Until last year, Avatar was the highest-grossing film of all time adjusted for inflation. You’d think that title would earn you some respect, right? But you’re not Avatar, a $2.7 billion grosser that everyone hates or confuses with Avatar: The Last Airbender. No, it’s safe to say that James Cameron’s blue-cat people movie didn’t have the cultural tail people expected. No one remembers Jake Sulley, Neytiri or even the iconic Colonel Miles Quaritch (these are characters from the film). Amid sequel delays and a complete lack of interest in 3D televisions, Avatar more or less disappeared in the 2010s. The movie wasn’t a merchandising cash cow like Star Wars nor a bi-yearly obligation like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so it just kind of faded. It was an original, overly sincere sci-fi epic from James Cameron, the overly confident director who’s been busy making four sequels to the thing. If those films ever do come out, the question won’t be, “are they any good,” it’ll be “will anyone care?”
Trust me, someone will. Despite what thinkpiece after thinkpiece says, Avatar has fans. Loyal fans. Creative fans. A welcoming bunch who just want to learn their made up cat-people language in peace, thank you very much. To the people that love the film, James Cameron’s fictional world of Pandora is still a place of wonder, excitement and imagination. Across Reddit, message boards, Discord and the late 2000s online sim Second Life, Avatar fans congregate to post fan art, share memes and speak Na’vi, the fictional (and functional) language created for the movie. The fanbase is small but optimistic. They look forward to the future while being deeply invested in the past.
But the Avatar fanbase is not delusional; they understand the cultural perception of the series. “We’re a scattered, mostly silent, gradually growing group,” says Albert, host of the new The Avatar Podcast and a mod on the /r/Avatar subreddit, which boasts nearly 7,000 members. “Like it was for Cameron up until his film’s release, we endure our share of regular teasing and all that.” Though the film received worldwide acclaim upon release (a movie can’t make nearly $3 billion if everyone hates it), fans decry that it’s been unfairly mistreated ever since. “It’s not the norm for most sci-fi films to have an everlasting Star Wars-like effect,” says Tirea Aean, a mod on the Learn Na’vi Discord server. “I will say that people were not saying anything about ‘no cultural impact’; or ‘nobody cares’ about Avatar back in 2009-2011. It’s mostly after 2015 or 2016 that I see a lot of people saying this in bigger masses. I truly think that if JC were able to ship the sequels on schedule — the original schedule — then this would not be a discussion.”
This perception that Avatar disappeared from the culture isn’t entirely accurate. Since 2009, the technology developed during Avatar‘s production made “beloved” special effects, like Thanos or Caesar from the Planet of the Apes prequels, possible. “With Thanos for Endgame,” says Albert, “they just slightly updated what Cameron pioneered for Avatar, and then people have the audacity to give Cameron grief when the new #1 film in the world was built on what he created.” Spin-off productions didn’t help things. The Cirque du Soleil stage show Toruk – The First Flight isn’t a feather in anyone’s cap, and the world balked at Disney’s “Pandora – The World of Avatar” theme park. Most wondered why Disney’s park existed (it does, at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando), others never even heard of Toruk — The First Flight, which toured globally before bowing in 2019. It’s just not the same. People need to see those lanky, sexy cats on the big screen, or it’s not going to work. “I think the major appeal of Avatar, to most people, was the startling level of realism and detail of Pandora that the quantum leap of 3D tech only made better,” says Mark Miller, admin for LearnNavi.org. “However, the problem with modern public consciousness is that it has to be constantly fed. After the theater experience peaked, for a long time there wasn’t much else presented in the Avatar franchise to keep public attention.” Fans had to work hard to keep that attention focused.
Avatar still manages to grab some people. Many argue that the theatrical experience is what really drives the fandom. Redditor QuesionablyHuman, a mod on /r/Avatar, says that he saw the movie for the first time on his phone. Far from the intended viewing conditions, he claims the film works no matter how you see it. “I was hooked from pretty much the first five minutes,” he says. “The visuals are absolutely stunning, even considering that it was made 11 years ago. I think what really drew me in was the beauty of Pandora and the extremely in-depth world-building. In my opinion, the movie holds its own. It doesn’t matter what you watch it on.”
