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

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

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

But a fresh face has elicited more shivers than cheers. Miles Socorro (Jack Champion), a white kid who sports dreadlocks and goes by the nickname “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 a loin cloth and paints blue stripes on his skin to look more like the native Na’vi. He speaks the language, growls a lot and engages in juvenile antics, smearing lab equipment and annoying as many characters – alien and human – as he can. Jake considers him a “stray cat”; Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), Jake and Neytiri’s adopted daughter of mysterious origin, calls him “appboy”. He’s basically Pandora’s Chet Hanks—or a pint-sized Tarzan, if you want to be more charitable.

Still, as goofy as he is, 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’s also revealed to be the biological son of Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the hateful villain from the first film who tried to destroy Pandora and who resurrects for the sequel in a new, upgraded avatar form. The Spider thus exists in a murky 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, adores. He is unlike anyone else in The way of the waterand as such, he makes the film’s narrative as interesting to watch as the spectacle that director James Cameron spent so much time fine-tuning.

Consider what Spider does in the film’s final hour, 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 deepen the emotional stakes. Like the first one Avatar, The way of the water is partly about how humans can’t help but destroy 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 behind. 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. Maybe he brought Quaritch back 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 a paradise, no matter who’s in control. Spider is a naive teenager in love with a culture he only thinks he understands and is in desperate need of growing up. In the final showdown between Quaritch and Sullys, he seems to do just that. During the fight, Spider becomes an observer – too small to do much damage, but close enough to understand how dangerous the Sullys can be, especially Neytiri. In one scene, Cameron trains the camera on Spider’s face, so we can see how Spider’s perspective on her shifts changes: He goes from being in awe of her ability to being frightened by her intensity. When she threatens his life so that Quaritch will let go of his 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 of these characters. The first Avatar worked so well because its eye-catching visuals were paired with familiar, even predictable narrative beats. In Spider, Cameron has created someone with the potential to help maintain that balance through the sequels. His growth could provide either a hero’s journey or a turn to the dark—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 dubious.” But as embarrassing as Spider can be, and as repetitive and corny 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. In the end, Spider is perhaps the perfect supporting character for a film that The way of the water. Like the waves that wash over Metkayina’s shores, he can subtly polish the history and the sights.

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