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 barrage of new elements to Pandora’s alien environment. There are various places to visit such as the home of the Metkayina, a reef-dwelling clan. There are strange species to meet, such as the whale-like tulkun. And there are unknown characters to meet, including the children of Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), the protagonists whose romance was chronicled in 2009 avatar.
But a fresh face has drawn more flinches than cheers. Miles Socorro (Jack Champion), a white boy who wears dreadlocks and is nicknamed “Spider,” isn’t a bloody Sully, but he’s trying his best to be one. Left as a baby on Pandora, he couldn’t return to Earth because he was too small to survive the journey. As 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 profusely and indulges in juvenile antics, running onto laboratory equipment and annoying as many characters – aliens and humans alike – as he can. Jake considers him a “stray cat”; Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), Jake and Neytiri’s adopted daughter of mysterious origins, calls him “monkey boy”. He’s basically Pandora’s Chet Hanks – or a little Tarzan, if you want to be more charitable.
But goofy as he is, Spider is an essential addition to the franchise. For real. In a way, he’s the new Jake, a human trapped in the Na’vi world. But Spider doesn’t have an avatar – a genetically engineered hybrid body that he uses to roam freely across Pandora – so he must navigate his habitat wearing an oxygen mask, always at a disadvantage compared to his blue friends. He is also the biological son of Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the hateful villain from the first film who set out to destroy Pandora and is resurrected in a new, improved Avatar form for the sequel. So Spider exists in a nebulous space when it comes to his identity. The descendant of the worst of humanity, he wishes to defy his origins, but is unable to fully participate in the culture he admires and, in the case of his crush on Kiri, reveres. He is different from everyone else The way of the waterand as such, it makes the film’s story as interesting to watch as the spectacle director James Cameron has taken so long to fine-tune.
Consider what Spider does in the final hour of the film as he saves Quaritch’s life – and then turns down the man’s offer to join him. The first choice likely contributed to Spider’s unpopularity, but both choices deepen the emotional stakes. Like the first avatar, The way of the water deals in part with how humans cannot help but ravage natural wonders; Unlike its predecessor, however, it is also interested in observing the dynamics of found families. Despite feeling the urge to save his birth father, Spider refuses to leave the Sullys behind. His presence makes both Quaritch and the Sullys more intriguing to follow: Quaritch is disappointed when Spider rejects him, and the Sullys will eventually have to process what Spider did. Also, Spider seems unsure of his own motives. Maybe he salvaged Quaritch out of pity. Perhaps his Na’vi upbringing taught him to value life at all costs.
Or maybe he’s starting to realize that no matter who’s in control, Pandora isn’t paradise. Spider is a naive teenager in love with a culture he only thinks he understands and desperately needs to grow up. In the final showdown between Quaritch and the Sullys, he appears to be doing just that. During the fight, Spider becomes the Observer – too small to deal much damage but close enough to realize just how dangerous the Sullys can be, especially Neytiri. In one scene, Cameron points the camera at Spider’s face and lets us observe how Spider’s perspective on her changes from being in awe of her ability to fearing her intensity. When she threatens his life in order for Quaritch to let go of their child, something about Spider falls apart for her.
That doesn’t mean that his attitude towards the Na’vi will change completely. The way of the water ends before he can examine the aftermath of Jake and Quaritch’s fight, but the film offers clues to the personal stakes that will come for these characters. The first avatar worked so well because its eye-catching visuals were paired with familiar, even predictable, storytelling beats. In Spider, Cameron created someone who has the potential to help maintain that balance in the sequels. His growth could result in either a hero’s journey or a turn towards darkness – or maybe something in between, especially if his interest in Kiri blossoms into something more.
Of course, I can’t in good conscience defend a character whose vibe, as my colleague David Sims put it in his review, is “a little questionable.” But as annoying as Spider can be, and as repetitive and testy as his dialogue gets, I saw him as a secret weapon — at least for showing off the film’s effects. Scenes featuring him, a character played without the use of motion capture technology, look seamless despite his interactions with the Na’vi. In the end, Spider might be the perfect supporting character for a movie like The way of the water. Like the waves lapping the shores of the Metkayina, it’s able to subtly brush up on history and landmarks.