In December of 2009, James Cameron's Avatar was released in theaters, quickly gaining critical acclaim and smashing records at the box office. The movie did so well, it still stands as the highest grossing film of all time, beating out the previous champion and other hit Cameron film Titanic. Sequels were quickly planned, and in 2017, a Pandora-themed area in Walt Disney World's Animal Kingdom opened to the public. Suffice to say, Avatar has blown up into a massive franchise... or has it?
Despite Avatar maintaining its hold on the title of highest grossing film of all time and being nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, there's not really all that much love for it. Rather, there was love for the first film, but within a year after its release, the hype had died down. Why is this, exactly? Well, a few things have contributed to the collective apathy towards the franchise, leading it to become the blue-skinned butt of film industry jokes.
No one can say Avatar wasn't a success. It's a little cheesy, a little predictable, and a little too reliant on the latest special effects, but overall it's a typical well-crafted James Cameron movie that captured audiences with the same thrill as the premier of A New Hope. Perhaps the best way to describe Avatar is that it's a "movie movie," the type of film that isn't perfect, but expertly does it's job of taking you away to another world for a few hours.
Going back to the comparison to Star Wars, this actually helps us understand where Avatar went wrong. Avatar definitely hit audiences (and critics) with the same power as the first Star Wars film, and in many ways, that appeared to be the goal, to make a new Star Wars. In fact, before the film became a hit, Cameron stated he wanted to make sequels if Avatar was a success, making clear the director/creator's ambitions to reach the same heights as other franchise, perhaps to even become the next Star Wars.
This goal may have also been the beginning of the end for public interest in Avatar, as such lofty heights are as easy to obtain as, well, Unobtanium.
STRIKING WHILE THE IRON IS... COLD?
Continuing with the Star Wars comparison -- after the success of A New Hope, it was only three years before The Empire Strikes Back was released, an exceptionally fast sequel turnaround for the time period. Now, look at Avatar; the first film came out in 2009, and within a year, two sequels were planned, announced and greenlit, with two more sequels being confirmed in 2016.
However, despite it being clear that a franchise was going to be built upon Avatar, the first two sequels didn't start filming until 2017, a full eight years after the release of the first movie. Very early on it was revealed that the sequels were going to focus on underwater aliens of Pandora, with Cameron stating that the reason for their delay was due to the current (at the time) motion-capturing technology being inadequate for underwater filming.
Regardless of whether this was the only factor delaying production, the fact remains that Avatar 2 -- which is set to premier in 2020, a full eleven years after the original -- is coming far too late to ride on the massive success of the first film. If Cameron and 21st Century Fox wanted to strike while the Avatar iron was hot, they missed their opportunity by at least seven years.