Why Some Avatar 2 Critics Despise Cameron’s New Film

What are Avatar 2 critics saying about James Cameron’s new film? What are the problems with Avatar 2, according to critics?

With the release of Avatar 2, James Cameron has been accused of cultural appropriation and promoting a “white savior” narrative. Some indigenous activists have even called for a boycott of the film.

Read on for an explanation of the controversy and to learn exactly what some Avatar 2 critics are saying.

What Are the Criticisms of Avatar? 

In a recent Twitter storm, critics of Avatar 2 accused James Cameron of racism and cultural appropriation, with some indigenous American groups calling for a boycott of the film. Yuè Begay, co-chairperson of Indigenous Pride L.A., called the film “horrible & racist,” arguing that it appropriates indigenous cultures and promotes a “white savior” narrative. The original Avatar film, released in 2009, was similarly challenged, so it’s unlikely that this reaction was a surprise to anyone. 

And yet, despite the strong sentiment that they contain problematic themes and messages, both films in the series have been wildly successful at the box office—the original film set the record for the highest-grossing film of all time, and the recent sequel has surpassed $400 billion in ticket sales globally. Avatar was so beloved, in fact, that many viewers fell into a depressed state after seeing it, a phenomenon known by the pop-psychology moniker “Post-Avatar Depression Syndrome.” This resulted from a mismatch between people’s disappointment with the real world and the idyllic, dreamlike beauty of Pandora, the mythical planet on which the film takes place. 

So how is it that a film simultaneously evokes so much love and so much anger? What’s the controversy all about? In this article, we’ll look at the accusations made by the critics of Avatar 2 as well as the original film: cultural appropriation and the white savior complex.

What Is Cultural Appropriation?

Cultural appropriation is when members of a dominant cultural group use elements from a minority culture in ways that are disrespectful or exploitative. Since cultures borrow from one another all the time, it should be noted that what makes borrowing a cultural element problematic can be debatable—but it typically involves a few factors:

  • An unequal power dynamic between the borrower and the source
  • The borrower benefiting or profiting from the use in some way
  • A disregard for the sacred nature or historical context of the cultural element being used

So why do critics of Avatar 2 consider this a problem?

How Is Cultural Appropriation Harmful? 

A major problem with cultural appropriation is that it can result in widening the power gap between cultures where that gap is already disadvantageous for historically marginalized peoples. Often this is a result of the majority group using elements of a culture in a way that ridicules the culture it’s derived from or reduces cultural groups to stereotypes—for example, when someone dresses in a Halloween costume that creates an exaggerated caricature of a specific culture.

But those who defend cultural appropriation point out that cultures have always borrowed from one another. Cultural exchange, they argue, creates a richer and more colorful world. When we adopt elements from another culture, doesn’t that show that we like that aspect of the culture?

This raises the distinction between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. So, what’s the difference, and how can we distinguish between the two?

Appropriation vs. Appreciation

A representative of the Seminole Tribe of Florida says the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation comes down to being mindful that you’re honoring the culture. Some questions you can ask to determine whether your adoption of a cultural element is done in a way that honors the culture it comes from are:

  • Does this play into a stereotype?
  • Do I understand the complex history behind this element of culture, or am I just using it because it’s trendy?
  • Am I profiting or benefiting in some way from this?

Cameron acknowledges he drew inspiration for the Avatar films from indigenous North American and Brazilian cultures, saying the films are specifically meant to symbolically portray the colonization of the Americas by Europeans. He says, “Europe equals Earth. The Native Americans are the Na’vi. It’s not meant to be subtle.” He clearly borrowed elements such as clothing and hairstyles from Black and indigenous cultures, as well as using their stories. And he has most certainly capitalized on it, considering the wealth generated from the films.

Cameron challenged the critics of Avatar 2 and their accusations of cultural appropriation, however, by suggesting the films are meant to “honor and celebrate” indigenous cultures, rather than to exploit them, and he argues that his diverse cast informed and enriched the film and learned from one another. And, indeed, several of the Na’vi characters are portrayed by people of color.

So the Avatar issue may be controversial because it walks that fine line between appropriation and appreciation. But this brings us to the next question: What about the storyline? Why do critics of Avatar 2 and the original Avatar accuse Cameron of employing a white savior narrative?

What Is the “White Savior Complex?” 

The white savior complex refers to a narrative in which a white person (or white people as a group) must “rescue” people of color from their own situations, resting on the assumption that the white savior knows best what the non-white people need. This appears as a common trope in films, as well as in everyday interactions in society. In films, it usually manifests in white actors being more active and complex characters, while actors of color play more passive, supporting roles, even when people of color are a central focus of the story, for example in a movie about the civil rights movement. 

Although the Na’vi characters in both Avatar and Avatar 2 are meant to be aliens, critics argue that it’s clear they represent the oppressed culture. The films center on the hero, a white man (or, an Earthling, played by a white actor), having to save them from their plight, rather than the Na’vi being the heroes who save themselves. Other well-known movies that center on this trope include The Help and The Blind Side. In fact, movies that employ this theme are so numerous that there’s an entire Wikipedia page devoted to describing how it appears in over 70 major films from the 1950s to the present.

Although it’s fairly clear that Avatar’s message is meant to be anti-colonialist, Crystal Echo-Hawk, president of the Native women’s social justice organization Illuminative, says the problem is that the story is being told from the perspective of a white male. In other words, a white man is telling indigenous peoples’ story in the way he sees it, and he’s profiting from the telling. 

How Is the White Savior Narrative Harmful?

Prior to the release of Avatar 2, Cameron’s response to some of the critics of his earlier film hasn’t helped his case. In 2010, after the first film, he told The Guardian he was intentionally portraying the “plight” of Native Americans, saying “I couldn’t help but think that if they [the Lakota Sioux] had had a time window and they could see the future…because they were hopeless and they were a dead-end society…they would have fought a lot harder.” This statement places at least part of the blame for the destruction of indigenous cultures on the indigenous people themselves, contributing to further disempowering them and de-centering their voices. 

In addition to appearing as a trope in countless movies, the white savior complex can show up in many areas of society, in ways that are often overlooked, or even well-intentioned.

According to Black Equality Resources, white saviorism can be an underlying motive behind agendas of “inclusion.” This is commonly seen as “tokenism”—including some small number of people of color into a group or organization to give the appearance of diversity, while doing nothing more meaningful to contribute to equality or justice. In individual interaction, this can look like performative allyship—the act of making a public show of support for marginalized peoples, while not taking any genuine action toward the cause. This is done more for the psychological benefit of the “ally” themselves, than to help further the cause of justice. 

It could be argued that we can see some of this dynamic in Cameron’s comments about his motives behind the themes in Avatar.

Why Some Avatar 2 Critics Despise Cameron’s New Film

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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