It’s somehow become a meme in the popular consciousness that Avatar, the highest-grossing movie of all time worldwide, is remembered by nobody, had no lasting impact on pop culture, and was nothing more than a 3-D gimmick. (This despite reports of massive fandoms at the time experiencing depression that they couldn’t actually live within the world of the film.) One of the earliest major takes on the topic came from Forbes writer Scott Mendelson, five years after the movie’s release, and while his was simply a financial analysis that gave the film itself a lot of credit, extremely vocal online fans have repeated the meme to bash the movie, along with Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s insultingly glib characterization of Avatar as “Dances With Smurfs.” (Never mind that an enduring meme is itself a validation of its impact.)
As the film enjoys a remastered re-release ahead of its sequel, Avatar: The Way Of Water, it’s easy to see why some of the more aggressive “Nerd Twitter” voices would deride Avatar. Relative to current sci-fi blockbusters, it’s achingly sincere about its environmentalism, possesses no ironic-distance humor, and it’s also unapologetically horny. Neytiri was specifically designed to be attractive to director James Cameron’s “all-male crew of artists,“ and echoes of the scene in which she cradles the much smaller Jake at the end of the film can be seen in the dating episode of the current She-Hulk TV series. It’s culturally safer, and less open to possible ridicule, to wear a T-shirt featuring Captain America than a naked blue cat person. But it’s not like there were T-shirts to begin with; indeed, a lot of the “no cultural footprint” arguments, including Mendelson’s, are partly inspired by the lack of merchandise upon its original release in 2009.
This is a bit of a false premise. Simply put, merchandise sales have to be lined up about a year in advance, and completely new IP is a tough sell. Consider how many T-shirts in any given Target or Walmart are for ’70s and ’90s bands, or how many best-selling toys are for licenses that have been going since the ’80s or longer, like Transformers, Star Wars, WWE, G.I. Joe, and Marvel/DC Comics. Mattel did put out Avatar toys, but they had a couple of issues. First, the collector-skewing 6-inch figures proved scarce—Neytiri, clearly the main draw for straight male collectors, was a nearly impossible figure to find. The kid-oriented 3-3/4 figures, on the other hand, invested heavily in a proto-NFT-like gimmick that packed each with an augmented reality character to play with in virtual space via webcams. It was an awkward mix of video game and toy that satisfied fans of neither.
Now, however, with the sequel on the way, an explosion of belated merchandise for the first film is scheduled to hit stores on Oct. 1. Retailers tend to only go for licenses that can be tied to current entertainment, which is why few tried in the interim. NECA, a company that made a lot of money on toys from previous James Cameron franchises like The Terminator and Aliens, explained during a Twitter Q&A that they had no interest in Avatar. Meanwhile, their primary competitor, McFarlane Toys, secured the rights for both the original film and its forthcoming sequel this quarter.
Merchandise, of course, is only one metric. And in fact, Avatar had a significant cultural influence, albeit one that maybe wasn’t fully visible just five years after release. Take 3D, which had previously been a gimmick primarily used by exploitation films. James Cameron himself kickstarted the modern revival with the 2005 Imax documentary Aliens of the Deep, but in its immediate aftermath, 3D remained mostly an IMAX attraction or an exploitation bonus as before (Robert Rodriguez’s Adventures of Sharkboy and Lava Girl, Patrick Lussier’s My Bloody Valentine 3D). CG animated movies also adopted the format quickly, as the virtual camera POV is simpler to split into two visual channels than live action.
After Avatar, however, and its subsequent Oscar nominations—including for Best Picture—3D suddenly proved interesting to other A-list live-action directors as serious business. Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams followed in 2010, then Tarsem Singh’s Immortals and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo in November of 2011, and Ridley Scott’s Prometheus in 2012. While 3D was often used to enhance spectacle or special effects, Jean-Luc Godard used it experimentally in 2014’s Goodbye To Language, Gaspar Noe used it to enhance cum shots in his 2015 art-porn film Love, and in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2013 The Young And Prodigious T.S. Spivet, only released stateside in 2D, the 3D brought to life the protagonist’s drawings and journals.
In addition to 3D, Avatar revolutionized performance-capture acting. Robert Zemeckis did significant work advancing both in the animation realm, but his achievements with The Polar Express and Beowulf are mostly remembered as punchlines about dead eyes and naked heroes. Though they deserve more credit than that, they failed to convince audiences of the viability of these new technologies in the same way Avatar did. Prior to 2009, live-action motion-capture acting mainly seemed the realm of Andy Serkis, who, in conjunction with WETA Digital, gave soulful life to The Lord Of The Rings’ emaciated Gollum, and Peter Jackson’s version of King Kong.
After Avatar demonstrated equally soulful motion-capture eyes for not just up-and-comers Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldaña, but also veteran character actors CCH Pounder and Wes Studi, it changed the calculus for actors and studios. By 2014, Josh Brolin was cast as Thanos for Guardians Of The Galaxy, a role he’d go on to play in several subsequent Marvel movies entirely in motion capture, and with such dedication that many audiences even found the character’s genocidal galactic terrorism to be sympathetic. Likewise, while playing things less realistically human, James Spader gladly did mo-cap for the robotic Ultron. Serkis himself upped the game as a talking, photo-realistic chimp in Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes. A-listers no longer feared getting lost in the technology. As the Na’vi would say, we see them.
Then there’s the virtual cinematography, moving actual cameras in the physical spaces of worlds to be fully rendered later. Jon Favreau’s work on The Jungle Book and The Lion King built on that technology with VR headsets used to navigate a pre-vis version. From there, on The Mandalorian, he brought the virtual to the practical with the Volume digital stage, which can depict and digitally track the fantasy backdrops during production.
To a lesser extent, Avatar’s visuals also inspired subsequent animated films, a point acknowledged by Mendelson in an article about Avatar’s 10-year anniversary. Bioluminescent jungles began figuring in as plot points in the likes of Trolls (2016), Smurfs: The Lost Village (2017), and Moana (2016).
And finally, there are the theme parks. Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and Marvel’s Avengers Campus, immersive worlds at the Disney resort and elsewhere, likely wouldn’t exist if Pandora: The World of Avatar hadn’t come first. The first themed land in which all merchandise, food, and cast members remained “in character” as part of the overall scenario, the theme park area was designed to boost attendance at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. As this happened before Disney bought Fox, it was also a way to test the thematic concept on someone else’s property before risking it on their own IP. Since it did work, the concept saw its next execution with Star Wars.
So maybe Sam Worthington didn’t go on to be the next big action hero. Maybe it did take 13 years to finally get LEGO Na’vi. And the battle over the Keystone pipeline suggests that Avatar’s central conflict of rapacious capitalism versus native rights wasn’t necessarily heard correctly by all the right people. Influence doesn’t always make itself obvious. From inspiring other cinematic artists to advancing the technological tools at their disposal, Avatar was more of a ground-breaker than its critics can sometimes observe. And as for those T-shirts, you’ll see plenty of them soon enough.