copyright 2011, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 53, summer 2011

The tracks of Sully’s tears:
disability in James Cameron’s Avatar

by Dana Fore

The body transcended:

Jake Sully’s disembodied voice ushers us into the world of Avatar, describing sudden consciousness in a VA hospital with a “big hole blown through the middle of [his] life.” His dreams of being “free” translate visually into a panoramic aerial sweep of an exotic jungle landscape, the camera drawing us down and into the alien world.

The body victimized:

Wounded after escaping a military prison, Grace Augustine lies on an altar at the Tree of Souls. Bathed in a teal-green luminescence, she lies in the fetal position alongside her avatar body. Glowing tendrils from the ground envelop the two figures, while a chorus of alien voices rises in prayer.

The body transformed:

Triumphant in the power of his new alien body, Sully sits astride a flying dragon whose wings blaze with patterns of blood-red, black, and fire-orange. Teeth clenched with rage, he wields an M60 machine gun like the sword of an avenging angel as he leads native troops against a flying armada of warships from Earth.

The body made monstrous:

Framed against a pillar of fire from the crashed spaceship behind him, Colonel Quaritch stands defiant on the soil of Pandora, safe inside the gigantic steel body of a battered attack robot. He clutches an oversized assault rifle, ready to annihilate his enemies.

Applying the theories of film critic and philosopher Gilles Deleuze to these and other images of the body in Avatar suggests the film promotes a view of disability that is unusually nuanced for a Hollywood blockbuster, and one which complicates the nature and direction of its escapist fantasies. Avatar’s gallery of disabled, vulnerable, and consistently un-readable bodies transforms the film into an unsettling commentary on war movies, if not on war itself.

The ways in which disabled bodies are presented to the audience suggest director James Cameron’s sensitivity to ableist stereotypes. These ancient conceptions of disability valorize the undamaged “able” body as a universal standard of “normality” and perfection, while simultaneously assuming “natural” links between disability and extremes of either good or evil behavior .[1] Although Avatar exploits disability clichés to evoke emotional responses from an audience, these stereotypes do not remain unchallenged. The disabled body eventually becomes what Deleuze calls a “crystalline” element in the plot. Roughly defined, this is a site through which unsettling or contradictory elements of narrative convention are multiplied in order to create unfamiliar tensions that suggest unexpected directions for stories to develop (Flaxman 33). Deleuze believes these tensions create the transformative power of “true” cinema, because they trigger new and (one assumes) potentially redemptive forms of thinking as an audience reacts to sounds and images in unconventional ways.

Since it would be impossible within the scope of this paper to give a comprehensive idea of Deleuzean film theory, my analysis will build upon the work of film historians Gregory Flaxman and Angelo Restivo, using their definitions of Deleuzean montage, “virtual doubling,” and narrative disruption. Flaxman notes that a Deleuzean reading of film assumes “classical” (read: Hollywood) cinema has made modern viewers acutely sensitive to mainstream film’s narrative conventions, to the extent that montage becomes an extraordinarily powerful storytelling tool. This means that only a small number of images need to be combined in order for the audience to intuit the film’s genre and its presumably natural or “organic” plot developments.

A concise example of this kind of plot foreshadowing appears in the introduction to The Brain is the Screen: Deleuze and the Philosophy of Cinema. Summarizing basic concepts from Deleuze’s book Negotiations, Flaxman explains:

“Indeed, this is the meaning of Deleuze’s more limited sense of narrative, namely, a kind of montage that, having mounted recognizable images or situations, assumes the “normal” functioning of action. In My Darling Clementine, for instance, when a “drunk Indian” starts randomly shooting up Dodge City, Wyatt Earp acts to restore order once the action literally incurves around him: Earp is getting a shave when a bullet just misses his head (too close a shave, so to speak,) so that his response (disarming the man,) is presumed, anticipated, and never in doubt.“ (28)

“Time-images” stand in contrast to these “movement”-centered elements that condition audiences for predictable plots and passive reactions. According to Deleuze, “time-images” occur when characters find themselves in a situation

“however ordinary or extraordinary, that’s beyond any possible action, or to which [they] can’t react. It’s too powerful, or too painful, or too beautiful” (Negotiations 51.).

