The “Avatar” sequel’s worst character actually does the movie a favor

This story contains major spoilers for the film Avatar: The Way of the Water.

Avatar: The Way of the Water, like any good world-building sequel, introduces a deluge of new elements to its otherworldly setting of Pandora. There are various places to visit, such as the home of the Metkayina, a fox-dwelling clan. There are strange species to meet, such as the whale-like tulkun. And there are unknown characters to get to know, including the children of Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), the main characters whose romance was chronicled in the 2009s Avatar.

But one fresh face has elicited more cringes than cheers. Miles Socorro (Jack Champion), a dreadlocked white boy nicknamed “Spider,” isn’t a Sully by blood, but he tries pretty hard to be. Abandoned as a baby on Pandora, he was unable to return to Earth because he was too small to survive the journey. Now a teenager, he wears only loincloths and paints blue stripes on his skin to more closely resemble the native Na’vi. He speaks the language, grunts a lot and indulges in juvenile antics, runs away on lab equipment, and annoys as many characters – both alien and human – as he can. Jake considers him a “stray cat”; Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), Jake and Neytiri’s adopted daughter with a mysterious origin, calls him “monkey boy”. He’s basically Pandora’s Chet Hanks—or a pint-sized Tarzan, if you want to be more charitable.

Still, as goofy as he can be, Spider is an important addition to the franchise. Really. In some ways, he is the new Jake, a human trapped in the Na’vi world. But Spider has no avatar—a genetically engineered hybrid body used to freely roam Pandora—so he must navigate his habitat with an oxygen mask, always at a disadvantage compared to his blue friends. He is also revealed to be the biological son of Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the hateful villain from the first film who attempted to destroy Pandora and who is resurrected for the sequel in a new, upgraded avatar form. Spider thus exists in a foggy space when it comes to his identity. He is the offspring of the worst of humanity and wants to resist his background, but he cannot fully participate in the culture he admires and, in the case of his crush on Kiri, loves. He is unlike anyone else in The way of the waterand as such, he makes the film’s story as interesting to watch as the spectacle director James Cameron spent so long fine-tuning.

Consider what Spider does in the last hour of the movie, when he saves Quaritch’s life – and then rejects the man’s offer to join him. The first decision probably contributed to Spider’s unpopularity, but both choices heighten the emotional stakes. Like the first one Avatar, The way of the water is partly about how humans can’t help but wreak havoc on natural wonders; however, unlike its predecessor, it is also interested in observing the dynamics of found families. Although he feels a pull to save his biological father, Spider refuses to leave Sully’s. His presence makes both Quaritch and Sullys more fascinating to follow: Quaritch is gutted when Spider rejects him, and Sullys will eventually have to process what Spider did. Also, Spider seems unsure of his own motives. Perhaps he restored Quaritch out of pity. Perhaps his upbringing with the Na’vi taught him to value life at all costs.

Or maybe he’s starting to see that Pandora isn’t paradise, no matter who’s in control. Spider is a naïve teenager in love with a culture he only thinks he understands, and who desperately needs to grow up. In the final showdown between Quaritch and Sullys, he seems to be doing just that. During the fight, Spider becomes an observer – too small to do much damage, but close enough to understand how dangerous Sullys can be, most of all Neytiri. In one scene, Cameron trains the camera on Spider’s face so we can see how Spider’s perspective on her shifts: He goes from being in awe of her ability to being scared by her intensity. When she threatens his life so that Quaritch will let go of her child, something in Spider’s regard for her breaks.

That doesn’t mean his attitude towards the Na’vi changes completely. The way of the water ends before it can explore the aftermath of Jake and Quaritch’s fight, but the film hints at the personal stakes to come for these characters. The first Avatar worked so well because the eye-catching graphics were combined with familiar, even predictable storytelling. In Spider, Cameron has created someone with the potential to help maintain that balance throughout the sequels. His growth could produce either a hero’s journey or a turn to darkness—or perhaps something in between, especially if his interest in Kiri blossoms into something more.

Of course, I can’t in good conscience fully defend a character whose vibe is, as my colleague David Sims put it in his review, “a little questionable.” But as grating as Spider can be, and as repetitive and petulant as his dialogue gets, I saw him as a secret weapon—at least to show off the film’s effects. Scenes involving him, a character performed without the use of motion-capture technology, look seamless despite how much he interacts with the Na’vi. Ultimately, Spider is perhaps the perfect supporting character for a film that The way of the water. Like the waves lapping along the shores of Metkayina, he is able to hone in on the history and sights.

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