A Brief Postcolonial and EcoGothic Analysis of Avatar The Way of Water (2022) and Black Panther Wakanda Forever (2022)
by Jesse Bair
Perhaps my favorite part about stories is that they can be perceived as reflections of the consciousness that conceived them, and that such work can also reflect the culture(s) that raised their authors. Therefore, when two contemporary mainstream blockbusters share what appears to be a peculiar subject positioning of the ocean and its citizenry, I enjoy the thought that a newfound cultural emphasis on the Postcolonial involvement of the oceanic could be over the horizon: a potential paradigm that also acknowledges the EcoGothic agency of non-humanoid life. I thereby propose that James Cameron and Ryan Coogler present their viewers a cinematic exhibition of the reach that colonialism has beyond land, and that offshore beings — human and otherwise — will defend themselves from colonization.
Despite being from two separate cinematic universes, both films parallel each other in their depiction of civilizations defending themselves from exploitation colonialism. The Na’vi’s oceanic neighbors, the Metkayina, transition from peace to warfare as their beloved whale-like companions (the Tulkun) are hunted for a portion of their brain matter that can halt human aging. Namor and his followers likewise cease their clandestine existence as the surface world develops technology that can detect the secret stores of vibranium in their underwater city Talokan — a resource that many nations are eager to harvest. Each film thereby exhibits how any life can be threatened by colonization once a privileged group perceives something to be gained.
The narratives intersect into EcoGothic discussions through their response to such colonialist threats. The Metkayina fight with warrior mounts resembling alligators and are joined by the Tulkun to enhance their lethality against advanced projectile weaponry.
The Protagonist Jake Sully flying a Skimwing: the Metkayina warrior mount
For Namor’s people, an aquatic plant found by a shaman mutates their biology so they can breathe underwater. The involvement of nonhuman life thereby allows Namor’s people to escape the colonizers on the surface, and additionally arms Namor with the ability to fly and age far slower than his kin so he remains a formidable fighter centuries after his ancestors migrated to the ocean from the Yucatan. Both films thus exhibit nonhuman interventions that help defend victimized peoples against colonizing forces. Therefore, Cameron and Coogler depict nature’s ability to be an integral part in supporting allies for its own defense.
What then makes each film fruitful for further EcoGothic research is their exhibition that those considered nonhuman can turn violent without being the aggressor. The EcoGothic field is arguably the product of Simon Estok’s conceptualization of ecophobia: a baseless fear of the nonhuman and a yearning to control said life (Keetley and Sivils 2). What then separates EcoGothic research from Eco-horror is that nature is allowed to be both loved and hated instead of being a source of terror (Parker 50). Therefore, I argue that Cameron’s and Coogler’s narratives present an effective EcoGothic intermingling with Postcolonialism because the Metkayina and the residents of Talokan are complex beings that intersect being victims of colonialist forces while also rebelling against such emperialistic advances. The directors thereby present their viewership with perhaps a more self-aware perspective of ecophobia — one cognizant of humanity’s struggle to accept its own to be the monsters it fears as it seeks to control what is considered nonhuman life.
Enforcing dominion over another life form includes a power dynamic based upon what is human and what is not, a logic that both films significantly blur. Cameron’s piece does so by resurrecting Colonel Miles Quaritch as a lab-made Na’vi. Quaritch repeats his colonialist efforts but now in a body made in the image of his foe. Quaritch becomes what he hates and thus places the legitimacy of his hatred into question as the differences between him and the local humanoids become increasingly indistinguishable throughout the film. Coogler similarly blurs Namor’s subject position as he transitions from a guardian for Talokan to a conqueror himself by invading Wakanda because they harbor the scientist who invented the vibranium detecting technology. Namor and his people invading Wakanda
Both antagonists are EcoGothic reflections of humanity as each serves to showcase how easy it is to cross the line between human and nonhuman — victim and colonizer. Lifeforms classified as lesser-than are therefore not the malicious monsters that ecophobia may have one believe; rather, humanity has the capacity to be the monster as it attempts to control what it claims it is not, and the victims of such efforts only appear villainous while engaging in self defense. It is then perhaps acknowledging and deconstructing the arbitrary justifications used to other any group that may lead to a more peaceful and sustainable society.
As the effects of ecological maltreatment and systemic white supremacy continue to proliferate, much lies ahead for humanity to overcome towards a peaceful and sustainable existence. The efforts of STEM professionals and politicians are critical in materializing what is needed, yet stories can engage in changing public thought so such inventions and efforts are rooted in a paradigm that respects all life and holds humanity responsible for the monsters we can be. Environmental and Postcolonial activism are thereby vital towards a better future, but we must undertake such efforts with restraint from becoming what has already caused harm. Those deemed as nonhuman will protect themselves, and it is high time to ask why they would feel the need to do so.
Avatar The Way of Water. Directed by James Cameron, performances by Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, and Sigourney Weaver, 20th Century Studios and Lightstorm Entertainment, 2022.
Black Panther Wakanda Forever. Directed by Ryan Coogler, performances by Letitia Wright and Lupita Nyong’o, Marvel Studios, 2022.
Keetley, Dawn, and Matthew Wynn Sivils, editors. Introduction. EcoGothic in Nineteenth-Century American Literature, Kindle ed., Routledge, 2018, pp. 1-20.
Parker, Elizabeth P. The Forest and the EcoGothic: The Deep Dark Woods in the Popular Imagination. Kindle ed., Palgrave Macmillan, 2020.
Jesse Bair is the current LGBTQIA+ Coordinator at Utah Tech University. In addition to his efforts as an independent scholar in EcoGothic studies and Young Adult Literature, he dedicates his time to supporting students and building friendly relations between the various communities surrounding Saint George, Utah. His previous academic accomplishments include earning a master’s in Children’s and Young Adult Literature from Central Michigan University, a bachelor’s in English Education at Montana State University, and a year and a half long internship at San José State University’s Institute for the Study of Sport, Society, and Social Change.