For most fans today, the pull of Avatar fandom is the language Na’vi. Developed for the movie by USC communications professor and linguistics consultant, Dr. Paul Frommer, the Na’vi language differs from other conlangs, or fictional languages, like Klingon or Elvish, because it is crowdsourced. It’s one of the only conlangs “created in the era of the internet where a worldwide community has not only been allowed but encouraged to participate in its growth,” Mark Miller of LearnNavi.org explains. “Anyone with the interest and ability to understand the linguistic rules of the language can suggest new vocabulary for Dr. Frommer to approve. A surprising amount of the Na’vi lexicon has been created this way.” Despite the small cultural footprint, people speak, learn and study Na’vi. Even songs have been written in Na’vi. Released in February, TheFatRat and Maisy Kay released “The Storm,” which is sung partially in the fictional tongue. It currently has more than 4.8 million views on YouTube.
But where do they speak this language? In pre-COVID times, fans held international Avatar meetups. According to AvatarMeet.com, the group last met in 2019 in Munich. Previous meetups included making the trek to Disney’s Pandora theme park, Pittsburgh, Vancouver and Cologne, Germany. But, for the most part, communication between diehards, like other fandoms, happens online. The Learn Na’vi Discord, for example, offers lesson groups, translation and regular conversation for students, as well as a place to share memes. In keeping with the theme of cultural relics from 2009, some of Avatar‘s fandom happens on Second Life. This appropriately out-of-date sim game lost its foothold in the marketplace long ago, but to Avatar fans looking to build Pandora, it’s perfect.
On Second Life, fans like Txäruyu build Pandora-like spaces to fit their needs. Over the past few weeks, Txäruyu made a map named “Bukhansan – A Slice of Pandora.” Filled with Pandorian flora and fauna, “Bukhasan” has its own Tree of Souls, waterfalls, musical instruments and meeting places. Interactive flowers and animals bloom and roar when touched. Centipedes covered in blacklight ink crawl about the ground. It’s truly impressive. Since there is no major Avatar video game, the community on Second Life built one for themselves.
As splendid as Txäruyu’s creation is, it pales in comparison to the massive “Pandora Planet” server, a meticulously crafted recreation of James Cameron’s imaginary world. It’s a little unfair to compare the two because “Pandora Planet” is a combination of three separate Avatar-themed servers. “Some of them were almost lost to time,” says Txäruyu, “but the owner swooped in and bought them off the OG owners to keep them from dying off. I mean, it’s been ten years, so that stuff is bound to happen.” “Pandora Planet” is massive. This digital, neon-drenched jungle, complete with a visitor center, labs and gift shops, is the spot for role-playing in Avatar. While attendance may be down, the quiet groups of Avatar diehards continue to follow their passion in peace. However, you can’t ignore how barren the map feels. The community, while dedicated, is almost too small for the biggest movie ever made. It’s sad how much flack Avatar gets, considering it inspired fans to build something so remarkable. Had the sequels come out as scheduled, “Pandora Planet” might be teeming with energy. Instead, it has the feeling of being in a theme park after closing. You can’t shake the ghost town vibes. There should be more Na’ vi here. To paraphrase Peter, Paul and Mary, where have all the Na’vi gone?
Until the sequels come out, Avatar fans are more or less the groundskeepers of Pandora, trimming the plants, feeding the animals and keeping the language alive. They wait patiently for new Avatar material, like the secretive “Avatar Project” video game, the rumored Disney+ series and, of course, those next cinematic installments. It’s an uphill battle. Avatar is one of the strangest cases of cultural amnesia in modern film history. Mention the $2.7 billion-grosser to a person at Comic-Con, and they’ll probably ask if you’re talking about The Last Airbender. Heck, if you join the /r/Avatar subreddit, they’ll ask if you’re looking for a sub about The Last Airbender. Redditor QuestionablyHuman, says he became a mod to redirect the influx of Avatar: The Last Airbender fans. “The mods couldn’t keep up with removing it all,” he said via direct message.
It’s anyone’s guess if Eywa will grant the Avatar community’s wish and return the series back to its former glory. It could happen, as it has many times in James Cameron’s career. People thought Titanic would bomb long before his blue cat people movie went on to make a billion dollars. Fans know this. They’re ready for it, and they’re optimistic. Albert of “Avatar Podcast” sums it up in his way:
It’s less about questioning whether Cameron can pull this off, and more about “what does it say about you that, despite the evidence, you still don’t believe in Avatar, and its long-in-the-planning, pinnacle-of-the-art-of-filmmaking, super-worthwhile-and-relevant-subject-matter-filled future”?
Maybe we’re too cynical for Avatar. Maybe another trip to Pandora is just what we need.