When characters on the screen are stunned into silence or inactivity, these images also disrupt the audience’s ability to predict the flow of the plot and thereby create mental “space” for new ideas to develop.

The value of “time-images” is their ability to promote new levels of reflection in the minds of viewers. In “Into the Breach: Between the Movement-Image and the Time-Image,” Angelo Restivo explains:

“This promise of the new is precisely the stake in the time-image. For, as Deleuze argues, it is time itself that inevitably throws the truth into crisis, so that the cinema of the time-image rejects a totalizing “view” of the world in favor of a radical openness toward the possible emergence of new thought, whether realized in terms of an image or a sound…” (173)

The idea of “radical openness” to new ideas is vital here. It confirms that for Deleuze, true cinema achieves its greatest power not when it successfully indoctrinates viewers with a specific ideology (which it has always been able to do) but when it allows viewers to realize that we exist in a world of competing ideologies that need to be examined closely. In Gregory Flaxman’s words,

“The cinema realizes its potential when it begins to falsify, to engage with ‘powers of the false’ and simulacra in order to reveal those categories as the purveyors of ‘ideological beliefs’” (“Introduction” 36).

In Avatar, a tremor of this new awareness occurs when Sully arrives at the military base on Pandora and disembarks from the spaceship. He rolls his wheelchair down the ramp, the last to emerge behind a line of sturdy, marching recruits. He says,

“They can fix a spinal [injury], if you’ve got the money. But not on vet benefits. Not in this economy”(Avatar 2009).

On the surface, this is throwaway dialogue that exposes vulnerability in this hard-bitten Marine and increases audience sympathy for him. Yet using a voice-over creates thematically significant ambiguities that blur the lines between past and present, creating what Deleuze calls “crystalline” effects.

Because this scene occurs between a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards establishing Sully’s background and the course of his journey to Pandora, his voice’s point of origin is ambiguous. The dialogue can represent his thoughts at the time he arrives or his recollections about his journey from a point in the future which the audience has yet to see, or both. In “Into the Breach,” Angelo Restivo argues that structural incongruities of this sort “[contaminate]…the boundary between the outer and the inner”—in this case, the “outer” world in which viewers live, and the “inner” world of the film’s creation, and the “inner” world of the viewers’ memories (182). When this happens, “virtual doubling” can occur. Viewers’ minds may move beyond the symbolic correspondences that filmmakers try to reinforce to create unexpected associations between the content of the film and elements outside of the movie, including viewers’ own experiences (176).

“Doubled” narrative emerges from the scene above because Sully’s linking of his financial problems and his physical condition acknowledges—and then works against—a real-world “medical model” of disability. This model oversimplifies the nature of difficulties in disabled people’s lives by ascribing those difficulties to personal weaknesses, without considering larger social factors like wealth, class, race or gender.[2] Sully’s observation also intrudes into the viewer’s own historical moment by reminding the audience of similarities between his own problems and the predicaments of those on “vet benefits” in “this economy” of the 21st century.

By explicitly identifying links between its paraplegic hero and a flawed capitalist system, the film also creates a “time-image” montage that reverses the “action-image” set-up commonly found in “classic” Hollywood films about wounded veterans. Well-known examples such as The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and The Men (1950) both start at the point the wounded protagonists have been sent home after fighting. The plots rarely entertain a possibility that any of them might return to serve in the military. And in each of these films, capitalism is introduced as a system that facilitates the successful re-integration of the characters into society—usually by providing them with the funds needed to establish stable careers and home lives, especially by buying the prosthetics necessary for functioning “normally” outside of a hospital setting.

