With more than three hours of movie, Avatar: The Way of Water is bursting at the seams with life on Pandora. That makes sense for a movie with three planned sequels hopefully (but not certainly) on the way; there’s a lot of sci-fi world to build out, and a whole new generation of Na’vi kids to get us to that future!
The most controversial of these new characters is Spider (Jack Champion), a human boy who was too young to cryo-sleep his way back to Earth, and thus grew up among Na’vi on Pandora. Through him, a lot of Avatar 2’s themes of identity, respect for nature, and belonging get filtered. So there’s a lot riding on his character and... maybe, maybe he’s not good?
Look, we’re not sure; there’s a lot of debate here at Polygon HQ. As such, we’ve done a full investigation, and we’re here to present our evidence: Spider, yea or nay?
Zosha: Look, I get it; no one is here to simply dunk on a child who’s really going through it, watching his closest friends lose everything as they work to defend their planet against alien invaders. But also: Spider kind of sucks! He sucks! He is supposed to be the main human we connect with, who sees Pandora the way the Na’vi (and we) see it. And as a perspective character, he is distractingly irritating. I get that he’s just out there doing his best like the rest of us, but The Way of Water doesn’t make the best case for following him for three more sequels.
Patches: Spider is a lonely boy who found new life under the wing of man-turned-Na’vi Jake Sully. And he really tries to hold his own. The kid hunts, he swings through trees, he hisses when hissing is appropriate, and he detests violent Sky People. When earthlings arrive back on Pandora, his entire world comes crashing down. Who is Spider? The Way of Water only begins to answer that question.
Presentation of evidence
Zosha, the case against Spider: He is annoying! The worst type of archetype for stories like this. Clearly last in the Avatar 2 kid rankings just because he is grating and doesn’t get a ton to do beyond being an assist.
Patches, in defense of Spider: We need to give Spider time. Would I be the annoying kid who butts into every conversation and gets overly clingy with my neighbors if my father died while nuking an entire race of aliens and left me to grow up with bitter human leftovers? Probably! He is definitely the cast-in-season-7-younger-brother-to-boost-ratings little brother of the Sully family, but I’m pulling for Jack Champion to be more Leonardo DiCaprio on Growing Pains than Cousin Oliver on The Brady Bunch. In my opinion, Spider calling human Marines “buttholes” should actually win him points.
Zosha, the case against Spider: I’ve been around long enough to say that the fact that one of our first scenes with him involves him having a crush on Kiri worries me. It is at best boring for both of them, and at worst actively going to make their characters annoying (a hit he cannot take).
Patches, in defense of Spider: Spider and Kiri certainly have a flirtatious thing going, and I can only imagine what those days on set were like for Champion, who was probably around 15 at the time, and Sigourney Weaver, who, despite playing a teenager, was inching toward 70. God bless James Cameron and his beautiful vision for young extraterrestrial love. That said, yes, there could be an irritating sitcom logic to the Spider-Kiri romance in Avatar 3 and beyond, or maybe the Eywa of it all will make it a more transformative relationship for both of these two orphans! They have a lot of growing to do over the intended course of this series, and I’m rooting for my bro Spider to learn that his hormones aren’t everything, as so many of us young men learned when we were jumping around the Hallelujah Mountains in our teen years.
Zosha, the case against Spider: His Na’vi? Not great! James Cameron could get these kids to hold their breath for several minutes at a time, but he couldn’t get a few more Na’vi Duolingo sessions in?
Patches, in defense of Spider: No, Spider isn’t rattling off “rutxe” or “irayo” or “oel ngati kameie” with the grace of an Omaticaya princess, but let’s give the guy credit for meeting the Na’vi on their level instead of yipping about yelling, “UH, ENGLISH, POR FAVOR?” like an ignorant American slob. He has a deep respect for the Na’vi and wants to learn their ways. And Cameron wisely throws in a scene where he drags Clone Quaritch’s ass for barking broken Na’vi, proving that the kid is at least not the worst foreign speaker on the moon.
