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‘Avatar’ Should Remain a Box Office Beacon of Hope

‘Avengers: Endgame’ is unlikely to dethrone the 10-year-old Best Picture nominee on the worldwide box office chart, and both Disney and moviegoers should be happy about that.
By  · Published on June 17th, 2019

After 54 days of release, Avengers: Endgame has grossed $2.743 billion at the box office worldwide. That’s the combined total of $830.7 million from domestic release (still second place, about $100 million behind Star Wars: The Force Awakens for non-inflation numbers; 17th place on the all-time adjusted chart) and $1.912 billion from foreign markets (also second place, about $100 million behind James Cameron’s Avatar). The Avengers sequel is now just $45.5 million away from reaching Avatar‘s worldwide box office record of $2.788 billion. But it’s unlikely to get there, and that’s a good thing.

At least Endgame basically has genuine runner-up status now, given that the Marvel Cinematic Universe installment has indeed passed the original global gross of Cameron’s Titanic with its domestic portion adjusted for inflation ($2.684 billion). However, with its 3D and 20th-anniversary rerelease (in 2012 and 2017, respectively) figures added in, Titanic balloons up to $2.749 billion. Endgame will pass that shortly, too. Speaking of inflation adjustments, Avatar‘s global total is more like $2.892 billion — or, if we add the padding from the 2010 Special Edition rerelease, $2.904 billion.

Maybe there’s a way for Disney to launch Endgame to the box office crown. Target the hardcore Marvel fans and/or the hardcore Avatar haters and make a mission out of it and campaign hard. Perhaps there’s a way to get the last bit of needed grosses when Spider-Man: Far From Home comes out? Captain Marvel got a minor boost when Endgame opened, so there could be a little increase from the MCU tie-in. But, really, everyone who has wanted to see the Avengers sequel has seen it enough. One guy has even seen it more than enough (116 times!). It’s finally fallen out of the weekend top 10. It’s making less and less overseas. And anyway Disney has enough on its plate right now. They’re focused on another endgame with the seemingly conclusive Pixar animated sequel Toy Story 4 out this week. Then there’s the “live-action” Lion King remake out in a month. Besides, now that Disney owns the Avatar franchise, the studio should want to maintain its status.

With multiple Avatar sequels on the way from Cameron himself, Disney ought to keep the first movie atop the box office throne. Doing so will continue its legacy as the most popular movie in the world ever (or at least the most successful and thereby apparently most popular). That significance will only help in appealing to audiences come December 17, 2021, when Avatar 2 is due in theaters and it can be marketed as the sequel to the highest-grossing movie of all time. If Avatar is dethroned by Endgame, it won’t necessarily be forgotten but it will lose its prominence.

And the loss wouldn’t just be for Disney, which wins either way and would probably find other reasons to get people in seats for more Avatar movies. But like it or not, Avatar is still an original movie, not a sequel nor based on any preexisting material. For the world to have an original movie as the all-time highest-grossing release, that gives some hope that we’re not a planet of people preferring only explicitly familiar things. The achievement of Avatar may be a rare phenomenon — the next original product on the chart ranks 37th: Disney’s Zootopia. If Endgame takes the crown, Hollywood will trust and argue that the world favors sequels.

At least with Endgame on top, it’d be a reminder — or should be — that we are fine with sequels if they’re actually good. The movie’s Rotten Tomatoes score is 94%, making it one of the best-reviewed global favorites ever (and 20th best-reviewed movie of the year). All of the top 10 titles on the worldwide box office chart have positive RT scores, in fact. Jurassic World, in sixth place, is lowest with a 72%. Its sequel, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, is the first rotten-scoring movie on the chart, where it ranks 13th. The best is Black Panther, which has a 97% score and is the 10th highest-grossing movie of all time. It’s obvious that we don’t just want more helpings of big franchises, but those in the MCU, Star Wars, Fast & Furious plus Cameron’s Avatar and Titanic meet certain quality standards.

This is something evident with the dismal non-Endgame box office results of late, too. Moviegoers didn’t just skip Men in Black: International and Shaft over the weekend because they’re sequels, but both bombs received mostly negative reviews. The same goes for Dark Phoenix (which dropped a whopping 73% in its second weekend) and Godzilla: King of the Monsters, neither of which are hits. Meanwhile, the top-grossing movies of 2019 so far — almost midway through — are primarily well-reviewed fare. Domestically and worldwide. Disney has been able to get away with exceptions, namely with the live-action remakes Aladdin and Dumbo, and they’ll be knocking out the other outlier, the poorly reviewed Glass, when Toy Story 4 makes all the money this weekend.

The same was true of last year. Of the top 10 domestic best box office titles, eight are fresh on RT, the two exceptions being Fallen Kingdom and The Grinch. Worldwide, seven of the titles are mainly well-reviewed, with Venom and Fantastic Beats: The Crimes of Grindelwald joining the Jurassic World sequel on the rotten side. Some franchises are just going to do well regardless of critical response (and I’d say none of them were entirely worthless vacant entertainments). Yes, Disney, particularly via Marvel and Pixar, has been responsible for most of the consistent quality blockbusters, but even Warner Bros. did better with its DC Comics movies when making them better, with Aquaman and Shazam! Fox did better with the X-Men franchise when making better movies, a la Deadpool 2. Sequels to How to Train Your Dragon and Mission: Impossible similarly soared by being top notch animated and action films, respectively.

No studio means to make bad movies, of course. But they can try harder to make great ones and then settle for them being good, as we tend to do. The greatest ones won’t always catch the lightning (especially if they’re comedies, which just don’t do so well at the box office anymore, good or bad, but also in cases like The Kid Who Would Be King). Most of the time, the general audience agrees with critics on the biggest hits, at least if they’re as black and white as fresh or rotten. Men in Black: International wasn’t just the worst opener of the MIB franchise, but it also has the lowest CinemaScore grade. Dark Phoenix had the same distinction. Strangely enough, Shaft received an ‘A’ from fans via CinemaScore, so perhaps that one deserved to do better. Endgame, meanwhile, had an ‘A+’ grade on top of its terrific reviews, making it a worthy hit, maybe even worthy of being a bigger one than Avatar.

Here are the weekend’s top 12 domestic release titles by the estimated number of tickets sold with new and newly wide titles in bold and totals in parentheses:

1. Men in Black: International – 3.3 million (3.3 million)
2. The Secret Life of Pets 2 – 2.7 million (10.3 million)
3. Aladdin – 1.9 million (29.3 million)
4. Rocketman – 1.05 million (7.4 million)
5. Dark Phoenix – 1.04 million (5.8 million)
6. Shaft – 0.99 million (1 million)
7. Godzilla: King of the Monsters – 0.98 million (10.5 million)
8. John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum – 0.7 million (16.5 million)
9. Late Night – 0.6 million (0.6 million)
10. Avengers: Endgame — 0.414 million (92.2 million)
11. Ma — 0.413 million (4.5 million)
12. The Dead Don’t Die – 0.3 million (0.3 million)

All non-forecast box office figures via Box Office Mojo.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.