Has There Ever Been a Box Office Smash Scifi Movie With Less Cultural Impact Than Avatar?

We’re on our way to four(!) Avatar sequels, which is probably the same as number of people excited about Avatar sequels.

It’s pretty striking, really, how quickly Avatar vanished from the public consciousness. The movie came out at the end of 2009, and in the years since, we’ve seen really no lasting attempts to keep the universe alive. There aren’t any Avatar toys, novels, or comics being sold. No video game franchise. People don’t wear Avatar t-shirts, or reference it except in occasional satire. Nobody’s wondering what the Avatar universe holds, or about the backstories of its characters. It was a pretty 3D movie, but otherwise entirely forgettable. And “forgotten” is exactly what happened to it, except in the mind of James Cameron and as trivia about top box office receipts.

Avatar’s disappearance happened so fast, with so little cultural impact, that I got to wondering whether any other movie comes close.

The answer is “No.” Avatar looks rather unique in this regard. To figure it out, I went to Box Office Mojo’s list of all time top “Sci-Fi — Adventure” movies, and sorted it by estimated ticket sold. Avatar sits at #5. People bought 97,000,000 tickets to see it. Here’s what its company in the Top 20 looks like, skipping movies that are sequels to films already in the list, and so piggybacking on their parent’s cultural impact.

  • Star Wars
  • E.T.
  • Jurassic Park
  • Back to the Future
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind
  • 2001: A Space Oddessy
  • Guardians of the Galaxy
  • Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Star Wars, of course, has more cultural influence than any movie ever made. The others either continue to live in public consciousness, are considered eminently rewatchable classics, or have inspired entire genres. The only that might not fit this are the last two. Guardians of the Galaxy is part of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, and so it’s impossible to judge what its impact would’ve been without membership in the MCU. (My bet, however, is that without the MCU tie-in, it wouldn’t have cracked the Top 20 in the first place.) Star Trek: The Motion Picture itself is something of a forgotten film, but it kicked off the Star Trek movie franchise, and there’s no doubting the importance of that. Avatar, which falls between E.T. and Jurassic Park in box office receipts, stands alone as leaving not a ripple.

And it’s not like Cameron has no experience making culturally influential films. He gave us Aliens, the Terminator movies, and Titanic. That’s nothing to sneeze at.

The easy answer is that Avatar was just a spectacle. People didn’t see it for its characters, story, or worldbuilding. They saw it because it was the first major 3D movie to make full use of that medium. But still, really popular scifi stuff tends to take on a life of its own. That’s the nature of scifi fandom. The fans want to live in the world, explore it more, expand upon it. Or, at the very least, reference it incessantly. And yet, nothing.

Now 3D’s been done. We’ve all seen Avatar. Four more Avatars will be nothing more than four more Avatars, without the breakthrough to drive ticket sales. Still, the movie’s absence from pop culture remains interesting. It’s not even parodied. To make something so big and yet so forgettable is, itself, a rather remarkable achievement.


Batman v Superman Ultimate Edition is a good movie

I never saw Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice during its theatrical run. I saw reviews, the scathing piling on that had DC partisans crying conspiracy, claiming the only way the critics could say it was that bad was if they were on the Disney take.

I assumed the movie was bad. And maybe it was. But the Ultimate Edition, which adds what I gather are quite a lot of missing scenes, isn’t bad. In fact, it’s pretty great. I watched it on a whim, not expecting much, and found myself consistently surprised. This may be the most I’ve enjoyed a superhero movie since Nolan wrapped his Dark Knight trilogy. It makes me excited for Justice League, which isn’t something I expected.

What I liked

The visuals. The Marvel movies have a specific aesthetic, the result of their broader approach to making superheroes live action. Namely, they’re shot to look like what you’d get if you dropped costumed vigilantes into the real world, the world we actually live in. It’s our world, it just happens to have these minor gods walking around in it. Zach Snyder goes for something different. He brings the look of the comics to the screen. Batman v Superman isn’t our world, it’s a moving comic. The result — as we got before in Man of Steel and Watchmen — is far more visually interesting than anything from Marvel Studios. Snyder frames his shots with more attention to detail, composes them more carefully. There are moments of genuine beauty in his use of color and light. I’ve long thought that superheros are better served by animation than live action. They aren’t meant to look real and so when you make them real — putting an actor in a suit — they come off more like cosplay than like characters brought to life. Snyder’s aesthetics keep that from happening. The MCU’s do not.

Ben Affleck. Here’s a guy who was born to play Bruce Wayne. And he owns the role. Others, like Christian Bale, are better actors overall, but nobody — nobody — looks more like he stepped off the comic page than Affleck. (The only thing that could’ve made him better is if they’d dubbed in Kevin Conroy’s voice.) A perfect casting.

Lex Luthor. The trouble with many comic book flicks is their forgettable villains. The second Thor movie, Guardians of the Galaxy, really any of the Marvel films without Loki or Ultron, all of them are just big, tough bad guys with gravelly voices and rage. There’s no charisma. Same thing held with earlier DC Universe films. But Batman v Superman’s Lex Luthor works. I’m not sure his plan works, but you can see why he does what he does and how he’s crazy enough to think it’s the right plan.

What I didn’t like

Batman and guns. On the one hand, the angrier, more violent Batman we got was cool. This is an older Bruce, the Bruce of Dark Knight Returns. He’s sick of this shit and wants to break things. But having him mount actual for real bullet shooting guns on his bat vehicles crosses a well-established line for the character. Having him hold a gun in his hands and kill people with it goes even further. It was unnecessary and I hope they walk it back in future films.

Alfred. Jeremy Irons needles Bruce, as he should, but he somehow manages to make that needling come off less like frustration and more like contempt. The whole point of the Alfred/Bruce relationship is that Alfred, no matter how much he puts up with and no matter how many times he’s disappointed, loves Bruce Wayne. He wants, more than anything, to see Bruce happy, even if that means — especially if that means — giving up Batman. Irons’s Alfred does not love Bruce Wayne. He despises him.

The other super guys. Wonder Woman was okay. But our brief glimpses of the rest of the JLA, especially Flash in his silly outfit, brought the movie back in that cosplay direction Synder’d been otherwise so good at avoiding.

What I didn’t care much about either way

The plot. Yes, there were plot holes. Far fewer, I take it, than in the theatrical release, but still plot holes. A plot that holds up on further reflection is too high a bar for super hero movies, though. What matters is that the plot not be so nonsense that it distracts while watching the movie. This test the film passes. It’s silly, yes, but so were all the plots of Scott Snyder’s magnificent run on the Batman comic. You have to just accept those things, as long as they’re not too bad. And Batman v Superman’s plot wasn’t too bad.

The thing about super hero movies for me is that, other than Batman, I don’t much care about any of these characters. I don’t have anything invested in the DC or Marvel universe because I don’t often read comics anymore, and when I did, I wasn’t a super hero guy.

What this means is I approach these movies differently than a fan would. There needs to be something to grab my attention beyond seeing a dude dressed up as Iron Man or the Green Lantern. Batman v Superman gave me that, particularly with its frequently stunning visuals and its remarkably excellent score.

It wasn’t as good as Nolan’s work, but it was better than all but a couple of the Marvel movies and Zach Snyder deserves far more credit than he got.

But, then, I felt the same way about Watchmen.