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Avatar: The Way Of Water Has The Same Jake Sully Problem As The Original

Warning: Spoilers ahead for "Avatar: The Way of Water."

After 13 years, "Avatar: The Way of Water" has brought viewers back to Pandora and into the life of ex-Marine-turned-full-time-blue-person Jake Sully (Sam Worthington). Reactions to "Avatar 2" have been strong, and for good reason — it's visually stunning, utterly immersive, and far better on the narrative front than its predecessor. In short, it's everything a sequel should be.

Given how much cutting-edge technology James Cameron brought to bear for the film, it should be no surprise that "The Way of Water" looks stunning, and unlike any other film ever made before. The real shock is that the story — the widely recognized weak point in the original — is actually pretty strong here as well. By leaping into the future and giving Jake and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) a whole family to look out for, "Avatar 2" adds several meaningful layers to the narrative. The result is a relatively simple but emotionally affecting story about parenthood, growing up, and protecting the things you love.

Unfortunately, "The Way of Water" is still built on the shaky foundation that is the original movie. This doesn't hurt the film too badly when it's focused on new characters or big cinematic set pieces, but it becomes glaringly obvious whenever Jake is back in the spotlight. While the reformed (or not?) jarhead is markedly better in the sequel, he can't escape the problems of his past. Despite its best efforts, "Avatar: The Way of Water" can't shake its predecessor's Jake Sully problem.

Jake Sully was always a bad protagonist

The sad fact is that Jake Sully is a terrible protagonist — and barely half a character — in the original "Avatar." Sam Worthington does his best to bring some life and charm to the ex-marine, but the material he's given to work with is just pitiful. For those who haven't seen the movie since its original release in 2009, let's do a little recap of Jake's character arc.

Paraplegic ex-marine Jake Sully arrives on Pandora to take the place of his scientist twin brother, whose avatar was fully completed before his untimely death. Jake is given the opportunity to learn the ways of the Na'vi, but he's actually spying on them for the Resources Development Administration. After spending three months without once mentioning the impending danger to their land, Jake is cast out by Neytiri when the humans bulldoze Hometree. He then tames a big bird that only five Na'vi in history have ever ridden (by ... flying ... above it?), immediately regains the full trust of the clan, and leads them to victory as their new chosen one.

Aside from being grossly white savior-y and pretty ableist, Jake's story just flat-out doesn't make sense. The only reason he's welcomed as a hero by the Na'vi is that he tames the toruk, but doing so is so simple that it drains the act of any weight. We learn nothing about his past besides his military service record, and we're never given a real reason to root for him. We're told that Jake is the main character, but he doesn't earn the title.

Avatar 2 can't fix Jake Sully

The good news is that Jake is way more interesting in "Avatar: The way of Water." The bad news is that the film can't fully fix his problems from the first film. Making Jake a protective father who's scared for his kids is a great move, and it leads to a far more compelling arc than the one gets in the first movie. But James Cameron still wants us to believe that Jake is the hero of heroes, and it just doesn't work.

The Sullys' arrival on the reefs of the Metkayina would have been a perfect opportunity to unpack some things from the first film. Clan leaders Ronal (Kate Winslet) and Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) are hesitant at first to let them stay, pointing out their mixed-blood features as a reason that they wouldn't fit in. However, they stop short of questioning Jake's legitimacy as a Na'vi leader. It would make sense for Ronal to ask some questions here: "Why are so many Na'vi following this guy? Didn't he just lie to us for three months and then ride a giant bird?" But posing those questions would be putting all of "Avatar" into question, which is something Cameron clearly isn't willing to do.

Yes, Jake humbles himself a bit and becomes more vulnerable in "Avatar 2," but it's not enough to redeem his character. He still refers to himself as a "dumb grunt," so why is he received like a legendary leader? Maybe Cameron just can't let go of the heroic space marine myth. But given how outright evil the RDA is, that message is confused at best.