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Does Avatar have a place in Disney’s ambitious future?

Does Avatar have a place in Disney’s ambitious future?


The sequels to the second-biggest film ever made were nowhere to be found during Disney’s big event

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Image: 20th Century Fox

Disney announced a virtual avalanche of updates and news for almost every one of its properties. But one of the company’s biggest franchises was strangely absent: in all the hullabaloo, where was Avatar?

There was no Avatar segment of the investor call, showing off preview images of the sequels and a logo or subtitle for Avatar 2. No news of any Avatar Disney Plus shows, or any animated spinoffs to help further expand the brand across the Disney empire. Amid more than 50 announcements covering Star Wars, Marvel, and Pixar, the Na’vi were nowhere to be seen. Interconnected branding and stories has become Disney’s lifeblood, but Avatar isn’t taking part. 

While not originally a Disney property, the studio acquired the rights to the James Cameron blockbuster alongside the rest of 20th Century Fox in 2019’s landmark merger. The company has invested significantly in the Avatar brand long before it owned the movies, with its dedicated Pandora section of Disney World in 2017. On Disney Plus, the original Avatar is a prominent fixture — and, until its dethroning by Avengers: Endgame last year, was one of the most lucrative films ever produced, with a $2.7 billion box office. 20th Century Studios — and, by extension, Disney — have four more Avatar films in production. 

Between the inherited investment from 20th Century Fox into the future of Pandora, and Disney’s own $500 million theme park, the blue aliens of James Cameron’s imagination take up a big role on the balance sheet, if nothing else. It’s a huge investment for the company to be silent about. Disney’s entire event was meant to prove to investors (and the world) that the Disney brand is strong. And yet, it didn’t provide a single piece of information about the sequels to the second biggest movie ever made.

Image: 20th Century Fox

The first two sequels have been shooting concurrently for three years, and Avatar 2 — per Disney’s most recent theatrical release calendar — is still prominently on the schedule, for December 16th, 2022. And James Cameron’s sequels are set to alternate December slots each year with Disney’s other major sci-fi franchise, Star Wars. But while Disney was willing to announce a title card and details on its next Star Wars movie as far away as 2023 (the Patty Jenkins-helmed Rogue Squadron), the studio didn’t even mention the word “Avatar” during the four-hour-plus presentation. 

Avatar’s cultural prominence has faded over the years

Part of the answer may lie in Avatar’s depreciation following its record-shattering debut. For a film as big as Avatar was in 2009, the movie itself has had a tiny impact on the overall cultural landscape disproportionate to its massive box office numbers. Other top films, like Titanic, Star Wars, and the Avengers movies, are part of the modern zeitgeist. Even the most out-of-touch person knows who Iron Man is, or has an opinion on whether Jack and Rose could have fit on that board. Avatar just doesn’t occupy the same place in people’s hearts, minds, or wallets anymore, outside of a far smaller subset of fans. It’s not clear it ever did.

Avatar’s cultural prominence has faded over the years. Viral videos or posts trying to recall the details of the film have more prominence than the characters or worlds that the film so meticulously created. And Avatar’s paint-by-numbers story and focus on a white savior narrative have aged particularly poorly when viewed with fresh eyes that aren’t blinded by the fantastical computer-generated sights. 

It’s an open question whether an Avatar sequel will be able to gross anything close to the original, which had the advantage of riding the dual waves of inflated 3D movie tickets and immersive CGI hype, neither of which are benefits a second movie, over a decade later, will have. 

Photo by James Bareham / The Verge

And yet, Avatar didn’t gross $2.7 billion out of apathy toward the franchise. With Cameron’s reputation, it could be that he’ll manage to make lightning strike a third time, but with the huge price tags for the films, it’s a big gamble. (Disney itself hadn’t decided whether to greenlight Cameron’s fourth and fifth films when it first acquired the franchise.) 

Disney’s investor call announcements were a blueprint for the company’s future. That path is one built firmly on its strengths: popular brands like Marvel, Pixar, and Star Wars, expansions of modern animated classics like Moana and Toy Story, and shows that remake or further build out beloved properties like The Mighty Ducks or Percy Jackson and the Olympians

In other words, Disney’s future is committed to franchises and brands that customers love. It’s a calculated, measured approach, the thing that separates it from the scattershot tactics of Netflix’s hundreds of original shows and movies that flare up into the spotlight for a few days or weeks and are then forgotten.

It’s hard to believe that Disney hasn’t thought about how to better integrate the Avatar franchise into its own stable of brands. But if Avatar isn’t in the spotlight as part of Disney’s future, it might be because the company has recognized that in 2020 (and beyond), the world of Pandora and the Na’vi just can’t measure up.