The film continues to use disability as a conduit for unsettling ideas as it develops its central motifs of “seeing” reality and “waking up.” Any notion of “true” vision is destabilized from the beginning of the film during Sully’s first voice-over. After telling us about waking up in a VA hospital and giving us a brief glimpse of his dreams of being “free,” he declares, “Sooner or later...you always have to wake up.” The screen goes black. Then, we see an extreme close up of Sully’s eye, roving frantically in dim light. The shot expands to head and shoulders, and we see Sully lying down (paralyzed?) in an unfamiliar, claustrophobic enclosure.

For viewers following an ableist cultural script, these scenes seem to confirm disability’s isolating power over social ties and personality. The audience is teased with the idea that this unknown, wounded narrator is delusional, implying severely disabled people are never “free” and must realize this when they “wake up” and face the awful truth. The shift from complete darkness to Sully struggling in his coffin-like enclosure reinforces the idea that severe disability is a kind of living death. This nihilistic idea is dispelled, however, when we learn that Sully is actually waking up in a cryogenic sleep chamber—not ending his life but beginning a new phase of it.

Thus Avatar develops the first major element in its disability narrative by setting the stage for a tale of Sully as “Supercrip.” According to media analyst Jack A. Nelson, the "Supercrip" is one of seven major disability stereotypes that persist in the modern world. The Supercrip is

“someone likable facing the trauma of disability, who through great courage, stamina, and determination either succeeds in triumphing or succumbs heroically. . .  [These] heroes’ actions are inspirational—and often superhuman”(6).

However, in Avatar less clichéd notions run parallel to the stereotypes, thanks to camera angles that thwart the expectations of an ableist gaze. Film historian and disability activist Martin F. Norden notes that most portrayals of disability in film before the 1970s were “isolationist.” That is, through the use of specific cinematographic techniques designed to elicit stock responses of shock or pity from an able-bodied audience, mainstream film reinforced the notion of a “physical or symbolic separation between disabled characters and the rest of society” (1).

Avatar disrupts ableist voyeurism by “handling” Sully in ways that maximize audience identification while working against the isolating imagery discussed by Norden. For instance, when Sully appears in his wheelchair, the camera alternates between close-ups of his face and medium shots of him moving in the lab or around the base. The close-ups establish both Sully’s individuality and his masculinity by making his gaze central to the scene. In the words of E. Ann Kaplan, “to own and activate the gaze” in film “is to be in the masculine position” (130). If controlling the gaze does count as a performance of masculinity, then this cinematography also undermines the stereotype of the disabled man “feminized” by his wound (Davidson 47-8). The medium shots also underscore Sully’s power and agency by allowing viewers to see the speed at which he moves and works. And these scenes are typically shot from his level, and not from the level of the able-bodied characters looking down—a common way of presenting disabled characters that visually implies their inferiority (Norden 249).

The film further undermines the conventions of isolationist cinema by refusing to pander to an ableist gaze that wants to “stare” at Sully’s disability. According to Rosemarie Garland-Thomson,

“Staring at disability choreographs a visual relation between a spectator and a spectacle. A more intense form of looking than glancing, glimpsing, scanning...staring registers the perception of difference and gives meaning to impairment by marking it as aberrant” (56-57).

What Garland-Thompson says about photography can be extended to film: it

“[enables] the social ritual of staring in an alternate form” (57).

In addition, as Norden explains, cinema typically accomplishes this kind of ableist objectification through frequent close-ups of disabled characters’ wounds, prostheses, or deformities, or by having these elements continually mentioned by others characters (246-7; 292).

To undermine the voyeuristic stare, the camera never shows Sully’s atrophied legs close up or in full light. Instead, we see only glimpses of them in medium or long shots, as he moves to or from the isolation chamber that allows him to “drive” his Na’vi body. Similarly, viewers are never allowed to see Sully’s injury or his wheelchair in the opening scenes after he admits to being in a veterans’ hospital. Thus, viewers can only guess at the extent to which Sully is disabled. The only prosthetic device given consistent visual attention is the cybernetic isolation chamber. Since this device covers the entire body (and creates primarily mental effects), ableist viewers are denied visual cues for stereotypical responses.

