'Avatar' and 9 of the Biggest December Box Office Hits of All Time – Collider

Forget summer blockbusters: winter is where it’s at.
Image via Disney
With Avatar: The Way of Water just on the horizon, many have been wondering how much money this long-awaited spectacle needs to make at the box office to break even. After all, it’s no secret that the original Avatar film was a massive success, and the monumental numbers of the inaugural film in this reportedly (soon-to-be) lengthy franchise indeed put some pressure on an end-of-year release to make it big.
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December may not be when everyone is thinking about going to the movies, but that doesn’t mean everything released in the last month of the year is doomed to fail. With so many successful films released in December, summer blockbusters no longer have to be the standard for big studios and giant franchises. From successes such as Spider-Man: No Way Home and Titanic, it's repeatedly proven that audiences will go to see their most anticipated releases no matter what time of year.
Revitalizing the massive following of the original Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey brings the original J.R.R. Tolkien novel to the big screen when Bilbo Baggins is requested by the great wizard Gandalf to accompany a ragtag group of dwarves in an adventure to reclaim The Lonely Mountain.
With acclaimed director Peter Jackson returning to lead the project, alongside reprisals from Martin Freeman and Ian McKellan, it's not hard to see why this initial Hobbit film was so successful. With much of the same whimsy, magic, and sense of adventure the original trilogy holds, An Unexpected Journey was a very expected hit.
Taking place at an unexplored but pivotal moment just before the original Star Wars trilogy, many were excited to see Rogue One in the Star Wars canon. Following a dangerous mission to infiltrate the Galactic Empire and steal plans for the planet-destroying Death Star, the fearless rebel group in this story sets the stage for Episode IV: A New Hope and the rest of the original trilogy.
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In 2016, Star Wars narratives outside of large, overarching trilogies were new and refreshing. Still relevant to what fans already love while providing something different and unique, Rogue One is notable innovation with its digital recreations of archival footage, something that has become standard in many high-budget productions.
In a controversial conclusion, Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker may not be the most beloved in the series, but critical success certainly doesn't have to equal commercial success. Here, Rey finds the threat of the resurrected Emperor Palpatine looming over the galaxy and faces off against Kylo Ren for the final time.
With so many questions on how the new Star Wars trilogy would end, it's no wonder why so many flocked to see this conclusion despite the mixed reception. Generally disliked for its incongruity, questionable plotting, and unsatisfying characterization, Episode IX still held its own at the box office and was a huge financial success for Disney.
A fantasy adventure film like no other, Return of the King is the final installment of the legendary Lord of the Rings series. Following a myriad of characters in their quest to defeat Sauron and destroy the One Ring, the trilogy comes to an explosive and climactic conclusion in this three-hour-long outing.
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Ubiquitous in the conversation on effective and engaging scale in film, Return of the King remains unparalleled within its genre in terms of scope, and the initial box office success remains prescient of the influence it would forever have on adventure epics.
Acting as a complete overhaul of the character's mythos, the lead star of Aquaman, Jason Momoa, channels the sea in this Atlantean origin story. In the end, he goes up against many massive underwater creatures in an explosive and fiery battle; what more needs to be said?
It may have seemed unlikely at the time, given the character's weak reputation among Justice League fans, yet Aquaman managed to far surpass its budget in theaters. Thanks in part to the direction of the legendary James Wan, it’s a ridiculous yet absolutely engaging amalgamation of bizarre scenes and choices, yet still works as pure entertainment.
When Rey discovers Luke Skywalker as a shell of his former self, she attempts to recruit him to the resistance and defeat Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Something happens in a casino too, but most people don’t remember that part.
Rian Johnson’s focus on subversion may have divided fans and critics alike at the time, but that didn’t stop The Last Jedi from being commercially successful. A fantastic fight sequence where Rey and Kylo join forces was worth the price of admission alone.
In a movie event anticipated for years, the third MCU Spider-Man outing does not fail to deliver on what it promises. When Peter Parker asks Dr. Strange to make his identity a secret to the world with magic, things go awry when the spell fails, and enemies from other universes come to exact revenge.
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It may have reached its monumental box office highs by being the blatant peak of fan service, but that isn't necessarily bad when the end result is this fun. Spider-Man: No Way Home leaves viewers with everything they could’ve ever wanted, packed to the brim with fan-favorite characters returning from all over the multiverse.
Through a veil of mystique and intrigue akin to the very first Star Wars film, Episode VII set an impressive tone for its sequels to follow. Focusing on a lowly scavenger Rey, the movie parallels A New Hope in its exploration of self-discovery and fighting oppressive forces.
There was no better recipe for a successful box office run than continuing the Star Wars legacy with a new trilogy. With no precedent and no expectations at the time, everyone who considered themselves even somewhat of a Star Wars fan needed to see what Disney had up their sleeves for this beloved franchise.
One of the most classic and acclaimed love stories ever shown to screen, Titanic follows a fictionalized romance on a historic (and tragically-fated) vessel. Leonardo DiCaprio as Jack and Kate Winslet as Rose are dynamic in their socially unaccepted love, building up to a memorable and disastrous finale that parallels what is true of the real Titanic ship.
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Perhaps the success of Titanic stemmed from the fresh take on Old Hollywood romance. Maybe it was the grand spectacle and retrospectively foreseeable consequences of boarding such a ship, or it was simply due to the two leads being attractive. Regardless, audience members came in droves to watch James Cameron's romantic epic, which stands as one of the highest-grossing films of all time.
At its core, Avatar is a film about connection, and that's exactly what it accomplished upon release. When marine Jake Sully enters the world of Pandora to look for resources, the Na'vi people and their kindness are ultimately found.
Being a visual juggernaut and impressing the world with its revolutionary special effects, James Cameron proved with Avatar that not every financial success needed to be backed by a popular intellectual property. It was a lightning-in-a-bottle triumph that remains relevant over a decade later.
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Cole Jackson is a Film and TV Lists Writer for Collider and has a long history in long form film critique, analytical essays, and goofy one-line reviews that seem to get the most likes. He also has background and stand-in work experience in Hallmark films and Air Bud productions (yes, he got to pet the dogs).


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