On Friday afternoon, Valerie — who spoke on the condition that only her first name be used because she would like to avoid unwanted publicity — will attend a matinee showing of “Avatar: The Way of the Water,” wearing blue-on-blue striped pants and a tank top (yes, even in December temperatures in Iowa) to show off her tattoo, which emulates the skin of the franchise’s Na’vi people. For years, Valerie has joked that she is “like, one of two fans” of the original “Avatar.” But for once, she’s hoping, she won’t be the lone die-hard. For once, she hopes, she will be surrounded by people who know instantly what the ink on her shoulder is all about.
James Cameron’s “Avatar,” released in 2009, followed disabled Marine Jake Sully as he explored a lush, gorgeous alien world called Pandora by brain-linking with a member of its native species, the Na’vi. The film raked in nearly $3 billion globally, partly thanks to people like Valerie, who saw it six times in theaters while in college. And 28-year-old Seth Wright in Charlotte, who saw it eight times. (“Five of those were in 3D, and three of them were in standard.”) And TJ Hedges, a 30-year-old in Central Texas who went a whopping 10 times.
Then, it became something of a joke — maybe because of the long, fits-and-starts wait for a sequel. Back in 2010, it was coming in 2014. 2014 came; 2014 went. Then 2015. Then 2016. Then, in 2017, it was announced that four more sequels would be arriving, the first in 2020. 2020 came, and … well, you know what happened to everything that was supposed to happen in 2020. In the meantime, the general public’s wide-eyed wonder at the original’s ambitious world-building curdled into cynicism; by the time Valerie grew up and got co-workers, she quickly learned it was a film many of them loved to hate.
“Avatar: The Way of Water” finally arrives in theaters on Friday, a reality common wisdom held would never materialize. But the Avatar faithful never doubted. They have been unwaveringly hopeful as they have waited (and waited) for this particular Friday to arrive.
Thirteen years, after all, is an almost-scandalous amount of time to wait for a sequel, both by Hollywood standards and life-expectancy standards: Matt Laing, a 26-year-old fan from Durham, N.C., saw the original half his life ago. In between, he watched the film a few times every year — and this fall, he joined Kelutral, a global organization for fans. Every day, the analytical chemist posts memes and jokes to the group’s Discord, and lately, he has been hyping up the other 2,000 members for the sequel’s release. He and another member he has befriended race to be the first to tag each other every day. “We’re like, ‘Eleven days to go.’ ‘Ten days to go,’” Laing says with a laugh.
One in-person Kelutral meetup was featured in 2021 on HBO’s “How To With John Wilson”: A handful of fans in New York got together to talk about aspects of the movie and practice speaking Na’vi. (A functional constructed language, thanks to linguistics consultant Paul Frommer.) One segment showed the fans, Wright among them, comforting each other in the depression that sometimes results from finishing the movie and having to engage with the real, non-Pandora world again.
For Hedges, a part-time eBay reseller, the “Avatar” community has been a crucial social tool. “In kindergarten, you could be like, ‘I have this Avatar toy,’ and someone else would be like, ‘I like Avatar, too,’ and you could make friends that way,” Hedges says. “But as an adult, that’s a lot harder. That’s why I like Kelutral — there’s a bunch of people with the same interest.”
Fan communities like Kelutral had a heyday in 2009, some fans say, then stagnated when the sequels failed to materialize. Mark Miller, a 59-year-old solutions engineer from Houston, is an administrator for the online fan group Learn Na’vi. In its first iteration, back in 2010, “we may have had as many as 4,000 or 5,000 people on there,” Miller says. “Now, obviously, it’s slowed.”
Kelutral originated there, before it declared independence two years ago. It still uses the language-learning resources that Learn Na’vi members developed, eventually with the help of Frommer himself. (In Na’vi, “Kelutral” means Hometree — a reference to one tribe’s ancestral home in the first film.)
Now, membership is ticking back up again, and the fan sites’ administrators are bracing themselves. Wright (Kelutral’s operations manager) and the rest of the group’s leadership have been streamlining community rules, making sure enough moderators are in place — essentially troll-proofing what he calls “the open, welcoming, inclusive culture we’ve fostered over the last 13 years.”
Later this month, several Kelutral members will make a pilgrimage to the Pandora park at Disney World after Christmas. Then, in January, Kelutral will host its yearly virtual fan convention, OmatiCon (a reference to Omaticaya, another Na’vi tribe). But until then, much of the celebration of “Avatar 2” will happen on the individual level. “I’m going to see the sequel at least three times, mostly because I’ve gotta drag family and friends,” Laing says.
Some have high expectations, especially given all the time they have had to think about it. They fully expect the special effects, a Cameron specialty, to dazzle. Many hope the franchise continues to drive home its environmentalist message. Valerie hopes the story will stay self-contained as the franchise moves forward, and “not like a Marvel movie” — that is, a movie requiring hours of auxiliary viewing to follow one plot line.
But to others, it barely matters whether the movie is any good.
“I’m not gonna lie, I cried when I saw the trailer,” Hedges says, and when he puts his hand to his chest, it lands on what he explains is a promo shirt from the 2009 theatrical run, Papyrus font and everything. It’s a delicate garment by now.
Hedges says he never doubted that Cameron would eventually deliver “Avatar 2.” He would have waited until he was 80. But when the first real glimpse arrived, he says, “I was just like” — his voice goes quiet and reverent for a moment — “‘I’m going back. It’s time to go back to Pandora.’”
This story has been updated.
This story initially stated that the fan organization Kelutral originated in the group Learn Na’avi before declaring independence five years ago. It was actually two years ago.