The second major player in the film’s disability narrative is Colonel Quaritch. Marked by a trio of thick scars on the side of his head, Quaritch is also a wounded veteran, but any lasting effects of his injury are internalized. Quaritch is introduced as a by-the-book military leader who bears his scars like badges of honor. When he declares to Sully that he “kinda likes” his scars and refuses cosmetic surgery to be made “pretty again,” he seems the very soul of old-school military stoicism. By the end of the film his sense of honor and discipline has been warped in the service of an increasingly xenophobic and malevolent intelligence.

We see this transformation, for instance, when Sully and his human allies escape the army base in a stolen helicopter. In his zeal to gun down the enemies who have betrayed him, Quartich kicks open a hermetically sealed door, putting himself and everyone around him at risk by allowing Pandora’s poisonous atmosphere to flood the control room. And rather than abandon his headquarters in the face of a planet-wide rebellion by the Na’vi, he convinces his troops to embark on a genocidal campaign to destroy the natives, sounding ever-more like a twentieth-century fascist as he exhorts his troops to “blow a crater” in the natives’ “racial memory.”

A “Supercrip” of a different sort, Quartich is the shadow that haunts any positive stereotype. He becomes a prime example of a disabled character defined by Martin Norden as an “Obsessive Avenger.” This figure is an

“egomaniacal sort, almost always an adult male, who does not rest until he has had his revenge on those he holds responsible for his disablement and/or violating his moral code in some way” (Norden 52).

His character reinforces cultural fears of a totalizing flaw—the idea that any deformity or disability, no matter how minor, has the potential to unbalance and overwhelm all the positive aspects of a person’s character, transforming sufferers into bitter, self-centered people or dangerous monsters (Siebers 44-5; Norden 52).

Quaritch the avenger is vital to the film’s “flat-out Green and anti-war message” that engaged critics like Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times (Dykes 2009.) His rise and fall provides the most dramatic object lesson on the value of “seeing” reality and “waking up” to truth. This character shows how easy it is for strong principles to be corrupted by corporate greed; he shows the danger of trusting charismatic leaders with racist and imperialist agendas; and he exposes the suicidal hubris behind attempts to “conquer” the natural environment.

Yet even in this case, there are aspects to this character that are not so easily defined, because the film includes visual cues that suggest unsettling mental as well as physical similarities between Quaritch and Sully. For example, their early conversations are visualized using medium shots that suggest a state of equilibrium or sympathy between them. When they first meet in the aircraft hangar of the military base, Quartich sits on a weight bench to greet Sully, putting them at the same level. Quartich welcomes Sully to the base, compliments him on his military record, and introduces the idea of using Sully as a spy within Dr. Augustine’s group of researchers.

Quaritch suggests the idea of spying casually as he climbs into one of the walking armoured attack vehicles to practice boxing moves with the arms of the machine. To continue the chat face-to-face, Sully moves to an elevated service platform. Again, they are at the same level, “seeing eye to eye” physically as well as perhaps mentally. Quaritch asks for assurance that Sully can pretend to be one of Augustine’s “science pukes”: “Can you do that for me, son?” Sully replies without hesitation: “Hell, yeah.” Confident in Sully’s cooperation, Quaritch makes a parting gesture of “fatherly” good will; he promises to get Sully’s legs repaired, adding, “Son, I take care of my own.” This last scene is particularly well calculated to emphasize bonds between the two men, since the medium shot captures Quaritch in his military robot and Sully in his wheelchair—underscoring their special status as two wounded men using mechanical devices to help them live and work in their new world.

