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Avatar’s unkillable Colonel Quaritch could be the perfect villain for an eternal war

Consider the potential of an infinitely respawnable villain — and how he could improve on Star Wars and the MCU

The resurrected Na’vi version of Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang) watches a video featuring instructions from the original human version of himself in a lab in Avatar: The Way of Water. Image: 20th Century Studios
Tasha Robinson leads Polygon’s movie coverage. She’s covered film, TV, books, and more for 20 years, including at The A.V. Club, The Dissolve, and The Verge.

When James Cameron told Empire magazine back in 2017 that he planned for all five of his Avatar movies to have the same villain, it felt like he might be hamstringing himself with a massive spoiler: The 2009 Avatar’s seemingly dead antagonist Colonel Quaritch (played by Stephen Lang) had not only survived for a sequel, he was going to survive at least three more movies as well.

“The interesting conceit of the Avatar sequels is it’s pretty much the same characters,” Cameron said in that Empire interview. “There’s not a new villain every time, which is interesting. Same guy. Same motherfucker through all four [sequels]. He is so good and he just gets better.”

That revelation seemed to limit how much the Avatar franchise could surprise an audience. Cameron seemed to be revealing a lot about his villain’s long-term fate: Nothing that happens in the upcoming Avatar movies could kill him, at least not until the final chapter. But while that was an odd thing to reveal upfront, it does put an unexpected spin on the whole series. And handled correctly, Quaritch could be exactly what the Avatar movies need to distinguish themselves from Star Wars, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the other sprawling movie franchises hunting for box-office gold.

Avatar: The Way of Water revives Quaritch in a way Cameron didn’t spoil: His original human body did die, but his employers, Earth’s Resource Development Administration, had already created a synthetic copy of his memories and personality. They downloaded those into a Na’vi body cloned from Quaritch’s DNA. Effectively, the new Na’vi that resulted is still Quaritch, even if he keeps insisting he isn’t, and even if he’s trying — like everyone else in The Way of Water — to separate himself from his past.

Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) in his new Na’vi body prowls the jungle of Pandora in a scene from Avatar: The Way of Water Image: 20th Century Studios

But more interesting than Quaritch’s return in The Way of Water is the implications behind the tech that revived him: There’s every reason to believe, given what we know so far, that Quaritch could still die in any given Avatar sequel, and the RDA could just resurrect him again. They have his DNA and his memory record on file. If version 2.0 gets damaged, they can just decant new Quaritches to replace him. He’s every blockbuster hero’s nightmare: a villain who can’t be meaningfully killed.

There are a lot of possible directions for his “effectively immortal” plotline. So far, Quaritch is a pretty one-note villain. He’s a broad, surface-level Blockbuster Bad Guy, driven mostly by factionalist greed and a gung-ho hunger for dominance in the first movie, and by his desire for revenge in the second. The worst-case scenario is that Avatar 3, 4, and 5 will just cover the same ground as the first two movies, with the Na’vi moving to different territories, and Quaritch repeatedly tracking them down with the same unbending, simple-minded malice. So far, he’s more a symbol than a character — military adventurism and colonialist exploitation personified, with a smirking, snarling face slapped on top.

But Way of Water at least suggests that Quaritch has the potential to meaningfully develop. His fumbling relationship with his narratively questionable son, Spider (or OG Quaritch’s son, if you want to get real technical about it), suggests he has a few cracks in his self-righteous, straight-line thinking — at least as many cracks as Darth Vader had when his own son pushed him to abandon his evil Empire and stand up for family values instead.

Even if he doesn’t evolve, his relationships with the protagonists are likely to. In The Way of Water, Quaritch learns that turncoat Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) didn’t kill his original body — Jake’s mate Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) did, which somewhat undermines Quaritch’s grudge against Jake. So does Jake’s close relationship with Spider, who Quaritch does obviously care for. He bullies Spider and enslaves him, but also tries to connect with him, which seems to pay off by the end of the film. If nothing else, in the next movie, Quaritch will have to contend with what he owes Spider, what Spider owes Jake, and how they all see each other. He has a chance to learn from Spider, and grow as a character.

That’s certainly necessary, if the Avatar films are going to avoid repetition. Giving Quaritch potentially infinite lives is a promise that he isn’t going to be a disposable character, easily killed off for a quick climactic catharsis, then replaced in the next movie by a fundamentally identical RDA flunky. That issue of disposing of the villains too quickly and not letting them develop alongside the heroes has plagued the MCU since its inception. Essentially interchangeable villains have been a major issue for Star Wars as it expands past the Skywalker Saga. (Arguably, Andor is the first major Star Wars story to fix the franchise’s villain problem, where creators either keep trying to replicate Darth Vader or set up some diffuse, faceless force as the primary antagonist.) Any good franchise should have villains as memorable and compelling as the heroes, but too many interconnected movie series fail to pull it off.

The Na’vi form of Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang) stands in a command center surrounded by humans and looks at an elaborate VR display in Avatar: The Way of Water. Image: 20th Century Studios

And given that the Na’vi are up against something much bigger than Quaritch — effectively the entire weight of human greed, xenophobia, and indifference to their effect on the environment — it seems appropriate to have a villain who can’t just be answered with a bullet or arrow to the face. To solve the Quaritch problem, the Na’vi are either going to have to find a more creative solution than shooting their enemies — like finding a way to make them understand and regret the impact they’re having on Pandora — or they’re going to have to wipe out the entire RDA so it can’t just respawn him. (Maybe with a massive Na’vi space battle.)

If we’re going to be hopeful and imaginative about the franchise, one fun route would be if the RDA decides Quaritch is their perfect soldier, and just starts making more of him regardless of what happens to Quaritch 2.0. If new-Quaritch goes soft on the Na’vi after realizing that Spider saved his life, the RDA could always spawn a fresh clone without Quaritch 2.0’s memories of that battle, one who’d be a back-to-basics hardliner, ready to kill Jake and his family without a thought. (Inevitably, that storyline would have to culminate in a Quaritch-on-Quaritch face-off, where the 2.0 version defends his family connection with Spider, while the rebooted model reps the RDA.)

Or the RDA could just start cranking out Quaritches willy-nilly and make an army of them, ready to take on Jake en masse, like the armies of Agent Smiths in the Matrix sequels. We can certainly hope that doesn’t happen — it’d be silly, and impersonal compared to a resolution where Quaritch actually finds his own humanity and forges a meaningful new relationship with his own Na’vi identity. But it’s certainly on the table.

Avatar 3, 4, and 5 have already been written, and 3 (rumored to be titled Avatar: The Seed Bearer) and part of 4 have already been shot. Whatever Quaritch’s future holds, it’s already more or less established. But unless Cameron decides to dump more major spoilers on us about the plan for his arc, we won’t get the full picture until the series wraps, supposedly by 2028. Until then, here’s hoping that Cameron and the Avatar series team take advantage of their unkillable warrior to let him develop into a more nuanced and interesting villain. They’ve promised Quaritch five films’ worth of story. That’s a rare opportunity to give a villain some slow-burn growth, and to give him the complexity and personality he currently lacks.