The hero of Avatar might be Jake Sully, but the star was always Neytiri. When I rewatched the first movie as it returned to cinemas ahead of the sequel's opening, I realised Neytiri was the heart of the story. While you can make broad comparisons to Pocahontas et al, Avatar gets a bit of a bad deal for using derivative story tropes, of which it is no more guilty than most blockbusters. What makes Avatar great (and as the highest grossing movie of all time, by at least some measures of cinema, it is great) is the character work. Though they begin on the page in a writer's room as generic tropes, by the time they hit our screens they feel elevated and real. Nowhere is this more evident than Neytiri, and she needs to be the star of Avatar 3.
For a movie that runs to almost 200 minutes, it's disappointing how little Neytiri is in The Way of Water. The overall story of Avatar is that of her husband, but in the original movie she drove it forward. She compelled Jake to switch sides, and she represents the majesty and plight of the Na'vi. In the sequel, the focus switches to their children, with Jake still at the centre of the conflict. Even basic arcs of Neytiri's story (her rivalry with Ronal, her motherhood, her ability as a warrior) are pushed away as Avatar crams way too much storytelling into what is a fairly linear movie.
Neytiri's presence was a disappointment in The Way of Water. She arrives at important moments, but that often feels insulting. In the first movie, the world swirled on even when off-camera. Here, it feels like Neytiri was nowhere until she was right where the script needed her to be. Neytiri is the Avatar character. Most stories have at least one. It's why Batman stories keep going back to the Joker, why the MCU is struggling to navigate life without Iron Man, why Game of Thrones increasingly sidelined Sansa in order to elevate Arya. Certain characters, often for reasons unbeknownst to the writers, leap forward and mark themselves as the face of the story. Neytiri should be that character. The worst part is Avatar 2 knows Jake Sully is not it – he too is often sidelined as his children take centre stage. But in trying to engineer another, they ignore the one they already have.
Initially I was going to zoom in on the ways Avatar 2 fails Neytiri, but one of my colleagues (and major Avatar fan) argued that it was "not her movie" when I discussed it with him. He's correct, and while I wish it was, I do understand the decision to switch focus to the kids. I think it could have slowed down and allowed that story to breathe instead of rattling through generic beats to set up another Jake-led action set-piece, but I appreciate the movie's switch to the children and understand it's harder for Neytiri to get in. I wouldn't add much runtime to Avatar 2 and it's difficult to wedge her into existing scenes; beyond that, it's poor criticism to suggest the movie would simply be better if it was completely different, based on a few ideas I have. However, moving forward, she needs a lot more love.
It's highly likely that Kiri will be the star of Avatar 3, given that her parentage was teased but never answered, and glimpses of her ability to manipulate sea creatures. Odd then that she was given less screen time than many of her siblings, but at least that had the justification of marking her as an outsider. Neytiri is Avatar's shining sapphire, and whatever happens with Avatar 3 (and possibly with 4 and 5), Neytiri needs to be in the thick of the action. She's too good a character to be left out in the cold.
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