The two men’s second private conference is even more disturbing. Their discussion’s devious nature is emphasized by the semi-darkness of the lecture hall where they meet. Quaritch pulls up a chair and again they are face to face. Quaritch suggests that Sully end his undercover work and repeats his promise to fix Sully’s legs, adding that he has official approval for the operation now. Sully declines, saying he has “one more thing” to do—he has to undergo the Na’vi initiation ceremony. Quaritch seems doubtful about the idea, but Sully convinces him: “If I do it,” he says, “I’ll be one of them. Then they’ll trust me.” Quaritch agrees, with apparent reluctance. Stone-faced, he tells Sully to “get it done,” and walks away. Sully remains in the half-light, a range of emotions playing on his face. He is conflicted but we are uncertain why, and there is no voice-over to explain what he is really thinking. The scene works well to create dramatic tension, but it is also unsettling because it hints at a Machiavellian willingness on Sully’s part to play with people’s trust, fostering doubts about his emotional attachments and loyalties.

Doubts about Sully’s true motivations are strengthened by moments when Quaritch’s readings of Sully’s character seem uncannily precise. For example, before the meeting in the lecture hall, Sully is unsettled by months of immersion in the Na’vi culture:

“Everything is backwards now. Like everything [with the Na’vi] is the true world...And everything in here is the dream. I barely remember my old life. I don’t know who I am anymore.”

Cut to the meeting, where Quaritch greets Sully by asking, “Haven’t gotten lost in the woods, have you?” Another flash of intuition occurs after Sully makes love to Neytiri, and he later confirms his allegiance to the Na’vi by attacking and disabling one of the company bulldozers. At the interrogation after the attack, Quaritch blames Sully’s betrayal on sexual infatuation. He rages, “Did you find some local tail and completely forget which side you’re working for?”

Quaritch’s moments of insight add pointed irony to his interactions with Sully. But they also generate disturbing effects beyond this level. The comment about being “lost in the woods” shows Quaritch’s sensitivity to moments when Sully is in emotional turmoil and vulnerable to manipulation. The comment about betrayal stemming from seduction is troubling because it comes literally after Sully and Neytiri have had a tryst in the forest. We cannot be sure whether this remark is simply Quaritch the racist degrading Sully’s friendship with Neytiri, or whether this is a moment of prescience when Quaritch becomes a villain exposing an unpleasant truth about the hero’s character flaws, thereby revealing an unacknowledged spiritual kinship with him.

Other moments that show Sully oddly out of character occur in the lab after he first takes possession of his Na’vi body. His gaze mingles glee and astonishment as he looks down at his new legs. We can guess from his reaction that he finds it overwhelming to be suddenly “normal” again. He leaps off the operating table, amid a flurry of protests by the lab technicians. Ignoring their warnings to be careful, to calm down, he continues to test the limits of the body, knocking over equipment and endangering the humans around him. Before he can be forcibly tranquilized, he sprints joyfully outside. Granted, this reaction would be natural for an able-bodied person who had suffered a severe disability and then had full functionality restored. These acts could be read as the result of youthful exuberance in this context. However, they also hint at the same character flaws of self-centeredness, impulsivity and inability to read social cues that will drive the Na’vi and the humans to the brink of annihilation when Quaritch gives them full reign later in the film.

Turning briefly to the work of disability activist and film scholar Michael Davidson helps to unpack the significance behind the “doubling” that occurs when Sully and Quaritch are linked in this manner. In his analysis of “crippled” figures in the classic noir films from the Cold War period, Davidson finds that disabled characters were often used as symbolic representations of larger social anxieties. In a era troubled over the idea of “subversive” or “deviant” activities, where Communist ideology was literally described as “diseased” (61), disabled characters were frequently given other characteristics that “marked” them as political, racial, or sexual outsiders (44-6).

