The 2020s will see Disney alternate between releasing Avatar sequels and new Star Wars movies each December, but the former will be bigger.
Disney has major plans for the Avatar franchise, beginning with the release of Avatar 2 in 2022, and the series could even be bigger than Star Wars in the 2020s. Disney's takeover of 21st Century Fox was completed in March 2019, bringing them, among other things, a wealth of new movie and TV IPs. Much of the focus in that regard has, rather understandably, been on what this means for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which will gain major characters like the Fantastic Four and X-Men, but for Disney it's Avatar that represents the prize new asset.
Not only have they inherited what was, until Avengers: Endgame, the highest grossing movie of all time, but it's a franchise that has a total of four sequels lined-up, all of which are coming from one of the greatest (and most profitable) blockbuster movie directors of all time. Add-in the potential for brand synergy - Avatar was part of Disney Parks' Animal Kingdom even before the Fox deal - and presumably other tie-in opportunities, and it's a big win.
This comes at a time when Disney is really in need of a new franchise. Outside of Marvel, it's live-action properties have struggled on the big screen, including Star Wars (relatively speaking). While that will remain a cash cow for Disney for years yet, it could well be overtaken by Avatar over the next decade.
Avatar Is Bigger Than Any Star Wars Movie
As mentioned, Avatar was the highest grossing movie of all time, replacing another James Cameron film, Titanic, back in 2010. So far, its haul of $2.790 billion has only been beaten by Avengers: Endgame, and that doesn't seem likely to change anytime soon given each film's unprecedented levels of hype as event movies. What's more, Avatar is already bigger than any Star Wars movie ever made. Its box office total is considerably higher than the (admittedly still impressive) $2.068 billion pulled in by Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and even adjusted for inflation it still comes out on top: with those figures, Avatar remains in second place with $3.257 billion, comfortably ahead of the original Star Wars, which has $3.043bn. Star Wars obviously has far more proven longevity as a cinematic franchise, a bigger fanbase, and lots of successful tie-ins, but Avatar has shown it can best it at the box office by some distance.
Disney's Star Wars Movies Mostly Underperformed After The Force Awakens
Another reason to believe that Avatar will be bigger than Star Wars at the box office is that the latter has underperformed as a franchise in the Disney era, or at least most of the released movies have. Obviously that doesn't go for The Force Awakens, which brought the saga roaring back to life. One of the most anticipated movies of all time - with a flawless marketing campaign behind it - the film's $2 billion-plus gross was initially seen as a sign of things to come. The goodwill generated by The Force Awakens (it's worth remembering that getting fans back onboard wasn't an easy feat after the prequels) continued into Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which passed the $1 billion mark and suggested there was a viable big screen alternative to the Skywalker saga.
After that, though, things became a little murkier. The Last Jedi became the most divisive installment in the franchise, and while it's box office of $1.333 billion was no by means bad, it was a considerable drop-off from The Force Awakens. That led to a much bigger split in the fandom, and the negative response combined with a weak marketing campaign led to Solo becoming Star Wars' first box office failure, making just $393.2 million.
This was all then compounded by The Rise of Skywalker. This was the end of the Skywalker saga, and so should have been a celebration of over 40-years of cinema, rounding out one of the most beloved franchises in history. Avengers: Endgame, which had a similar task in completing the Infinity Saga, became the highest grossing movie ever, but The Rise of Skywalker was again divisive, and only just scraped past the $1 billion mark. There's no way to sell that other than The Rise of Skywalker being a disappointment, and part of a downward trend in general for Star Wars movies.
Avatar Sequels Have More Hype (& A Clearer Plan) Than Upcoming Star Wars Movies
The Avatar sequels are still some way off - Avatar 2 releases in December 2022, and Avatar 5 won't arrive until 2028, with other dates staked out in 2024 and 2026 - but there's already a fair level of hype and interest for the films. While Avatar hasn't been as fondly thought of in the past decade as its mammoth box office would suggest, Cameron is still a popular filmmaker, and there's a lot of intrigue as to what he'll do next with the franchise, especially in terms of its new technology. The various comments from cast and crew, alongside some lush concept art, all help to give a loose idea of what to expect from the first of many Avatar sequels, while still keeping the bigger details a mystery. By the time of release, Avatar 2 will have come full circle from the initial wave of interest to its dismissal to being a major part of pop-culture again, and that should see it succeed at the box office, even if it probably won't reach the heights of the first movie.
The same unfortunately cannot be said for Star Wars. While just about everything else to do with the franchise has been well-received, from TV shows to video games, books, and comics, the big screen future is uncertain. While there may be a releases dated for the Decembers of 2023, 2025, and 2027, it's still not known what those upcoming Star Wars movies actually are, and there's little sign of an announcement coming soon. Contrast that to the likes of Marvel and DC, who have detailed slates fans are extremely excited for, and it's hard to be excited for more Star Wars movies because there's nothing concrete to actually discuss or look forward to. Combined with the general sense of despondency among the fanbase following the trifecta of controversial releases in The Last Jedi, Solo, and The Rise of Skywalker, and there's not a huge deal of optimism to be found.
Avatar Sequels Can Be Bigger Than Star Wars
Although the Avatar sequels likely won't match the record-breaking success of the first movie (not least because there isn't the same boost guaranteed from 3D screenings), it should still prove to be one of the biggest franchises of the 2010s. It'd be a surprise if Avatar 2 didn't at least get close to, if not pass, the $2 billion mark, with a chance of surpassing The Force Awakens' haul in the process. How well the following movies perform will likely depend on the reception to that, but if Avatar 2 is even just fairly well-received, then Avatar 3 will likely be a $1 billion movie as well. Things could all trend downward with the next films, but there'll at least be wiggle room to adjust.
Star Wars is harder to predict because of the aforementioned uncertainty. While the odds are that the next Star Wars movie will pass the $1 billion barrier as well, especially as it'll benefit from a substantial break after The Rise of Skywalker, the relative underperformance of the recent movies means it's not as much of a guaranteed hit, and will struggle to soar to the same heights that Avatar 2 has the potential of reaching. If it can have the same impact on the franchise that The Force Awakens did, then that could change its fortunes around, but that's harder to repeat when Disney is re-launching something from its own failings, while the fanbase, while big, is also more volatile than that of, say, Marvel. Star Wars will still be big, of course, but as Disney looks to the next decade, the Avatar sequels will be even bigger.