You know, I have to hand it to the people who made Avatar: they’ve managed to shock me again. I wouldn’t call myself a fan, as I watched the first movie on DVD and didn’t quite come away with the same sense of spectacle that audiences encountered in theaters. But upon hearing the news that the four planned Avatar sequels, which James Cameron is directing all at once, will once again be delayed, I am aghast. Or, perhaps more accurately, impressed. Again? Really?
I honestly don’t mean to poke fun. After all, the first movie’s $2.7 billion box office earnings is nothing to sneeze at, and proof that more than a few moviegoers were excited to go on this journey with James Cameron at its outset. I recall reading article after article about fans who were so depressed about Pandora being fictional that they reportedly considered suicide. But since then, as many media critics have noted, the world of Avatar has not remained relevant. Most of us only vaguely remember Pandora and the blue cat people who live on it, and that’s about it. Nothing has happened in the past eight years to keep this franchise in our minds — except, of course, for news of production delays.
And yet, director James Cameron and everyone else who works with him are just as enthused as they were in 2009, possibly even more so. And while he seems aware that expectations are high and that there’s a lot of pressure on him, he’s still entirely willing to make people wait years while he perfects his masterpiece, unconcerned that the entire world is literally moving on without him.
It’s as inspiring as it as frustrating.
I think that this attitude I’m trying to describe is best reflected in the recent commercials for Disney’s Avatar attraction in Orlando, which have been annoying me for several weeks. Never mind that this theme park even exists in the first place, which is proof in its own right that the producers of this franchise are sure of Avatar’s success. I want to highlight one part in particular. Watch it with me first:
Okay, so did you see the part where James Cameron says that Pandora is the only place where you can “fly on a banshee?”
Here’s the thing: what the hell is a banshee?
Obviously, I am not an idiot. Via context clues, I can infer that the flying creatures on screen are the banshees of which Cameron speaks. But his matter-of-fact tone suggests that he thinks this is something I’ve always wanted to do. That I know how important they are to Pandora, intuitively. How. How would I know that. They are from a movie that came out eight years ago. I remember nothing about them except, I guess, that they fly.
Let’s compare this to a similar franchise with a theme park attraction. Imagine that you have never read a single book or watched a single movie in the Harry Potter franchise, ever (or, to draw a more linear comparison, that you saw one movie a long time ago and forgot everything about it), and you see a commercial which boasts that while at The Wizarding World Of Harry Potter, you can enter a world of magic. You’ve heard of magic before, right? Of course you have, because you’re a person who exists in the world. There are no context clues to figure out here. They’re not gonna mention the names of the specific broomsticks you can fly or the houses you can be sorted into because if you don’t know what those are, why would you bother coming to Orlando to see them?
But the people who work on Avatar aren’t content with generalization; they’re going all-in on the idea that you know exactly what they’re talking about. And if you don’t, you are going to want to know, because they believe the mere concept of Banshee-flying is so thoroughly exciting to you that you will plan an expensive trip to a theme park to figure out just what the hype is all about. Even though there IS NO HYPE, because Avatar hasn’t been culturally relevant in YEARS. Do you see what I’m getting at here?
Honestly, the only other franchise I can think of that really does this is Star Wars — except that after four decades, eight movies (with three more definitely on the way), several TV series, dozens of video games, hundreds of books and comics, and a Life Day special, Star Wars has earned the right to namedrop obscure planets in their Star Tours advertisements without a whole lot of pushback from people who don’t know what “Hoth” is.
Regardless of how much money it’s already made, Avatar just does not have that same kind of cultural capital. It’s no Star Wars — but it still acts like it is.
And that’s the confidence I’m talking about. I want that. I want to be able to feel, deep in my gut, that I am as important as the most successful people in my field, despite the fact that there is very little current evidence to suggest this is the case. I want to be able to look Star Wars in the face (metaphorically, of course) and say, “I am just like you, if not better!” I want to make references that are only relevant to me and trust that people will just go along with it because that is now special and interesting I am. I want to feel like I have that power. Even though I probably don’t.
God help me, I want what Avatar has: more confidence than all the mediocre white men in the world, combined. Who among us wouldn’t want that?