Typically these characters would be drawn into the protagonist’s social circle and then eliminated by the end of the film. Such erasure implied, by extension, the triumph of the status quo and the “American” virtues represented by the hero (Davidson 45). However, Davidson extends his view of disabled bodies in ways that echo Deleuze’s notion of the “crystalline” image. He argues that these disabled bodies so often have an unsettling presence that they re-direct viewers’ minds to new ideas that may be equally as disturbing or subversive. In Davidson’s words, they create the “residual sensation of narratives that the film cannot represent or reconstitute” (45).

In the case of Avatar, when affinities are drawn between Sully and Quaritch, the new anxiety introduced into the narrative relates to the possibility of an unforeseen and invisible transformation. Will Sully’s mind be transformed by Quaritch’s promises, just as his body is being transformed by Augustine’s lab technicians? Is Quaritch’s assessment of Sully correct—is he essentially a self-serving traitor despite the apparent nobility of his deeds?

An optimistic reading of the film acknowledges that it seems to restore order through Sully’s defense of the Na’vi and Quaritch’s spectacular death. But the true nature of Sully’s motivations is, arguably, never resolved. In fact, the points at which viewers are left to wonder about his mental state are those at which Avatar aligns itself with Davidson’s noir films. At these moments of narrative doubt, Cameron’s film shows signs of being shaped by unexpressed anxieties connected to the larger political and historical context in which the film was made. Specifically, lingering doubts about Sully’s character reflect general anxieties about the fate of veterans during and after the War on Terror.

Looking at contemporary ideas about war and disability will give a sense of what anxieties might be “in the air” for Avatar viewers. Judging from the flood of articles about war injuries that began appearing in the mainstream press in 2006, concerns about the fate of returning veterans focued more and more on changes to their minds and personalities, thanks to new awareness about the effects of traumatic brain injury (TBI) — frequently dubbed the Iraq war’s “signature injury” (Bazell, 2006; Cooper 2006; Robertson 2006). Susan Okie’s “Traumatic Brain Injury in the War Zone” (from the New England Journal of Medicine, May 2005), for example, has a style typical of such reports. Okie blends graphic personal anecdotes with medical information in order to capture the average (health care) reader’s attention. She alerts readers that in current times, improvements in battlefield medicine have allowed veterans to survive horrific injuries that would have been fatal in earlier wars, and more of these injuries involve TBI than in earlier US conflicts (Okie, “Traumatic”).

“Traumatic Brain Injury in the War Zone” strikes a relatively optimistic note by focusing on the cases of Sergeant David Emme and Staff Sergeant Jason Pepper. Both men suffered severe injuries from improvised explosive devices in Iraq. A bomb exploded directly beside Emme’s truck. In an intensive care unit for two weeks following his injury, Emme had memory and speech problems, and he “[mistook] nurses for CIA agents or [believed] he was back in Baghdad” (Okie, “Traumatic”). Pepper’s injuries were even more horrific when an IED detonated in a tree next to his armoured personnel carrier: “It kind of detonated in my face,” he explains.

Despite the severity of their wounds, Emme and Pepper are success stories because they have become highly functional after a relatively short period of time. After five months, Emme’s vision has returned “almost to normal,” and his speech and cognitive functions have improved “dramatically.” Pepper’s recovery after a year is also described as “better-than-average” after multiple surgeries and rounds of therapy (Okie, “Traumatic”). Even so, the article is careful not to offer false hope. Colonel Jean Dailey, a nursing supervisor, cautions, “Not all of them recover. . . . [Some] may never be the same” (Okie, “Traumatic”). This assessment is all the more sobering because the veteran population with TBI is growing. The article estimates that roughly 22 percent of hospitalized veterans have symptoms of brain injury; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that “5.3 million Americans are living with disabilities that resulted from TBIs.” (Okie, “Traumatic”)

