The Avatar Sequel’s Worst Character Actually Does the Film a Service
A (partial) defense of the most ridiculous addition to the franchise
This story contains major spoilers for the film Avatar: The Way of Water.
Avatar: The Way of Water, like any good world-building sequel, introduces a deluge of new elements to its extraterrestrial setting of Pandora. There are different locations to visit, such as the home of the Metkayina, a reef-dwelling clan. There are strange species to meet, such as the whalelike 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 one fresh face has induced more cringes 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 quite hard to be. Left behind 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 loincloth and paints blue stripes on his skin to look more like the native Na’vi. He speaks the language, growls a lot, and indulges in juvenile antics, scampering onto lab equipment and annoying as many characters—alien and human alike—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-size Tarzan, if you want to be more charitable.
Yet, as goofy as he may be, Spider is an essential addition to the franchise. Really. In some ways, he’s the new Jake, a human caught up 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 with 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 sought to destroy Pandora and who is resurrected for the sequel in a new, upgraded avatar form. Spider thus exists in a nebulous space when it comes to his identity. He’s the offspring of the worst of mankind and wishes to resist his background, yet he cannot completely participate in the culture he admires and, in the case of his crush on Kiri, adores. He’s unlike anybody else in The Way of Water, and, as such, he makes the film’s story as interesting to watch as the spectacle the director James Cameron spent so long fine-tuning.
Consider what Spider does in the final hour of the film, when he saves Quaritch’s life—and then rejects the man’s offer to join him. The first decision has probably contributed to Spider’s unpopularity, but both choices deepen the emotional stakes. Like the first Avatar, The Way of Water is in part about how humans can’t help but lay waste to natural wonders; unlike its predecessor, however, it’s also interested in observing the dynamics of found families. Although he feels a pull to rescue his biological father, Spider refuses to leave the Sullys behind. His presence makes both Quaritch and the Sullys more fascinating to follow: Quaritch is gutted when Spider turns him down, and the Sullys will eventually have to process what Spider did. Besides, Spider seems unsure of his own motives. Perhaps he recovered Quaritch out of pity. Perhaps his upbringing with the Na’vi taught him to value life at all costs.
Or perhaps he’s beginning to see that Pandora is not paradise, no matter who’s in control. Spider is a naive teenager enamored with a culture he only thinks he understands, and who’s in desperate need of growing up. In the final showdown between Quaritch and the Sullys, he seems to do just that. During the fight, Spider becomes an observer—too small to deal much damage, but close enough to pick up on how dangerous the Sullys can be, most of all Neytiri. In one scene, Cameron trains the camera on Spider’s face, allowing us to watch how Spider’s perspective of 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 toward the Na’vi changes entirely. The Way of Water ends before it can explore the aftermath of Jake and Quaritch’s battle, but the film offers hints of the personal stakes to come for these characters. The first Avatar worked so well because its eye-popping visuals were paired with familiar, even predictable storytelling beats. In Spider, Cameron has created someone with the potential to help maintain that balance through the sequels. His growth could yield either a hero’s journey or a turn toward darkness—or maybe 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 the very least for showing 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 movie like The Way of Water. Like the waves lapping the Metkayina’s shores, he’s able to subtly polish the story and the sights.