Zosha, the case against Spider: This is extratextual, and not Spider’s fault, but as the sole human operating around a bunch of CGI’d Na’vi, he tends to stand out a little extra, in the wrong ways, in Avatar 2’s HFR. Nothing personal, but it doesn’t reflect well on him.
Patches, in defense of Spider: On top of looking kinda like Justin Bieber in a loincloth, Jack Champion has the ultimate baggage in The Way of Water: being the only character who does not get a sweet CG upgrade. He’s basically in Who Framed Roger Rabbit but with more swimming. I think you’ll see the light on Spider once he gets a few more action moments in Avatar 3. HFR will look better on his ho-hum human flesh once he’s leading the human resistance for Jake Sully or, potentially, having his Anakin Skywalker moment and turning to the dark side. So if what you were saying is “give Spider more screen time,” yeah, couldn’t agree more.
Zosha, the case against Spider: I understand that technically Spider is a prisoner of war. But because he also has to be a sympathetic perspective character, Avatar 2 necessitates that he just be present for a lot of war crimes. At first he’s upset, sure; then he’s just... kind of overwhelmed? He does a terrible job stopping those houses from getting torched!
Patches, in defense of Spider: Please remember that Spider has a bomb in his helmet, and if he tries to do anything, his mask falls off and he suffocates to death! The kid is helpless, and he at least convinces the human avatar contingent not to straight-up murder anyone. Spider is stuck in a David-and-Goliath situation, except Goliath is a clone of the dead father he never knew. Points to him for weaponizing Dad Feels!
Zosha, the case against Spider: And after all that he is still willingly, obligingly going along to see how the Sky People are massacring the space whales. Doesn’t sit right with me! Those scenes just don’t have enough emotion from Spider to really communicate the depths of his identity struggles, so he just seems weirdly interested — even complicit! — in harming these sick-ass majestic animals.
Patches, in defense of Spider: Spider has so much to overcome in The Way of Water. His entire world has been turned upside down, and after being kidnapped, it turns out that his Clone Dad isn’t all that bad. These are complex human emotions that the original Avatar really did not have time for, and we’ve only seen Act I. I try to put myself in his shoes (uh, if he wore shoes): If I were 15 and being dragged along on a whale hunting expedition, I would probably be morally offended but not have the courage to derail the entire operation. Easier said than done. Gawking like a dork seems like a proper human failure. But he does end up seizing control of the boat and ramming it into a jagged rock — good on our boy Spider!
Zosha, the case against Spider: Look, for whatever in-universe explanation we can have for Spider’s hair, the fact of the matter is that he looks like a white boy with dreads who they wanted to have a Tarzan look for. Instead, it’s just kind of a bad wig that looks like a mop. Obnoxious.
Patches, in defense of Spider: [Googles “white people dreadlocks why”] Hmm, I guess this is what happens when you spend too much time with surf bros?
Zosha, the case against Spider: All that being said, it’s kind of weird how the movie never finds the time to acknowledge how fucked up Neytiri threatening to kill him is, and how Jake making him “part of the family” doesn’t... fix... any of that? It undermines the possibilities his story presents about his relationship to his environment, history, and identity.
Patches, in defense of Spider: Neytiri doesn’t just threaten Spider — she frickin’ slices his chest! Hardcore. And no, it’s not dealt with at all, but the seeds for more interesting drama are there. Cameron peppers the first hour with Neytiri’s hostility, and then has Spider save Clone Quaritch in a pivotal final scene. There’s more to this story, and instead of finding that lack of closure to be flattening of Spider, I see it as the No. 1 rule in show business: Always leave them wanting more! And we want more Spider.
Zosha, the case against Spider: America can, should, must, and will do better with our cloying child characters.
Patches, in defense of Spider: Let Spider pet a tulkun.