To be clear: If I argue for historical correspondences between Avatar’s portrayals of disability and heightened public anxieties about war injuries, this does not mean I see a stigmatizing ideology at the heart of Cameron’s film that demonizes veterans with TBI. I argue instead that public awareness of TBI has intensified a new and more generalized fear of diseases that have the potential to radically alter personality and that are neither easily diagnosed nor cured. (TBI often goes untreated because its symptoms may not manifest themselves immediately, and it can mimic the symptoms of diseases like depression and PTSD.) (Zaroya 1-2). This fear of an unidentifiable disease/disability has created new concerns about “national” health which mimics the “social panics about unruly bodies” that Davidson sees taking place during the Cold War era and which, at the level of cinematic representation, led to the proliferation of disabled characters in the noir films he analyses (45). In Avatar, we see the miraculous resolution of these anxieties in an utopia where aberrant personalities are easily identified and physical injuries are magically eliminated.

A quick way to tie together all the concepts discussed up to this point is to ask, “What does disability do to a story about Pandora?” To answer this question effectively, it helps to step back and consider the nature of the original story of Pandora. In his classic rendering of the original myth, Thomas Bullfinch includes two versions. In one, the woman Pandora opens a gift jar sent by vengeful gods, thereby releasing all evils into the world, shutting the jar in time to prevent only one blessing—hope—from escaping. But Bullfinch questions why one blessing would be placed in a jar of evil, so he declares “more probable” the version where what escapes from the jar are all the blessings meant to ensure humanity’s happiness, and the only divine gift left for a fallible world is hope (“Chapter II,”http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/bulf/bulf01.htm)

Focusing on disability issues in Avatar creates another bifurcated myth that invites viewers to ponder the “true” nature of hope in a hostile world. The most positive version of the myth exploits the power of the Supercrip and Obsessive Avenger stereotypes to their fullest, in order to suggest that utopias are possible if we continue to develop benevolent technology and allow our best minds to use it.

According to disability analysts Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell, disability stereotypes in film generally bolster an able-bodied audience’s “fantasy of bodily control,” a “fiction deeply seated in the desire for an impossible dominion over our own capacities” (186). At the risk of oversimplifying their ideas, what disabled characters “do” for/to nondisabled viewers, then, is allow them to react strongly to the disturbing spectacle or (perceived) threat of the disabled body in order to confirm that this threat is a threat to others, and that it can be kept at a distance or made to disappear entirely. Sully the Supercrip performs this function by making the unsettling problem of war injuries irrelevant. His actions “prove” that war injuries can be completely overcome by willpower and strength of character. In addition, the film’s science-fiction setting makes the threat of war and disability less frightening by projecting them into a far-flung, alien future. The film’s Supercrip narrative also holds out the hope that magical technologies, used by the right kind of people, will eventually eliminate disability altogether. When Sully transfers his soul into his Na’vi body, it is the ultimate Supercrip dream. What was once a prosthetic device is magically transformed into flesh and blood, leaving Sully unmarked and “normal” in the larger society.

Quaritch the Obsessive Avenger follows a similar plot trajectory to a different end. The scars on his face may initially function as badges of honor that confirm his status as an unstoppable warrior, but once he descends into madness, they become the outer symbol of his inner aberration, and he becomes a brother in spirit as well as body to characters like Shakespeare’s Richard III, Melville’s Ahab, and Stevenson’s Mr. Hyde and Long John Silver. His actions reinforce the paradoxically comforting idea that inner evil will always have a sign that “gives it away,” which makes his violent death not only appropriate but also comforting to able-bodied viewers.

But Avatar also destabilizes its comforting fantasies by including elements that invite viewers to recognize the Supercrip and the Obsessive Avenger as unrealistic caricatures. The weakness of ableist thinking is exposed through the film’s development of its theme of “waking up” and “seeing” the truth. This metaphor posits truth as something concrete that can be comprehended visually. An unquestioned belief in the power of visual recognition lies at the heart of all ableist stereotyping that obsessively “reads” deformed or wounded bodies and assigns them to categories of good or evil. After initially declaring its allegiance to this idea, the film presents us with key moments when visual recognition of character fails:

This deus ex machina ending adds the finishing touch to the mix of garish visuals and melodrama that more than one critic described as “overwhelming,” to the point that many reviews discount the idea that the film has any coherent “message” at all (Dykes 2009.) In fact, this glaring fictionality of Avatar’s components opens an avenue of interpretation for a darker message.

