Virtually all of James Cameron’s films revolve around familial relationships. The Terminator and Aliens are about motherhood. Terminator 2: Judgment Day shifts the focus of the franchise to fatherhood. The Abyss and True Lies both center on marriage. All these relationships are present in the first two installments of Cameron’s planned five-part Avatar cycle – motherhood is prominent in the first film, fatherhood and marriage in the sequel – but the thread that runs most consistently through the series so far is brotherhood, a relationship Cameron has not previously foregrounded.
The hero of Avatar, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), has three brothers – biological twin Tommy, surrogate brother Norm Spellman (Joel David Moore), and Tsu’tey (Laz Alonso), brother by adoption into the Na’vi Omaticaya clan – all three of whom are initially favored over him, and all three of whom he ultimately supplants. Jake’s name (short for Jacob) evokes the Old Testament patriarch who dreamed of a stairway to heaven, an apt choice for a paraplegic whose dreams of flying are realized when he passes through “Hell’s Gate.” However, the Biblical Jacob is also known for stealing his brother’s birthright in one of the most famous fraternal feuds from the Book of Genesis.
The plot of Avatar is set in motion when Jake receives the “birthright,” so to speak, of his twin brother Tommy. Jake is a former Marine; Tommy was a scientist, who was supposed to travel through space to the alien world Pandora and transfer his consciousness into an “avatar” – a synthetic body resembling those of the planet’s nine-foot-tall blue natives, the Na’vi – that was grown from his DNA. However, Tommy was killed in a mugging on Earth, and Jake, who is able to link with Tommy’s avatar because he shares Tommy’s DNA, is presented with the opportunity to go to Pandora in his stead. There is something faintly Christlike about the substitution that takes place, with Tommy’s death enabling Jake to go to a heavenly new world in his place. (“Jesus, Tommy,” Jake mutters when he sees the body.) However, Tommy’s name and familial relationship to Jake more directly evoke the Biblical Thomas, “the Twin,” who is best known for doubtfully demanding physical proof of the resurrection of Christ. Although the film gives us little information about Tommy’s personality, we might infer – based on the characterization of the other scientists in the film as skeptics – that he was something of a doubter himself.
When Jake reaches Pandora, the implied contrast between the Sully brothers – Jake the soldier, over and against Tommy the scientist – plays out through Jake’s relationship with his fellow new arrival, Norm Spellman. The film positions Norm, who is also a scientist, as a proxy for Tommy, and we can infer that they worked together from the first thing Norm says upon meeting Jake: “You’re Jake, right? Tom’s brother. Wow! You look just like him.” We might see Jake and Norm as a pair of surrogate brothers – one a soldier, one a scientist – under their surrogate mother figure, Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), the head scientist on Pandora. The first time Jake and Grace interact, she immediately compares him unfavorably with Tommy: “I know who you are and I don’t need you. I need your brother. You know, the PhD who trained for three years for this mission.” Unsurprisingly, just as Grace favors Tommy over Jake, she favors Norm over Jake. She is impressed by the intellectual knowledge Norm has gleaned from his studies of Pandora and derides the comparatively ignorant Jake as a “jarhead” and “moron.” However, the Great Mother Eywa chooses Jake, not Norm – and despite her initial perplexity, surrogate mother Grace gradually follows suit, causing Norm to act out like a jealous brother.
Upon meeting with the Omaticaya clan, Jake quickly comes into conflict with Tsu’tey, who is not a scientist like Norm and Tommy but a warrior like himself. This is not to say that these two brothers meet on an even playing field, though. As a native Na’vi, not an avatar, Tsu’tey is automatically favored over Jake by the clan – and as if that were not enough, he is in line to become the next chieftain, and is betrothed to Neytiri (Zoë Saldana), with whom Jake falls in love. Tsu’tey aggressively opposes the clan’s acceptance of the outsider Jake – “You are not my brother!” – and discourages his training in the ways of the Na’vi. In the end, though, Jake wins Tsu’tey’s birthright as the leader of the clan, along with the love of Neytiri. Moreover, he wins Tsu’tey’s respect: “We were brothers,” he says with his dying breath.
In The Way of Water, Jake has become a father, and the dynamics of fraternal rivalry play out amongst his sons. Jake has two biological sons: Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), the elder, and Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), the younger. Neteyam is the more obedient and responsible of the two sons, and he also appears to be a biologically “pure” Na’vi, with three fingers like the rest. Lo’ak is more rebellious, and his four fingers mark him as an outsider, the hybrid offspring of a human avatar and a Na’vi. When Neteyam and Lo’ak disobey his orders, Jake gives Lo’ak the harsher punishment and overrides Neteyam’s attempts to stand up for his little brother. “You have to stop taking the heat for this knucklehead,” he says – an echo of Grace derisively describing him as a “jarhead.” It is somewhat ironic that Jake favors Neteyam, given that he himself was much more like the hardheaded Lo’ak when he was younger. Lo’ak increasingly comes to see himself as an outcast who his father does not understand, but in the end, it is Neteyam who dies, while Jake and Lo’ak reconcile in their shared grief, with the father finally saying, “I see you, son.”
Much of the action in The Way of Water, including the lengthy climax, takes place at “Three Brothers Rocks.” Because Sully only has two sons, the significance of the name does not immediately register – but the film does indeed end with a set of three brothers.
Over the course of the film, Lo’ak bonds with the Tulkun whale Payakan, who becomes his “spirit brother.” Lo’ak empathizes with Payakan because they are both outcasts, estranged from their families. Payakan’s missing fin, lost in an altercation with human whalers, sets him apart from the other Tulkun, just as Lo’ak is singled out because of his four fingers.
Lo’ak’s other adopted brother is the human child Spider (Jack Champion), who is also an outsider. Although Spider grows up spending all his time with the Sully children, Neytiri shuns him as an “alien” and Jake largely ignores him, likening him to a “stray cat” picked up by the kids rather than thinking of him as a son of his own. Matters are further complicated by the fact that Spider is actually the biological son of Jake’s nemesis, Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang).
In a hostage standoff with Quaritch near the end of the film, Neytiri threatens to kill Spider as revenge for the loss of Neteyam: “A son for a son.” However, Jake ultimately embraces Spider and brings him into the Sully family as an adopted son and brother to Lo’ak, filling the place of Neteyam and redemptively changing the meaning of Neytiri’s words: “A son for a son.” Spider, the outsider, takes the place of Neteyam, the favored son – just as Jake took the place of Tommy at the beginning of the first film. Jake goes from being a father who (intentionally or not) pits his sons against each other in a competition for his approval to a father who brings his sons together as brothers.
Over and against Quaritch’s denial of kinship with Spider on the grounds that “We’re not even the same species,” the film concludes by bringing representatives of three different species together as brothers at “Three Brothers Rocks”: one Na’vi, one human, and one Tulkun. In Avatar, Neytiri tells Jake that “Our Great Mother does not take sides,” but when it comes to fraternal rivalries, it seems that Eywa favors the underdogs – as does James Cameron. Avatar and The Way of Water both vindicate the less favored son, but more than that, they move beyond the logic of feuds to bring about healing and reconciliation, extending brotherly love to include even those who are not brothers by birth.