 to 30 folks. I haven’t been to any yet, but I’m planning to attend the first one after the first sequel.” Besides practicing the language, fans have lots of ways to show their continued enthusiasm: discussions about canon, theories, sequel speculation, “just gushing about our favorite parts of the film, or a trip to Valley of Mo’ara.”
“Every time I bring it up online, people say it was overrated and unnecessarily trash it,” Daniel adds. “It bothers me so much. I wish I could find a group of people who love the film as much as me. I’m sure they’re out there.”
And they just might be. Nick firmly believes it’s false to say the fanbase has dwindled. Instead, he thinks it’s a sleeping giant, just waiting to wake up. “Fanbases of other media properties are regularly treated to new films, media and other ways to interact with the thing they love,” he explains. “Unless you’re the kind of person who derives joy from hating on something, Avatar fans haven’t been given anything in nearly a decade. There hasn’t been a spark or media push [to make fans aware of] new developments.”
But that’s all about to change, Nick asserts. The huge Avatar fandom is about to wake up. “Once trailers start dropping for the sequels,” he says, “I really believe you’re going to see a big reawakening of people who will be [like], ‘Oh yeah, I remember liking that movie, I want to check it out!’”
Avatar fans have been quietly waiting for more teasers, trailers and other promotion for the sequels. That’ll make the last 10 years of surviving ridicule for loving their favorite movie all worth it, they say. Finally, people will remember how great Avatar was.
But when Endgame grossed $2.79 billion in the box office, the general public — and worse, diehard MCU fans — remembered Avatar was a thing. Not only was it a thing, but it was an overhyped bunch of claptrap, a pretender to the box-office throne. Endgame became the greatest movie ever, and its fans were going to let everyone know about it.
“If I’m allowed a bit of snark,” Nick begins, “I think it’s kind of pathetic and telling of the movie landscape that it’s taken an internationally recognized juggernaut of a media franchise this long and this many films to topple an original IP from 10 years ago that came out of nowhere and just did its own thing.”
He continues: “You can’t go into a grocery store without seeing Marvel heroes selling you stuff. It’s also telling of the spirit of the film that there was a rerelease with a few minutes of extra content while it was still in its first theatrical run. If it were about the fans or making a good film, that content would have been in the debut.”
In other words, if people think Avatar was overhyped, Endgame had 21 blockbuster films all leading up to it, not to mention a thriving online community (that’s still celebrating its victory):
“Avatar wasn’t a sequel or part of any franchise,” Daniel argues. “It built its own hype. Word of mouth caused people to experience it in theaters.”
“I’m just glad it happened so the flood of speculation articles will finally die,” Nick says. “What I’ve bemoaned the most about the coverage of this has been the decision to label it a competition. Endgame was sprinting to catch the heels of a record set 10 years ago in a totally different media ecosystem, while Avatar was standing still, not participating.”
Endgame vs. Avatar
Daniel grew up a huge Marvel fan; he still has some of his old comics stored away in his parents’ house. “Like many others, I eagerly awaited the arrival of Endgame,” he tells MEL. “It was the most disappointing film experience I’ve ever had.”
“I hated the movie,” Daniel continues. “Thirty minutes into the movie, I thought to myself, Wow, I am not liking this. And yet, people really have the audacity to compare the two films! Avatar’s simple story puts it miles ahead of Endgame’s lazy time-travel hi-jinx… not to mention the extremely lazy five-year time jump.
“Don’t know what to with your characters?” he says. “Just make a time jump and change their entire personality offscreen… Thor became too powerful in Infinity War? Okay, let’s just make him fat. His whole character arc was, ‘It’s funny because he’s fat.’ The Hulk has struggled with his powers for multiple films? Since the last movie, he’s magically found a way to be fine with it. Lazy!”
For Daniel, Avatar’s flight of Toruk Makto “is better than anything in Endgame,” and while he understands the hypocrisy of the following statement, he stands by it: The end battle [in Endgame] was a bland CGI-fest where nothing felt high-stakes.
“Yes, Avatar is full of CGI, but it feels different in Avatar due to James Cameron’s vision,” Daniel continues. “Almost all of the visuals in Endgame look like a bunch of actors in a high-end TV show standing in front of a green screen, but Avatar feels like a living, breathing world.”
Plus, he adds, in Marvel movies, “everyone needs an unnecessary joke and it takes away from the experience. Avatar didn’t need to do that.”
But Avatar fans aren’t swayed by Endgame taking over the No. 1 spot. “There are MCU fans that see Avatar like the enemy now,” especially on Reddit, Mike says. “I’d hoped Endgame wouldn’t have beaten it, but there’s nothing we can do about it. We can only hope when the sequels [come out], those people lay down the pitchforks and learn to appreciate each movie.”
“We’re not fans of [Avatar] because it made a lot of money,” Nick adds. “I honestly can’t imagine the kind of person that would be. We like Avatar for its world. A financial record doesn’t change that.”
If anything, the two agree that Endgame won’t age well. It’s too dependent on having to watch the film’s predecessors. With Avatar, though, “it’s easier to drop into a standalone story,” Nick says.
So Where Do Avatar Fans Go From Here?
As Avatar diehards quietly suffer the barrage of Marvel victory memes, they remain confident and optimistic.
“James Cameron has been working on Avatar 2 for almost 10 years, and yet people really doubt that it will be a quality film,” Daniel exclaims. “James Cameron doesn’t miss! Nothing but net his entire career! Avatar will probably be re-released before Avatar 2 comes out, and I’m sure it will take the top spot once again — especially with how much the overseas box office has grown in the last 10 years.”
At the same time, though, they swear it’s not about competition. That’s not how the Na’vi would handle this situation.
As such, the moderators of the r/Avatar subreddit made a point to remove any anti-Endgame content:
“Avatar is a film about coming to understand another people that may be demonized or thought of as lesser for how they act or think,” Nick explains. “It’s about seeing our place in the world, and how our actions have consequences that affect the very real lives of ourselves and others. It’s about seeing a little beyond your bubble and deciding for yourself what your values are, and it’s about the dangers of obsession.
“I think those continue to be very resonant messages 10 years later. Hate is easy, impatient, lazy and uninformed. What good has hate ever done? It takes strength to have empathy and understand the values that motivate people outside our circles. Competitions can be fun, but never lose sight of the actual, for-real person on the other side.”