To see Avatar’s darkest side, one must re-examine the “time images” that the film presents in its opening, images that disrupt the audience’s ability to fix the time and place from which Sully is speaking. The film confronts us with darkness. We hear the ululation of an alien song. Then Sully’s monologue about dreams of freedom begins. We see the aerial shots of Pandora. Then, we are plunged into darkness again with only Sully’s voice: “But, sooner or later, you always have to wake up.” Then we see Sully inside his cryogenic chamber.

However, he is not alone. After a succession of shots showing his eyes, head and shoulders, there is a lingering medium shot that shows two beads of water. They hang in the air above Sully’s face, and as we watch, they coalesce. If we follow the path suggested by the “classical” interpretation of these images, these beads of water are gratuitous special effects, thrown in to simply show off the film’s virtuosity at suggesting a zero-gravity environment.

But reading these scenes as “time images”—images designed to disrupt a conventional narrative and suggest things “outside” the screen that cannot be easily represented—such a reading allows us to see these inexplicable beads of moisture as Sully’s tears. And as tears, they disrupt the fabric of the narrative even further because they are an impossibility.

Sully’s tears are an impossibility because of the next thing he tells us: “In cryo, you don’t dream at all.” Sully’s tears could not exist in his cryogenic chamber because without the ability to dream, Sully could not have experienced the sadness necessary to weep. The most optimistic reading of these tears is that they represent a conscious violation of the film’s science-fiction logic. They are a momentary intrusion of the supernatural into the technological world of cryogenic space travel, to foreshadow that other forces will shape Sully’s life. He is granted the privilege of having a vision of Pandora in his cryogenic sleep because he is Eywa’s chosen savior.

Behind this utopian idea, there is a deeper shadow. Sully in his cryogenic chamber dreams and weeps because he is not in a cryogenic chamber. He is a wounded veteran, unseen in a world too much like our own, lying in bed, trapped in a dream. The two blackouts that open the film and initiate Sully into the high-tech world of Avatar are not simply used in the style of classical montage to suggest a condensation and moving forward of time. They are the representations of physical blackouts as Sully’s traumatized mind struggles to regain consciousness in an unknown VA hospital.

As he struggles, bits of another reality intrude into the dream through speech. Characters use the 21st century terms “jarhead” and “shock and awe,” and the fearsome Colonel Quaritch adapts lines from the Wizard of Oz to welcome his troops: “You are not in Kansas any more. You are on Pandora.” But unlike Dorothy from the older film, Sully loses his struggle to return home and falls deeper into a fantasy from which he never “wakes up” to “see” reality. It is a dream of heroic struggle and ultimate redemption, where a monolithic war machine is destroyed by a handful of rebels in a hallucinogenic world where magic heals all wounds and disabled bodies disappear painlessly and permanently.

Ultimately, an analysis of disability in Avatar redefines its genre rather than its ideology. The film becomes a parody of classic works that try to send “inspirational” messages about war and wounded veterans. Its darkest “time images” create a tale that validates Bullfinch’s “improbable” version of the Pandora myth. We learn that hope is an unexpected kind of evil, one giving us faith in utopian promises and technological miracles while leading us further down paths of suffering from which there are no apparent escapes.


1. Seminal works on disability stereotypes that establish their long history in literature and film include Leonard Kriegel’s “The Cripple in Literature” (1987) and Paul K. Longmore’s “Screening Stereotypes: Images of Disabled People in Television and Film” (1987).

2. For a greater clarification of the “medical model,” see Simi Linton’s Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity, 1-70.

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