Remembering When Avatar Was Bigger Than Marvel

He and millions of other moviegoers got it in March 2010 when Tim Burton and Disney’s Alice in Wonderland became the first film released in theaters utilizing 3D glasses since Avatar. And despite lukewarm reviews, and being generally viewed in retrospect as a turning point for the worse in Burton’s career, Alice in Wonderland grossed an astonishing $1.02 billion in theaters. That is something even Disney’s most optimistic bean counters failed to anticipate. After all, star Johnny Depp’s then popular Pirates of the Caribbean movies had yet to cross the $1 billion threshold in the previous decade.

However, the hunger for more 3D wonderment was demonstrable in the spring after Avatar. It was lucrative, too. Whereas the 2010s would end with a consolidation of franchises and endless tentpoles based purely around intellectual property and a handful of brands (thereby concentrating the wealth to only a few studios), Avatar’s reinvention of 3D opened the door for films of all temperament to get in on the innovation and commercial bandwagon.

These could range from more blockbusters like Worthington’s own Clash of the Titans in 2010 and Disney’s Tron: Legacy later that year, to raunchy R-rated comedies and genre movies that took the piss out of what could rightly be perceived as a gimmick by some observers, as seen in A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas in 3D (2011) and Piranha 3D (2010). Even auteurs who would later dread what a focus on IP brands like Marvel and Star Wars would do to the industry, experimented with 3D as an extension of art, as seen in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011) and Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013).

And sure enough, there were those who did exploit it solely as a gimmick that created a premium surcharge to be placed on ticket prices, inflating box office grosses for the studio if not necessarily audience enjoyment. Quickie low-budget fad-chasers like Saw 3D were certainly guilty of this, although if we’re being honest, what likely burned audiences out on 3D was more the big budget studio tentpole movies where the 3D was treated like an afterthought, including many of the Marvel movies of the 2010s, such as all three Captain America movies, the first two Thor films, the first Ant-Man, and both of Joss Whedon’s Avengers. These were movies that were shot with traditional two-dimensional cameras and converted in post-production in an often harried manner to take advantage of those 3D ticket prices.

Speaking entirely anecdotally, what killed 3D for critics was turning up a half-dozen times a year for big studio movies where 3D glasses were mandatorily handed out, and their sole benefit appeared to be a dimming of the already gray-washed film’s color palette. 

An Escape with No Exit

In a nutshell, it’s demonstrably false to suggest Avatar had no impact on the culture, be it among fandom communities or in how folks simply experienced going to the movies. Even to this day in Orlando, Avatar has as big a presence at DisneyWorld as Star Wars does, with many attendees seeming to admire the nightly bioluminescence for its artistic beauty more than the faux-rust stains on the walls at Galaxy’s Edge.

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